Civil service must ‘not tolerate’ underperformance, secretary general says

Underperfomers should be dismissed, service needs to be more responsive, Watt says

Secretary general of the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform said under-performance in the civil service would not be tolerated. He said an existing system of accountability for the civil service had been strengthened in recent years.  Photograph: Frank Miller/The Irish Times

Secretary general of the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform said under-performance in the civil service would not be tolerated. He said an existing system of accountability for the civil service had been strengthened in recent years. Photograph: Frank Miller/The Irish Times

Wed, Jul 23, 2014, 22:37

The number of people who consistently underperform in the civil service is a low proportion of the workforce but underperformance at any level “should not be tolerated”, the senior civil servant responsible for driving public sector reform has said.

Robert Watt, secretary general of the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform said he saw strengthened accountability as a way of improving performance across the board in the civil service “rather than primarily as a means of addressing poor performance, although this is important”.

“We must focus on the vast majority of civil servants who are doing well and see how we can bring their performance up to an even higher level.”

Speaking at the MacGill summer school, Mr Watt said the value added of such an improvement across the whole civil service population would deliver significant dividends in terms of more effective policy formulation and delivery of public services “for many years to come”.

The secretary general said he believed strengthened accountability arrangements were needed.

This was evidenced by the recent extensive internal and external consultation processes undertaken by the department.

The status quo, however assessed, was no longer good enough, he said.

“The civil service needs a new chapter. It needs to be more effective, more responsive and higher performing, and this must be clearly evident to the public.”

He said Minister for Public Reform Brendan Howlin and the Department had built on a range of reforms and had been very active in introducing significant additional changes impacting on civil service accountability since the inception of the department in 2011.

These included strengthening of the Freedom of Information Act, and the introduction of legislation to provide greater supports to whistleblowers.

They had also embarked on the next wave of reform as set out in the Public Service Reform Plan 2014-20166.

Yet there remained “public and political disquiet that civil servants are not accountable enough”.

“And that is worrying.”

He said it was “regrettable” that the public discourse focused on the failures and not the successes of the civil service, citing the presidency of the Council of the European Union and the implementation of the bailout exit as examples of the successes.

Mr Watt said the current renewal plan for the civil service incorporated “practical and specific actions that enable us to make progress on this issue and enhance performance and capability”.

“We need to support our managers in implementing these measures where any under-performance or non-performance is identified.”

He noted employment law applied equally to the public and private sectors.

“In the public sector, there is scope to apply disciplinary procedures up to and including dismissal, where appropriate.”