Civil service must ‘not tolerate’ underperformance, secretary general says

Underperfomers should be dismissed, service needs to be more responsive, Watt says

The number of people who consistently underperform in the civil service is a low proportion of the workforce but underperformance at any level “should not be tolerated”, the senior civil servant responsible for driving public sector reform has said.

Robert Watt, secretary general of the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform said he saw strengthened accountability as a way of improving performance across the board in the civil service "rather than primarily as a means of addressing poor performance, although this is important".

“We must focus on the vast majority of civil servants who are doing well and see how we can bring their performance up to an even higher level.”

Speaking at the MacGill summer school, Mr Watt said the value added of such an improvement across the whole civil service population would deliver significant dividends in terms of more effective policy formulation and delivery of public services “for many years to come”.

The secretary general said he believed strengthened accountability arrangements were needed.

This was evidenced by the recent extensive internal and external consultation processes undertaken by the department.

The status quo, however assessed, was no longer good enough, he said.

“The civil service needs a new chapter. It needs to be more effective, more responsive and higher performing, and this must be clearly evident to the public.”

He said Minister for Public Reform Brendan Howlin and the Department had built on a range of reforms and had been very active in introducing significant additional changes impacting on civil service accountability since the inception of the department in 2011.

These included strengthening of the Freedom of Information Act, and the introduction of legislation to provide greater supports to whistleblowers.

They had also embarked on the next wave of reform as set out in the Public Service Reform Plan 2014-20166.

Yet there remained “public and political disquiet that civil servants are not accountable enough”.

“And that is worrying.”

He said it was "regrettable" that the public discourse focused on the failures and not the successes of the civil service, citing the presidency of the Council of the European Union and the implementation of the bailout exit as examples of the successes.

Mr Watt said the current renewal plan for the civil service incorporated “practical and specific actions that enable us to make progress on this issue and enhance performance and capability”.

“We need to support our managers in implementing these measures where any under-performance or non-performance is identified.”

He noted employment law applied equally to the public and private sectors.

“In the public sector, there is scope to apply disciplinary procedures up to and including dismissal, where appropriate.”

But he said the private sector had, of course, more financial freedom to address these issues.

“Let’s be frank - in the private sector senior people can be compensated for agreeing to leave with full assurance of confidentiality which protects everyone’s reputation – the organisation’s and the individual’s.

“Financial transparency and financial constraints exist in the civil service whichmakes this approach impossible.”

“In this context, the issue of pay is important. We need a sensible discussion on pay which focuses not just on the cost but on value. We need to pay the going rate for the job but must ensure that we have a professional service that is accountable.”

The issue of pay was important and he thought the public were “willing to pay if they are paying for accountable public servants who are seen to deliver”.

Prof Kevin Rafter of DCU, author of a recent report on reform of the civil service, said the financial crisis and the collapse of the banking system had raised questions about whether parts of the civil service were sufficiently independent-minded.

He said that under the report’s proposed reforms, the civil service would have an external accountability mechanism.

It would have, at its peak, a board of directors.

The report had also recommended a head of the civil service working alongside the board.

He said that while the number of non-performing or under-performing staff was limited, the issue was wider because it affected the morale of all staff.

He also recommended a code of conduct for special advisors to clarify their role in the political system. Prof Rafter also questioned whether it was fair that ministers in portfolios such as Finance or Public Expenditure should only have access to the same number of advisers as a line minister or one with “less onerous” responsibilities.

Management consultant Dr Eddie Molloy said "implementation deficit disorder" did not exist within the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform.

But he said that, as with An Garda Síochána, something had gone "terribly wrong" in the civil service that had contributed to "the catastrophic failures that occurred in this country".

“Calamity is not an understatement if you look at what the fallout of it was.”

He said the report prepared by Prof Rafter was deficient in some aspects in that “the edge and sharpness” of an earlier paper had been lost in the expert panels consultations and recommendations.

He said Ministers and secretary generals could still “hide behind each other’s skirts” and that the report was silent on the issue of personal morality and professionalism versus “following the instructions of political masters”.