Croke Park accord needs more than recalibration
Opinion:Low-key statements before Christmas signalled a significant breach in the impregnable fortress that is the Croke Park agreement. First, Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform Brendan Howlin declared that the agreement would continue to protect the core pay of “the bulk” of public servants, and later a union spokesman insisted they would not tolerate pay cuts for “lower-paid” public servants. Blanket protection for all seems over.
So far, the only details we have on what the Minister is calling the Croke Park “extension” are that it will focus on “stringent performance management”, “new exit mechanisms” and “working hours”.
An effective performance management system is like a spinal cord; if it is broken at the apex of the organisation, it will be a dead letter down the line. We have no effective system for holding our ministers accountable for their performance; Ireland is at the extreme, compared to other countries, in the powerlessness of our parliament (Dáil) to hold our government to account.
Nor is there an authentic system of accountability for senior civil servants. The relevant legislation conflates the performance of ministers and their officials, such that the former can say they acted on the advice of their officials, for example in regard to the Dublin Docklands Authority scandal, but the officials are forbidden to disclose their advice.
The Taoiseach, of course, vowed to hold his Ministers to account; he would apply a “scorecard” and not flinch from removing those who didn’t measure up. But where is the evidence of this kind of accountability, with consequences, for the stream of monumental political and administrative failures in the Departments of Health and Environment, just for example? Brendan Howlin repeatedly refused to name managers who failed to “step up to the plate” in delivering cost savings, yet over Christmas he was threatening, again, to get rid of poor performers.
Until this black hole at the apex of our system of accountability is addressed, with the promised underpinning legislation, sabre-rattling about “stringent performance management” will have little impact, and the inherited culture of impunity will prevail. To make matters worse, few public service managers have the training, tools or delegated authority to implement human resource policies for grown-ups.
Another focus of the Croke Park extension is to be working hours.This would mean tackling flexitime, a system whereby staff can generate an extra 18 days’ holidays and high sick-leave levels. It must also mean addressing the length of the working week, and especially the structure of rosters. Among the deals protected by the agreement are a 34-hour week for local government staff and a 32.5-hour week for some Central Bank staff.
Teachers’ union leaders trumpet their contribution of “two million additional hours” but, for each teacher, this amounts to no more than an hour per week, in a 36-38-week working year, to be devoted to “school planning”, “professional development” and the like – and not, for example, to extra classes in maths or English for weak students. The delivery of these hours is not systematically monitored. Nursing rosters have yet to be restructured to match the pattern of patients’ needs.
As for “new exit mechanisms”, this raises a more fundamental challenge to Croke Park than working hours. Significant overmanning remains, mainly among “generalist” staff in middle and senior administrative roles who now find themselves lacking the deep technical, policymaking and managerial skills needed for a reformed public service. So, let us say, for example, redundancy terms are offered to persuade 800 such people – and many more exist in the health sector alone – to accept the terms, and only 200 do so. What then? Do they let more staff go from already overstretched front-line services, as heretofore – “cutting off your arm to meet your WeightWatchers targets”, as Ming Flanagan put it – or do they face up to the reality that Croke Park promises of guaranteed pensions and increments, no pay cuts and no compulsory redundancies are unsustainable?