Success of Civil Service reforms may not be evident for years

Analysis: The plan is ambitious but a lot will depend on how it works, writes Martin Wall.

Brendan Howlin said that while it had always been open to change, the Civil Service had not always delivered on reform initiatives. Photograph: Eric Luke

Brendan Howlin said that while it had always been open to change, the Civil Service had not always delivered on reform initiatives. Photograph: Eric Luke

 

Launching the Government’s new reform plan yesterday, Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform Brendan Howlin highlighted two different views of the Irish Civil Service.

He recounted that a troika official, on leaving the country last year, maintained that the Civil Service here was the most competent he had encountered in Europe.

Elsewhere in his speech Howlin said that while it had always been open to change, the Civil Service had “not always delivered on reform initiatives and there has been a mixed consistency of implementation”.

The two opinions are not incompatible. The Civil Service has been a backbone of stability in Irish democracy for nearly a century, serving governments of all hues. However it also has a reputation of being conservative, rigid and hierarchical with too many “generalists” and insufficient specialists.

Ultimately it may take several years to determine whether the reforms which the Coalition has drawn up for the Civil Service will deliver change or whether the system will revert to type when the political focus inevitably moves elsewhere.

Obvious reforms

The plan contains potential for generating a lot of improvement. However, in areas such as the new accountability board, to be chaired by the Taoiseach and including a number of external members, a lot will depend on how it works in practice.

Many of the reforms appear to be so self-evident that it must be asked why it took so long for anyone to implement them. Howlin spoke of round pegs being placed in square holes in the past and civil servants being asked to take on areas of responsibility such as for procurement or human resources with little or no specialist training.

That is to change under the reforms. Civil servants will be given clear tasks to perform, with appropriate support and training; for those who do not perform satisfactorily, there will be consequences.

Managers will be given the tools to oversee performance including greater training and support from HR and legal experts. The reforms promise greater investment in staff training which currently costs about €22 million per year for 35,000 personnel, a figure senior management believes is insufficient.

A culture change is promised to get away from the concept of civil servants working in “silos” throughout their careers to a world where greater mobility is common.

An overhaul of the current performance management arrangements is also promised, including for the first time for secretaries general.

The Government said the aim of its radical changes to the Civil Service structure was to create a world-class service.

However the attitude of the unions will be crucial to the success or otherwise of the reform proposals.

The Association of Higher Civil and Public Servants said the Government’s decision not to appoint a head of the Civil Service, as recommended by an independent panel was “a significant missed opportunity”.

The Public Service Executive Union, which represents mid-ranking staff, said the proposals were a “mixed bag” but expressed concern at the plan for open competitions for senior posts, as it could have implications for promotion prospects among its members.