Former ombudsman passionate in defence of citizens


KEVIN MURPHY: KEVIN MURPHY, who has died aged 75, was a passionate proponent of public service reform which he pursued both as ombudsman and earlier as secretary general of the former department of the public service.

After almost 40 years in the public service he was well placed to understand both its strengths and weaknesses, and was intolerant of the latter when he took up the position of ombudsman in 1994, succeeding the late Michael Mills. He also took on the post of information commissioner in 1998 following the passage of the Freedom of Information Act.

Countless cases illustrate his dogged defence of citizens who came up against the intransigence of public bodies, including a group of widows of former public servants who had tax wrongly deducted from their pensions.

While the Revenue Commissioners acknowledged they were due a refund, they refused to pay interest on the amounts due, so the money which became due in 1997 was repaid at the value it had in the 1980s. He upheld the claim of the widows for interest and when it was refused he exercised his right to bring a report to the Oireachtas, which resulted in the Oireachtas finance committee voting that the Revenue Commissioners had to pay all the money.

In 2002, in his final annual report, he identified local authorities as the public service sector in greatest need of reform, presciently drawing particular attention to their permitting unfinished and unauthorised developments.

However, the scandal he highlighted for which he will be best remembered was the illegal charging of elderly people for nursing home care, which ultimately led to the State refunding more than €365 million to medical card holders.

Speaking after his retirement, he was highly critical of the failure of Ministers to take responsibility for problems within their departments, citing the “serious and protracted illegality” that took place in the Department of Health around the nursing home issue. He said the Dáil and Seanad were failing to hold the government to account, partly because members were too busy dealing with constituency matters, and also because TDs showed a willingness “to toe the party line” rather than deal with issues on their merits.

As information commissioner, he was critical of changes introduced by the Fianna Fáil/PD government in 2002 to restrict the operation of the Freedom of Information Act, pointing out that existing exemptions for sensitive files had been strong enough to protect the genuine interests of the State. His commitment to good public service, whose purpose should be to serve the public rather than the organisation, had already been demonstrated during his long public service career, which he started after leaving Synge Street CBS in 1955.

He started work in the Department of Industry and Commerce, moving to Finance in 1962, where he worked with the legendary TK Whitaker. He joined the newly created Department of the Public Service in 1973 as a principal officer. He was promoted to deputy secretary in 1979, over the heads of colleagues at higher grades, when the post was filled by open competition.

He became secretary general of the department in 1983, when John Boland was minister.Together they pursued a programme of public service reform, spelled out in the White Paper Serving the Country Better. One of the catchphrases from the campaign was the “war on hatches” – the devices whereby public servants hid from members of the public – and the introduction of a rule requiring public servants to wear name badges so that they could be identified by those whom they served. He was also the architect of the Top Level Appointments Committee, pioneering the opening up of senior positions in the public service to competition.

He saw a need to change the role of secretary general from being “adviser” to the minister to one which was in effect chief executive of the department with responsibility for its management, with the minister primarily concerned with policy issues. He succeeded in getting Boland to persuade the cabinet that the secretary general should be statutorily named as accounting officer for his or her department.

His relationship with Boland was described as a “love/hate” one by a former colleague, but they proved a formidable team, with Murphy providing the ideas for reform and Boland driving them through the cabinet. Ultimately, however, much of the reform programme perished in the face of the recession of the 1980s.

He was held in high regard by his colleagues in the international community, with the Danish ombudsman describing him as the “greatest mentor” of others in that community.

Friends describe him as a man with a sense of fun, who enjoyed nothing more than a good meal with nice wine and the company of friends “swapping tales”. He was passionate about sport, following Shamrock Rovers, the Dublin GAA team and the Irish rugby team. He enjoyed hillwalking with his wife Kay. She and their four children, Deirdre, Colm, Niamh and Caitríona, survive him.

Kevin Murphy: born April 9th, 1937; died March 5th, 2012