Public service workforce still too large, says Howlin

Thu, Oct 11, 2012, 01:00

INITIAL REPORTS from some Government departments are indicating a high number of surplus staff in some areas, Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform Brendan Howlin has said.

“I am awaiting reports from all my colleagues on the staff who they think are surplus,” he said.

“A number of them have come back already and there will be significant numbers in some areas.”

Mr Howlin said the Government was committed to reducing the size and creating a leaner, more efficient public service.

In the middle of this year, public service numbers were 292,000, which was 28,000 below the peak number of 320,000 reached in 2008 and comparable to 2005 staffing levels.

Service levels had been largely maintained and, in fact, increased in some years, notwithstanding considerable staff reductions, he said.

Mr Howlin added that the Government had agreed to accelerate the programme of staff reductions to maximise pay bill savings. Where staff surpluses were identified, a targeted voluntary redundancy scheme would be made available for selected areas throughout the public service.

Seán Fleming (FF) said the exercise should also examine departments to see where there were shortages. “I need not tell him about the Department of Social Protection where applicants are waiting between nine and 12 months for appeals to be dealt with, cases to be examined, means tests to be carried out or medical examinations,” he added.

Mr Howlin said no line department received more additional supports than social protection to meet the significant increase in appeals and applications, because volume, variety and complexity of social welfare payments were such that they were needed.

Part of Minister for Social Protection Joan Burton’s reform agenda was rationalisation so that there is not the complexity and multiplicity of allowances, he added.

Mr Howlin said there were areas under pressure for staff and that was why the architecture of the Croke Park agreement was so important.

“Seamlessly and without fuss, we have moved thousands of staff across the public service under the agreement,” he said. “It is one of the unsung achievements of the agreement.”

Mr Howlin said the “funny aspect of it, as I have stated previously, is that if one achieves something – for example, getting the new deal on sick pay – without a row, it is taken as if it is nothing”.

Mary Lou McDonald (SF) said the Minister’s stated target was to reduce public sector numbers by 10,000 by 2014.

She would like to know, she said, where those areas of staffing surpluses existed.

“I do not know how the Government can take a further 10,000 workers out of the system and still guarantee the protection of services,” she added.

“The Minister has said that service delivery has increased and improved but that is not the experience of the end-user of the services.”

Mr Howlin said natural retirements would remove a good number of people from the service, but it was estimated that this would not be sufficient.

In terms of the general thrust, public services were being delivered differently.

“That is what the whole reform agenda is about,” he said.

“Different skills mixes, different working arrangements, different rostering and so forth, are enabling us to achieve more with less.”

Mr Howlin said the public service had responded extraordinarily well to the challenge.

He added that there was a need to look at all of the new technologies available, given that more than 300 services were now being delivered online.