Putting in place real accountability is arguably the most important reform
Opinion: We have an aversion to this concept in Ireland, and especially the bit about consequences
Matthew Elderfield: called for invasive scrutiny and effective sanctions. Photograph: David Sleator
A very important document was published earlier this month by the reform unit of the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform. Entitled “Strengthening Civil Service Accountability and Performance”, this paper came just weeks after the department candidly revealed that the existing performance management system was a shambles with inflated ratings all round and less than 1 per cent of staff receiving “unacceptable” or “needs to improve” evaluations .
There is also the wider context of an endless stream of scandals and institutional failures which have a common thread running through them – bad governance and the failure of systems of public accountability.
Since the current Government came to power, a range of reforms has been widely debated, such as reform of the Seanad or the freedom of information regime, but reform in accountability is arguably more important than any of these. The department’s paper tackles the vital issue of the respective roles and responsibilities of ministers and civil servants and the systems whereby they are each held publicly accountable . The inherited arrangements were characterised by Pat Rabbitte, just before he entered government, as enabling civil servants to hide behind the skirts of ministers and allowing ministers to dodge accountability.
In this tight, mutually beneficial set-up lies one of the roots of the culture of secrecy, irresponsibility, entitlement and sense of impunity that spread like a contagion across major institutions of the State and beyond, with disastrous results.
Great credit is due to the group of officials who have worked on this paper to set out the essential nature and purpose of public accountability and to tease out the complex issues to be addressed. “The original and long-standing core meaning of accountability,” the authors say, “is to submit to a mechanism designed to achieve external scrutiny in explaining and justifying past conduct or actions with the possibility of facing consequences arising.”
When Matthew Elderfield took over the banking mess he said “we need invasive scrutiny and effective sanctions”. Judged against these criteria there are few oversight systems that measure up; Hiqa and the Criminal Assets Bureau are the exceptions. We have an aversion to accountability in Ireland, and especially the bit about consequences. Consider some of the following systems that are supposed to protect the public interest that have repeatedly failed us.
Auditors – They can cite the small print to escape any liability for what seems to most people to be incompetence, negligence or even criminal conspiracy in numerous cases of corporate failure.
State boards – Prospects of good governance are compromised by the packing of boards with political associates, as the current Government parties have done with the same shameless vigour as their much maligned predecessors. They have therefore reneged on their pre-election promise to end this kind of cronyism, which in the past led to incompetent and even corrupt governance.