Robert Watt’s interim appointment and salary decision was ‘ad hoc’, report finds

Draft report of Oireachtas committees accuses senior civil servant of ‘utter disregard’ for its work

Robert Watt, the former secretary general of the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform, was successful in the competition and was appointed to the top job at the Department of Health in April. Photograph: Dara Mac Donaill

The appointment of Robert Watt to the role of interim secretary general of the Department of Health and the decision to set a €292,000 salary for the permanent job was done in an "ad hoc fashion" and has "damaged public trust," a draft report on the controversy has found.

The Committee on Finance and the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) decided to examine the issue of senior executives’ pay in the public service after questions were raised about the processes involved in Mr Watt’s appointment to the job on an interim basis last January pending an open competition for the permanent role.

A draft version of the resulting report has been sent to the PAC for consideration and it is possible changes will be made before it is published in the near future.

Mr Watt, the former secretary general of the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform, was successful in the competition and was appointed to the top job at the Department of Health in April.

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Mr Watt said he would waive what amounted to an €81,000 salary increase over his previous pay “until the economy begins to recover and unemployment falls”.

Draft language in the committees’ report criticises Mr Watt, accusing him of an “utter disregard” for its work and the “need for transparency and accountability” in declining to attend a committee meeting.

The report also claims he showed further disregard for their work by sending the press release he had issued when asked about the timeframe for drawing down the €81,000 salary increase.

The document accuses Taoiseach Micheál Martin of being “less than co-operative or forthcoming on the issue of the sanctioned increase” when he was asked about it at a Committee on Finance meeting on spending estimates for his own Department.

The Department of the Taoiseach said it could not comment on an unpublished report. A Government source disputed any suggestion that Mr Martin was in any way uncooperative saying: “He made himself available and answered all the questions put to him.”

The committees sent questionnaires to 12 individuals believed to be involved in or aware of the interim appointment and the increased salary for the permanent role. They included the Taoiseach, Tánaiste Leo Varadkar and Green Party leader Eamon Ryan.

The Ministers for finance, public expenditure and health - Paschal Donohoe, Michael McGrath and Stephen Donnelly were also written to by the committees, as were Mr Watt and other senior Government officials.

The Public Appointments Service and Top Level Appointments Committee were also contacted by the committees with the questionnaire.

The draft report says there were responses from everyone except Mr Ryan.

The document claims: “None of the respondents completed the questionnaire as set out or provided the precise information sought by the committee in the form requested.”

The report says Mr McGrath agreed to sanction a salary increase of €81,000 for the permanent post, bringing the total salary to €292,000 which was “by far, the highest salary for a secretary general in the public service”.

Mr McGrath has previously said that Mr Watt had “no input” in sanctioning the salary for this post.

The document claims that “no formal process was engaged in” for identifying an interim appointee or setting the salary level.

It notes how the committee was told that the responsibility of the role of Department of Health secretary general is “particularly onerous and that an enhanced salary is warranted”.

However, it adds that the committee is of the view “that this is no reason to bypass proper procedures and arrange an interim appointment and salary increase in an ad hoc fashion following discussions among a small number of senior officials and members of Government”.

“The Committee is of the firm view that operating in this manner has damaged public trust and eroded confidence in the system of public administration.”

It adds that this was “a very poor way to conduct business” and that it is “likely to create knock-on demands for increased salaries”.

The report says: “The committee is of the opinion that it is beyond dispute that both the interim appointment and sanctioned salary increase were dealt with informally from the start”.

There are 14 recommendations aimed at ensuring that “a similar situation does not arise again”.

They include the establishment of a formal process of appointments - both interim and permanent - to senior posts and that it be “followed in all instances”.

It recommends the establishment of a body to review the remuneration of senior posts in the civil and public service and to develop the process of how the appointments are made.

The report says ministerial power to set individual salaries should be reviewed with a view to ensuring transparency and oversight.

Another recommendation is that while acknowledging the waiving of salary payments is a personal matter there should be a requirement to indicate the period for which it is intended to forgo the relevant sum.

Cormac McQuinn

Cormac McQuinn

Cormac McQuinn is a Political Correspondent at The Irish Times