New accountability board and head of civil service could boost policy delivery

Opinion: Leadership role would set ethos and values, speaking ‘truth to power’

‘We  recommend appointing for the first time a Head of the Civil Service. The centre in the Irish Civil Service has never been defined formally although it is generally seen as encompassing the Department of the Taoiseach, the Department of Finance and the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform. Photograph: Frank Miller /	THE IRISH TIMES

‘We recommend appointing for the first time a Head of the Civil Service. The centre in the Irish Civil Service has never been defined formally although it is generally seen as encompassing the Department of the Taoiseach, the Department of Finance and the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform. Photograph: Frank Miller / THE IRISH TIMES

Fri, Jun 13, 2014, 00:01

Debate about Civil Service reform pre-dates the economic crisis but events since 2008 have raised additional legitimate questions about Civil Service performance and the appropriateness of existing accountability arrangements. We are emerging from this crisis but the instability in the national finances and the effective collapse of the banking system has generated legitimate focus on whether the Civil Service was sufficiently independently minded during a crucial period in recent Irish history.

This context framed the work of the independent panel I chaired, the report of which has just been published. The panel was asked by Government to identify measures to strengthen accountability and performance in the Civil Service. We reviewed published material, from here and elsewhere, met a range of interested groups and individuals and received submissions from a public consultation process.

Central relationship

The service has a central relationship with the public and the political system. It also impacts on how business operates. We cannot afford for it to be second best in any respect. In that regard, our two main recommendations – establishing an accountability board with external membership and appointing a full-time head of the service – are aimed at strengthening oversight of policy delivery and ensuring there is clarity over leadership.

The introduction for the first time of a high-level accountability mechanism with external membership would be a significant change in how the Civil Service has operated since 1922. What is proposed is effectively a board of directors – not a new agency. It would hold departments to account for their performance and delivery and would have an overall governance role across the Civil Service.

In particular, the board would oversee implementation of agreed cross-department policy priorities. A theme in the consultation process was the need to strengthen cross-department arrangements to improve delivery on policy priorities. The board’s role would not be to create new policies but, crucially, to question and challenge on delivery of stated objectives and targets.

Having independent external board members would introduce a new dynamic into Civil Service governance, playing a vital role in increasing oversight and introducing an additional outward-looking focus.

They would be exceptionally experienced individuals who have led and managed large, complex organisations in the private and not-for-profit sectors. They would bring a different professional experience to discussions and have the authority to review and challenge conventional wisdom.

The service would also benefit from their advice and guidance; and the public would benefit in knowing there is external quality assurance about accountability and performance.

Head of the Civil Service

In tandem with the accountability board we also recommend appointing for the first time a head of the Civil Service. The centre in the Civil Service has never been defined formally though it is generally seen as encompassing the Department of the Taoiseach, the Department of Finance and the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform. From analysis of the situation elsewhere – and discussions in the consultation process – the panel was convinced of the merit in having a dedicated formal head of the service.

This would be an important full-time role with specific responsibilities including ownership of a performance management system for secretaries general. We recommend this new performance management system should examine both policy delivery within departments and contributions to the whole of government agenda. The head of the service should be charged with seeking ministerial input into the performance assessment of secretaries general but in a manner that safeguards the independence of the Civil Service.

By clarifying the leadership role we would now have an individual tasked with representing Civil Service ethos and values such as impartiality, honesty and in particular the confidence to speak “truth to power”. The head of the service should act as a guardian of these values and should ensure they are enshrined in the culture of the service.

Ireland does not feature a great deal in international studies of civil service reform. Even a recent UK report that reviewed civil service reforms in similar Westminster-type governmental systems did not include Ireland. The absence of an ongoing civil service reform agenda is one explanation for this omission.

There is now an opportunity to address this. The package of proposed reforms has the potential to strengthen accountability and performance. Their implementation would increase public trust in the administrative system. They would benefit the Civil Service itself.

Kevin Rafter is associate professor of political communication at Dublin City University and chairman of the Independent Panel on Accountability and Performance in the Civil Service

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