See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil


PUBLIC SECTOR:It’s ‘plus ca change’ in the public service sector, as senior civil servants cling to cronyism and outdated
attitudes, writes GERALD FLYNN:

MORE THAN two years after a detailed implementation schedule was published for dramatic public service reform, the standing of senior public officials has diminished rather than improved.

By now we were supposed to have the much-vaunted Senior Public Service – an elite of “high-fliers” – operating in the civil service and ready for extension to the wider public service through more open recruitment processes. In November 2008 a “taskforce” of top mandarins even detailed an implementation schedule.

Then, six months ago, it was bundled into the Croke Park pay and redeployment deal under its more formal title of “Public Service Pay and Reform Agreement”. As with most of the initiatives detailed in that government-trade union agreement, which was reached nine months ago, few examples have been implemented on the ground.

When that agreement was formally signed off last June, the Government’s position was: “To underline the commitment to appointing the best people available from within or outside the public service to senior positions, the Government will shortly announce the details of a new approach to such recruitment – by reconstituting the Top Level Appointments Committee with more outside members.

“In addition, to promote greater mobility at senior levels in the public service, we will announce details of the new senior public service, encompassing, initially, the assignment and development of all secretaries general, assistant secretaries and equivalents in government departments.”

It seems now that it was just more empty promises – repeating similar pledges given in 2008. As we come to the end of yet another year, there is still no new senior public service structure; no chief information officer for e-government has been appointed; no reconstitution of top-level appointments has taken place; and no new public service board has been appointed.

Instead they have been caught up with the tripartite International Monetary Fund (IMF), European Commission (EU) and European Central Bank (ECB) bailout negotiations. Real reform will probably have to be initiated, yet again, by an incoming government in the new year.

Three years of deepening economic and fiscal crises have exposed serious shortcomings at senior policy-making level, most evident in departments such as finance, health and children, enterprise and employment, and transport. Some have been exposed by the Comptroller and Auditor General’s reports but appear to have been brushed off by senior public servants at many Public Accounts Committee hearings. Admission of personal responsibility for serious errors were rarely evident at these Oireachtas hearings.

It is a reflection of the compromised culture within the public service and seriously embedded attitudes among many above the principal officer grade.

Of course there have been some independent-minded and even contrarian senior public servants, but many have been sidelined and rarely get to pass assistant-secretary general level, if they even get that far up the ladder. Some were moved to “agencies” or to EU postings.

Earlier this month one such talented, well-paid and outspoken former public servant gave an open assessment of the management culture at the root of so many of our “sub-optimal” policy and organisational decisions.

Former National Treasury Management Agency (NTMA) chief, Michael Somers openly recalled on radio earlier this month his discontent within senior levels at the Department of Finance. He spoke of the lack of initiative to follow up concerns voiced over the banking system and even to take policy steps to address the muted concerns of the Central Bank.

“I worked in the civil service for quite a number of years and I found it a very difficult organisation to work in. I found the way the civil service works [was] not the sort of way I wanted to do things,” he said. On the soaring bank lending, Somers expressed some concerns to senior colleagues. “I could not understand how credit could grow by 20 to 30 per cent a year while nominal GDP was growing by 6 to 10 per cent a year, and I expressed that at Department of Finance level.” He was told that the banking system was stress-tested and robust, though he understood that the Central Bank governor had expressed similar concerns.

The lack of a detailed review of policy decisions has resulted in media castigation of some people who may well have voiced worries which were shrugged off by more senior colleagues. We need to have an open review of how decisions were made and whose advice was ignored at the time. There must have been some dissenting voices – even if they were sidelined or suppressed.

Somers added that it took just a few senior people at the top to make or destroy an organisation by making wrong decisions, whether in a bank, an executive board or a government department.

Since the reforms suggested in the 2008 OECD review have still not been implemented, it may be time for more external pressure to radically reform senior public service management. Niall Saul, who has decades of experience in integration, corporate mergers and organisational restructuring as a former personnel chief at Irish Life Permanent, Waterford Crystal and McNamara Construction, notes that change would have to be externally driven.

He points out that the Top Level Appointments Committee could be a smokescreen in that it didn’t make a final selection of candidate, instead recommending a selection of, say, five people. It was the senior public servants who made the final recommendation.

Radical suggestions that every senior civil servant be “invited” to reapply for their positions are probably not possible to follow through on. Saul reckons, however, that it could be possible to restructure senior positions and adapt the Ministers and Secretaries rules. This would provide a mechanism through which fresh appointments could be made, with new job descriptions and proper accountability built in.

But the problem would remain that you would have the same culture, just rejigged. This is where Saul sees the need for external pressure – and this is unlikely to be provided by elected representatives. Instead he suggests supervision of the senior public service by an external group, either from the OECD or, more conveniently, from the IMF/EU/ECB group which is now monitoring national income and expenditure on a quarterly basis.

He suggests it would be similar to a bank monitoring a management restructuring which is part of a funding agreement. This would have to be in tandem with a redundancy programme, though one a bit more subtle and sophisticated than that foisted on the Health Service Executive last month.

Saul says a “burning platform” is essential in achieving restructuring in a culture of ingrained placidity. He agrees with other commentators that some of the more outspoken senior public servants have been sidelined or allocated to “non-core” duties.

One of those who has openly challenged the internal commitment to public service reform is organisational development adviser, Eddie Molloy, who got under senior public servants’ skin when he excoriated the “Buggin’s turn” syndrome of promotions within the Department of Finance.

The spectacle of senior civil servants dragging out addressing their “privilege days” until past the Christmas/ New Year break highlights the tardy and leisurely approach towards even minor change. The assistant secretaries’ “success” in retaining the performance bonus payments on the basis that they were integral remuneration is another example of poor leadership for the other 29,000 civil servants they manage and motivate. Is it any wonder that clerical staff were willing to endure further public opprobrium and ridicule to preserve their 30-minutes’ phantom cheque leave?

Clearly, the Irish public service, for years proud of its integrity, is unable to reform without close external supervision. Citizens and 300,000 public service employees deserve real reform, to be freed from the shackles developed over two decades of “social partnership” obfuscation.