Public service must be reformed

Thu, Nov 27, 2008, 00:00

OPINION:It is my intention to deliver a vibrant and responsive public service through a combination of reforms and economic measures, writes Brian Cowen 

I BELIEVE that we are fortunate in having a public service which is made up of talented people who want to make a difference in the economic and social life of Ireland. Public servants support government at national level, in developing policies and plans, and they work at national and local levels in the delivery of frontline services and in the provision of infrastructure.

However, the Government recognises that the public service must be transformed because the challenges facing the country are changing rapidly.

We need a service that is fit for purpose and that can deliver better value for money across all its activities - do more with less - as the public finances tighten.

This will require new ways of working in the public service, and new forms of co-operation and collaboration with the private sector and voluntary organisations to ensure the citizen is getting the best service possible for the available resources.

The Task Force on the Public Service, which I established and whose report was published yesterday, has identified the gain in productivity and improved value-for-money that can be achieved if the different parts of the public service can work together more effectively. I want all public servants to see themselves as part of a single system. I want them to work across the organisational, professional and geographical boundaries that can act as barriers to joined-up planning and service delivery.

Public service organisations need to put the user of public services at the centre of all of their activities. In particular, I want public bodies to make a major drive on e-government to allow 24/7 access to as many of their services as possible.

The Government has adopted a three-year plan, based on the taskforce's recommendations, for what amounts to a radical transformation of the public service. The measures represent a challenging agenda for change for both managers and staff in the public service.

We want greater accountability of organisations and individuals. We want underperformance to be seriously challenged.

We want much greater flexibility in transferring people and resources to new priority areas wherever they arise across the public service. We want greater efficiency through substantially greater use of shared services and improved procurement practices.

The Government will engage with the public service unions to bring about change as speedily as possible, given the recognition on all sides of the state of the public finances.

Government and unions know that citizens expect the continued delivery and improvement of services, despite our resource constraints. In fact, under the latest pay deal, public service unions have already committed to a new phase of reform.

Delivering on the transformation agenda represents a challenge of the highest political priority. It requires, therefore, the strongest possible political engagement and leadership.

Implementation, therefore, will be driven by me, as chair of a new Cabinet Committee on Transforming Public Services, also comprising the Ministers for Finance, Health and Children, Education and Science, Justice, Equality and Law Reform, and Environment, Heritage and Local Government.

A programme office, based in my department, will be established to support the Cabinet committee and the relevant secretaries general and public service leaders in their implementation roles.

Outside members with relevant expertise will also be enlisted as part of steering the implementation of change.

And in terms of public accountability, the Government is committed to publishing the First Annual Report on the State of the Public Service within 12 months. It is also committed to preparing legislation to give effect to the transformation agenda.

Within this framework for driving change, and to address the current serious financial situation, the Minister for Finance, Brian Lenihan, yesterday announced the establishment of a Special Group on Public Service Numbers to examine the expenditure programmes in each department and to make recommendations for reducing public service numbers so as to control public spending.

The group will make recommendations on reallocation of staffing or expenditure resources between public service organisations as appropriate, to deliver the objectives set out in the programme for government.

Where redeployment of staff is not feasible, appropriate exit options will have to be developed. It will also examine and make recommendations for further rationalisation of State agencies beyond the rationalisation proposals and principles set out in Budget 2009.

The special group will report to the Minister for Finance at the end of January 2009 and every two months thereafter, and will submit a final report to the Minister by the end of June 2009.

Through the combination of transformation and economy measures announced yesterday, my intention is to ensure that the public service delivers on the Government's priorities for the citizen, that it remains relevant, vibrant and responsive, and that it continues to attract its fair share of talent from the work force.