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

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.”
Invasive scrutiny
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.

Regulators – In their book Irish Governance in Crisis, Niamh Hardiman and her co-authors spell out how regulatory bodies in many sectors lack the capacity for “invasive scrutiny and effective sanctions” they need to protect the public interest, because successive governments have withheld from them the necessary powers. We have just witnessed the powerlessness of the Garda Ombudsman Commission to hold the An Garda to account.

Internal inquiries – These frequent affairs rarely provide reassurance that the truth has been exposed and responsible persons brought to book.

External inquiries – When public pressure finally triggers an independent inquiry, it is likely to be 10 years too late, to drag on for years and to feature obstruction, amnesia, missing files, deceased witnesses and perjury. Apart from some exceptions like the Mahon and Moriarty tribunal reports, we are more likely to get a redacted report or none at all – on the advice of the Attorney General.

Freedom of Information – Ultimately the FOI system is supposed to vindicate the public’s right to know. A current Government Minister was advised on his third day in office not to put something in writing “because it could be FOI-able”. It seems a common attitude.

Minimalist responses
Right at the heart of the department’s consultation paper a fundamental question is raised: “how far [should ]public servants rely on their professionalism and sense of personal morality and how far [should] they simply follow instruction from political masters”? Recently at the Public Accounts Committee, we witnessed a classic example of what Liz O’Donnell called the “minimalist responses “ of officials, which on the face of it seemed designed to protect the Minister rather than ensure the public’s right to know about Irish Water.

The Government promised “to pin down accountability for results at every level of the public service – from Ministers down – with clear consequences for failure”. The launch of the department’s paper represents a step towards delivering on this commitment, but there is a bumpy road ahead.

The paper states that effective systems of public accountability are intrinsic to a functioning democracy, “preventing corruption and the abuse of power . . . ensuring value for money and safeguarding the interests of taxpayers . . . and discharging a pivotal role in bolstering the legitimacy of government authority and public confidence in the effectiveness of public administration”. The public is invited to make their contribution to these deliberations on the department website (per.gov.ie). Can anything be more important?

Dr Eddie Molloy is a management consultant. This article expands on one of the reforms he suggested at the Reform Alliance forum in Dublin last Saturday

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