Michael McDowell: How did Justice get so rough?

Without strong leadership – from both politicans and senior civil servants – government departments and those who work in them can quickly become dysfunctional, writes a former minister for justice

Complex role: Minister for Justice Frances Fitzgerald talks to the media about GSOC. Photograph: Alan Betson

Complex role: Minister for Justice Frances Fitzgerald talks to the media about GSOC. Photograph: Alan Betson

Sat, Aug 2, 2014, 01:00

The dysfunctional picture painted of the Department of Justice in the Toland report is alarmingly different from the department I knew when I was minister for justice. The report of the independent review group describes a “silo driven” culture in which secrecy had “become part of the department’s DNA”. My first reaction was that there had been a very serious deterioration in the control and management of the department in recent years. My experience was that its civil servants were nearly all hard-working, honest, committed and deeply loyal public servants who responded very positively to proper leadership.

I had, for example, introduced a weekly meeting on a Friday or Monday, cochaired by the minister and secretary general, of all the senior civil servants with programme responsibilities. The meetings had a rolling agenda to ensure that everybody in the department knew what the other divisions were doing. All participants had to report on tasks they had in hand, on new issues, and on the progress they were making on them. These innovations may have been a shock to the system for some of the older Civil Service staff. But they worked very well.

Every two months there was also a project-oversight board meeting, so that major departmental projects, involving for example the Garda or the prison service or major capital expenditure, would be openly discussed and evaluated. That project-oversight board also seems to have been disbanded in the past few years.

From my interaction with the Toland report team I learned that these meetings had completely disappeared. That saddened and surprised me, because the value of those weekly meetings and the project-oversight meeting was that the minister and the secretary general and the members of the management advisory committee were effectively in continuous open dialogue, and every assistant secretary or principal officer knew what the rest of the department was doing.

The rules governing the Civil Service are, of course, different from those in a private company. The minister can’t behave like a chief executive and hire, fire or reassign at will, and the Civil Service has a statutory responsibility to question and advise politicians. But it must also be run professionally. I felt this open regime was the only way to run a large department – a method that should be normal in any large enterprise.

The Civil Service faces many challenges at present, but it is only as good as its leadership, both its political leadership and its own top brass. The minister of the day and the secretary general share responsibility for any malfunction in their department. Without good leadership and systems of real accountability, the best of people can become dysfunctional.

The Justice brief is a huge responsibility. In my view it was a mistake to give Alan Shatter both Justice and Defence. Justice in itself is a very significant department. In my time as minister we also covered areas as diverse as equality, immigrant and Traveller integration programmes, childcare (hundreds of millions of euro went into childcare facilities), refugees and immigration, as well as law reform, the Garda, the prisons and the courts system.

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