'No one is responsible for anything'

 

WHAT IS it with ambitious public sector projects? It seems almost preordained that they end up with eye-watering cost overruns or getting long-fingered indefinitely after being bogged down in controversy.

The National Children’s Hospital is the latest project to suffer from the dead hand of the public sector.

It’s six years since reports by consultants McKinsey recommended a single, world-class paediatric centre which would amalgamate three children’s hospitals in the capital.

Even though the location in the Mater was chosen shortly afterwards, political sniping and growing uncertainty over the location slowed progress. Two chairmen selected to oversee the process ended up resigning.

As in excess of €30 million was poured into planning and design, it soon became clear the enormous scale of the development was a major issue. The plan rolled on regardless.

It culminated in An Bord Pleanála refusing planning permission last month and the project being sent back to the drawing board.

After all the expensive consultants’ reports, expert groups and glossy plans, no one was accountable for the failure to deliver a project, while the taxpayer has been left to shoulder the burden of wasted expenditure.

But perhaps it’s too simple to blame public servants. Is the Civil Service, for example, taking the flak for the failures of politicians or ministers, who have been all too keen to spend millions on half-baked schemes or ill-conceived vanity projects such as the so-called Bertie Bowl, e-voting or the Ppars computer project? For Bill Kingston, who lectures in business at Trinity College Dublin, the answer is simple: the lack of accountability in the public sector.

“In our system, no one is responsible for anything,” he says. “We took over from the British the idea that a department in the Civil Service contained maybe 10 people and the minister was responsible for everything, and the civil servants weren’t responsible for anything.” That was fine back in the Edwardian days, he says. But today, these same departments employ hundreds of people to administer, advise and decide how public services are run.

“So, today, the Civil Service are de facto responsible – but they can’t be blamed because the Minister is responsible. So you have people who are responsible in law – but don’t know anything. Or you have people who are really responsible – but not responsible in law.”

Eddie Molloy, a consultant in strategy and large-scale change, has worked with numerous government departments – including the Department of the Taoiseach – as well as in the private sector. He says many good people are trapped in a system wishing they could do something to change it but finding themselves powerless to do so.

The corporate culture of the sector, with its disregard for public money and sense of entitlement, is revealed every year by the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG),

he says. Recent independent reports into the banking crisis have also shone a light on the culture of deference by the Civil Service to ministers, rather than being the bulwarks they should have been against reckless decision-making.

There is also, Molloy says, a lack of expertise. The Civil Service and much of the public sector is based on “gifted generalists”. But it needs to be technically qualified and robust enough to place the public good ahead of the preferences of the incumbent government. The CAG, most agree, is one area where there is accountability in the public sector. The office’s reports turn up tales of mismanagement, overspending and even misappropriation of public funds with a regularity that often makes it feel like Groundhog Day.

It has helped tackle serious cost overruns. Following the CAG investigation of the public roads programme – which was supposed to cost €5 billion but ended up costing €20 billion – new contracts were introduced to ensure the risks for overspending were transferred from the State to contractors.

Fixed-price contracts were introduced following the Ppars scandal, in a bid to better control costs, and the fees paid to professionals were monitored more closely.

But too often it feels like it acts after the horse has bolted. So how do you fix what, to many eyes, looks like a broken system? Unions that represent the senior members of the Civil Service point out that they have signed up to plans to modernise the sector.

There is, for the first time, outside recruitment into the senior echelons of the public sector. They have also embraced performance management and other approaches to modernise the sector.

But for many commentators, modernisation isn’t enough. Wider reform is essential. Bill Kingston, for example, says statutory protection for whistleblowers must be part of those reforms. Protection for those who expose wrongdoing would have made much less likely public-service failures such as the illegal charges for long-stay institutional care and the Ppars computer system.

The Government points out that it is addressing many of these issues. It says new whistleblowing legislation promises to give protection to those who expose wrongdoing in either the public or private sector.

The draft heads of the Protected Disclosure in the Public Interest Bill 2012 aims to ensure that workers are protected from reprisals where they disclose information relating to wrongdoing in their workplaces.

Minister for Public Expenditure Brendan Howlin says the proposed legislation highlights the responsibility of employers to put effective internal mechanisms in place to investigate whistleblowing complaints. It would oblige employers to develop an organisational culture that supports whistleblowing as a key element of corporate risk management.

Another key element to better decision-making is greater public access to information that underpins these decisions, many say. Dr Nat O’Connor of the think-tank Tasc says documents and records held by government and public bodies should be routinely made available. Open policymaking is essential so assumptions and proposals are fully scrutinised to ensure public policy is efficient, effective and in the public interest, according to O’Connor.

Eddie Molloy says radical reform is needed. Greater transparency, external scrutiny, effective sanctions and stronger management are some of the answers.

Improved efficiencies and elimination of waste are absolutely essential if we are to reduce the fiscal deficit, he says, but unless there is deeper cultural reform of the public service we will be fated to endure more reports about more scandals as sure as night follows day.

€650 million spent on unrealised projects

€30m

Children’s hospital

Some €30 million has been spent by the hospital board – mainly in fees to architects, engineers and other consultants or experts – in progressing its plans. The Government says a revised plan will be produced in the coming months.

€42m

Dart Underground

Plans and land acquisition for the Dart Underground have cost millions, but the project has been delayed indefinitely under the new capital spending plans.

€50m

Media Lab Europe

The high-technology “seed bed”, based in Dublin’s Liberties, was run jointly by the government and Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and was one of Mr Ahern’s most favoured projects. Founded in 2000, it went into liquidation a few years later, with consultants describing its output as “dismal”, “surprisingly weak” and “mediocre”.

€130m

PPARS

The HSE’s information technology project started small, at an estimated cost of €9 million in 1997, and ballooned to a cost of €130 million in 2004, before being put on hold by the Health Service Executive in 2007.

€55m

E-voting

Martin Cullen ordered more than 700 of the machines at a cost of €51 million, only to have them placed in storage in 2004 when security concerns emerged. Attempts to sell them have so far been unsuccessful.

€1.5m

Hospital co-location

Almost €1.5 million was paid in legal and financial costs associated with the now abandoned plans to develop co-located private hospitals. Project agreements for each of these hospitals expired in March 2011.

€44m

Decentralisation

Millions have been spent on acquiring sites for the Government’s decentralisation programme in locations where plans to transfer public service offices and State agencies have been either postponed or axed.

€18m

Metro West

Millions has been spent on the design of this section of the Metro. It, too, has been shelved indefinitely as a result of cutbacks to capital spending plans.

€150m

Metro North

The decision not to proceed with the Metro North rail project as part of the 2012-2016 capital investment programme will cost the State more than €150 millionincluding compensation to the project bidders.

€100m

Bertie Bowl

Millions were spent on consultancy fees and the clearances of the Abbotstown development in preparation for a national stadium. Political opposition from Fianna Fáil’s coalition partners, the PDs, ultimately scuppered the project, although the FAI went on to relocate its headquarters at the site.

€42m

Thornton Hall

The Government spent €30 million acquiring land for the Thornton Hall “superprison”, which has been delayed indefinitely. A further €12 million has been spent on original plans for the prison and the Central Mental Hospital. Both designs have since been scrapped. Plans for a scaled-down version of the prison have also been long-fingered.

. . . and what €650 million could buy

185SCHOOLS

+1CHILDREN’S HOSPITAL

+1.5AVIVA STADIUMS

+15MILES OF LUAS TRACK