John FitzGerald: Civil Service expertise key to Government policy

Specific management focus might beat generalism in serving portfolio recalibration

The Cabinet comes with many changes to departments and these may alter the traditional roles of secretary-generals. Photograph: Julien Behal/PA

The Cabinet comes with many changes to departments and these may alter the traditional roles of secretary-generals. Photograph: Julien Behal/PA

 

At last we have a government and progress in many areas, which had stalled, can restart. The detailed programme for government involves many planned innovations aimed at improving our economy and society.

However, as has now become the practice with new governments, a significant reorganisation of departments and functions will now be implemented. This reorganisation will be the focus of attention for the administration for some time to come, and it could prove a significant distraction from the normal work of government.

The complexity of the planned organisational changes is highlighted by the fact that, at the time of writing, the government website still lists the old departmental structure. Clearly the details of the changes are taking some time to work out. Much of the Department of Climate and Energy is moving in with Transport. The residue is moving in with culture and the Gaeltacht. Higher education is getting a new department to itself with research. Most departments face some change, either losing functions or gaining them, and in some cases both.

The longer-term effects of this regular reorganisation of the Civil Service may be to change the traditional roles of secretary-generals. In the past, they were responsible for both managing their departments and advising their minister on policy. However, over the next few weeks, these heads of department will be spending a great deal of their time trying to integrate their new administrative acquisitions, under conditions where they cannot even meet their new staff face to face.

Blended departments

A particular challenge will be to create effective collective senior management in blended departments, without opportunities to meet in person. Until this integration is complete, departmental heads will have little time to develop appropriate advice for ministers on the Government’s new policy priorities.

Most secretary-generals will know little about the key policy issues in the new sections of their department. Instead, the next rung down, the assistant secretaries in departments, who have worked for some time on their policy areas, will be in the best position to offer counsel to ministers.

This contrasts with the past, when good secretary-generals combined policy expertise with effective management of their teams.

This changing of roles for senior civil servants may not be bad, provided that all those involved recognise where their comparative advantage lies. To work well, when organisational change becomes a continuous revolution, requires a high level of expertise and understanding of the technical details of their policy areas among assistant secretaries and principal officers.

However, the policy of rotating staff around the Civil Service means that many of the people holding key roles are not yet experts in their current areas of work. They may previously have worked in justice and now work on energy, or they may have worked on housing and now work on foreign affairs.

In addition, it takes time to develop essential networks of contacts across the administration and beyond. This is particularly true today when a casual coffee is not possible.

Complex body

To be effective in the future, the Civil Service, in promoting staff, needs to give more weight to expertise in a relevant policy field, rather than concentrating exclusively on attributes that make a good manager.

The decentralisation policy implemented more than 15 years ago continues to haunt the public service. While decentralisation required the Civil Service to be an early adopter of remote working and teleconferencing, it has also learned the difficulties in managing a complex, dispersed organisation.

A recent peer review by the OECD of the Environmental Protection Agency, which rated the agency’s performance highly, noted that the decentralisation of the body necessitated “a high degree of travel day-to-day, especially for senior management, which hinders efficiency and increases the carbon footprint”.

In the past, decentralisation was a significant obstacle to the efficient reallocation of functions between departments. When responsibility for climate change moved from the then department of the environment to the department of energy, some of the essential expertise on climate change policy did not move as the staff were located in Wexford.

However, a strategy to deal with this has gradually evolved, by repatriating key policy functions to the Dublin office. Thus, the latest reorganisation will, hopefully, not see too many “orphan” departments round the country.

Whatever the difficulties posed by the reorganisation of departments, the public service has shown remarkable flexibility and competence in handling the current crisis. Hopefully, the administration will take the latest organisational changes in its stride, and rapidly move to developing and implementing the complex policy agenda of the new Government.

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