Plan for major Civil Service shift expected by summer

 

Proposals for the biggest relocation of civil servants in the history of the State will be presented by the Minister for Finance, Mr McCreevy, before the summer.

The Minister intends to relocate almost entire Government Departments, offices and - for the first time - non-commercial State-sponsored bodies, to provincial towns and cities, in a move which could see 80 per cent of the Civil Service, or 24,000 jobs, based outside Dublin.

An indication of the scale of the relocation is given by the size of previous moves.

In 1981 the first "extended decentralisation programme" began and saw some 4,000 civil servants moved.

It was boosted by the current programme, which began in 1987. When completed next year it will see some 14,000 civil servants located outside Dublin - or about 47 per cent of the service.

The Minister's new programme is expected to decentralise at least 10,000 jobs.

Already there has been decentralisation to 20 provincial centres in 19 counties. These include Departments such as the Department of Agriculture, which has an obvious need to be close to its client base and has more than 550 staff at Castlebar, Cavan, Portlaoise and Wexford.

The Revenue Commissioners also have offices at Dundalk, Ennis, Limerick, Nenagh and Wexford, as well as a highly decentralised collections service, again for efficiency.

A similar situation exists with the Department of Social Community and Family Affairs, which has been decentralised to Dundalk, Letterkenny, Longford, Sligo and Waterford.

However, the situation with these Departments is in stark contrast to the Department of the Marine and Natural Resources, which was criticised last week for a "disturbing" breakdown in communications between it and its client base in coastal communities.

The poor relationship was compounded by a "highly centralised" administration in Dublin, according to the report by the All-Party Oireachtas Committee on the Strategic Management Initiative.

The Minister has pointed out that the information technology to support decentralisation is now available.

He has also cited balanced regional development as the incentive for the move, as well as the benefits public-sector jobs would have on the economies of provincial towns.

The Minister has asked his Cabinet colleagues to bring forward suggestions for large blocks of their Departments commensurate with "the transfer of the maximum number of public-sector jobs from Dublin".

The popularity of this idea in the regions is evidenced by the huge number of representations the Minister has received from his own backbenchers since the next decentralisation programme was announced in the budget last December.

As recently as the end of February Mr Philip Hogan, Fianna Fail TD for Carlow-Kilkenny, asked the Minister in the Dail to "consider Kilkenny city as a suitable location for the decentralisation of a Government Department".

Deputy Ulick Burke asked if the Land Registry could be decentralised to a town in Co Galway. Mr Seymour Crawford TD asked if the Minister would consider towns in Co Monaghan, "given that the Border counties suffered more than most as a result of the years of violence in Northern Ireland".

Cases have also been made by representatives in Westport, Co Mayo, for the Department of Tourism.

Listowel, Co Kerry, has put in a bid for the Department of Arts, Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, while Tuam, Co Galway, would accept any Departments or section.

Last week the suggestions to the Minister were coming in at a rate of one a day.

Part of the clamour from the regions must be attributed to a lack of clear criteria coming from Mr McCreevy's Department. According to the Minister, "no town or city is being ruled out".

As Mr McCreevy's reply to Deputy Hogan, delivered in the Dail on February 29th by the Minister of State for Finance, Mr Noel Treacy, stated: "In developing the new programme the Minister has in mind a number of objectives, including the promotion of regional development, the reduction of congestion in Dublin, the establishment of a more even spread of public-sector jobs around the country and the procurement of office accommodation at a lower cost than in Dublin."

The Minister has not, however, indicated any qualifying criteria for towns and cities being considered, stating instead that he "specifically wants to address the many public representatives who have been in touch with him".

It is expected that firm proposals nominating the Departments or sections of Departments, Government offices or the non-commercial State-sponsored bodies will be decided before the summer.

However, staff need to be trained, and offices selected and equipped.

It could be a number of years before civil servants take up their positions in the new locations.

"On the basis of previous experience, it takes about two years from a date of decision to relocate staff to their taking up positions in the new building," Mr Treacy told the Dail.

The situation has caused mounting anxiety for the unions involved.

Mr Bernard Harbor of Impact, which represents many of the clerical and administrative grades in the Civil Service, said the new plan is the most ambitious yet and may deprive some staff of the option of staying in Dublin through switching to another Department to avoid decentralisation.

"The scope for that is reduced if many Departments go," explained Mr Harbor.

He added that while decentralisation is on the agenda for a meeting between union representatives and the Department of Finance, due to take place at the end of this month, "there have been no formal talks with the unions on a plan this size, and no request for separate formal talks either".