We need sanctions to address poor performance in the civil service

Opinion: Expert panel pulled its punches on the critical issue

Photograph: Getty Images

Photograph: Getty Images

Fri, Jul 4, 2014, 00:01

Prof Kevin Rafter, who chaired an expert panel set up to advise the Government on mechanisms to strengthen the accountability of senior civil servants recently highlighted on these pages two of the principal recommendations to Government. These were the establishment of an accountability board for the Civil Service and the appointment of a head of the Civil Service.

While these innovations are necessary, the panel’s recommendations fall short on the defining element of any effective governance system – the consequences for poor performance.

The initial excellent paper, issued on January 9th by the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform, which the panel used as the basis of its public consultations over the past six months, defined accountability as: “the formal obligation to submit to a mechanism designed to achieve external scrutiny in explaining and justifying past conduct and actions with the possibility of facing consequences arising”. (My italics.)

The expert panel fails badly to address this pivotal element of a modern, mature performance-management system. Noting that “the private sector appears more willing to dismiss those not performing adequately”, it offers the rather feeble justification for eschewing the ultimate sanction of dismissal, arguing that “the private sector is not always subject to the strict financial transparency and constraints that exist in the Civil Service. In this regard the private sector has more options to deal with poorly performing employees”.

Any civil service constraints are self-imposed.

Review after review

The panel’s remedy for poor performance is “ . . . to assist underperformers, through identification and development measures, in raising their performance to the required level”.

This means that no matter how many successive poor ratings a person gets, the remedy is another “development measure”.

It is precisely the approach that killed off the discredited performance management and development system, which enabled mediocre performers to settle into a comfortable life in the Civil Service.

The necessity of sanctions for poor performance was persuasively expressed recently by Dr Tracy Cooper, as she finished up as chief executive of the Health Information and Quality Authority.

Speaking about the health service, she remarked:“When things go wrong . . . the problem is we have never had any consequences . . . If there’s a repeated failure, nothing really happens . . .

“We still have not cracked accountability in the health service.”

Dr Cooper’s remarks could apply to large swathes of the public service.

Poor performance

In the private sector, it is very rare for senior managers to be fired for poor performance, because they will have been subject to tough-minded performance reviews at least every six months from the day they joined the company.

Nevertheless, they go to work every day knowing that if they don’t deliver then there will be an escalating price to pay, and this understanding sets the tone for the performance-management system right throughout the whole organisation, such that they have what might be called a “high-performance culture”.

It’s not about creating an climate of fear but a matter of establishing a grown-up understanding of an employee’s contract with the employer.

The deep-rooted malaise that the original Department of Public Expenditure and Reform paper and the expert panel set out to address was once pithily characterised by Pat Rabbitte in a forensic analysis of the issue at the Burren Law School, just before he entered government.

“Without statutory reform the system of accountability we pretend to operate in this country is grounded in a lie”, such that “civil servants can hide behind the skirts of ministers” and “ministers can avoid responsibility”.

As a nation we have paid a terrible price for this lack of accountability at the heart of the Civil Service.

For that reason, there is arguably no single reform more crucial than fundamental reform of the system and culture of accountability.

I regret to say, however, that the promise of the original Department of Public Expenditure and Reform paper, which had a real edge to it, has not been fulfilled.

The expert panel has pulled its punches on the critical issue of consequences for poor performance.

Eddie Molloy is a management consultant. He was a member of the Mullarkey group that reviewed the system of accountability of secretaries general and accounting officers in 2003

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