Newly-appointed Department of Health secretary general Robert Watt has restructured the department creating a new chief operations officer and corporate operations office that will help manage the response to the Covid-19 pandemic.
The new role, filled by department official Catherine Bannon, a principal officer, will sit at the top of operational functions at the department to try to better co-ordinate the work of the department at a time when it is being burdened with new and ongoing tasks in the pandemic.
Mr Watt has told department staff in internal correspondence that the new corporate office will provide "critical supports" to the Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly, the three Ministers of State at the department, himself as secretary general, the management board and the whole department through the coordination of a range of functions.
He told staff in correspondence in February – about a month after his arrival at the department – that he new office “will support the development of new business processes and operations across a range of corporate functions and supports, with a focus on innovation, modernisation and the utilisation of digital solutions where possible.”
An operational chart shows that Ms Bannon's role will sit above a range of operational areas across the department, including the secretary general's office, business planning, co-ordination with the Oireachtas and the office of the Minister and the department's three Ministers of State.
It is a pivotal role for civil servant Ms Bannon, who spent several years at the Department of Foreign Affairs before moving to the Department of Health last year.
Until the new structure comes into effect next month the new office has fallen under the role of the department’s director of corporate affairs, and is sitting alongside the legal unit, corporate services and the press and communications unit.
“The establishment of the corporate operations office this year was the result of extended consideration of team realignment within operation areas of the department, which has been ongoing since autumn 2020,” said a spokeswoman for the department.
“This realignment of operational functions under a corporate operations office will allow the department over time to streamline internal processes, improve integration, drive innovation and bring greater efficiencies to the organisation.”
She said that this was “of vital importance, particularly at the moment given the exponential increase in work volume that has arisen as a result of the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic”.
The department’s workload has increased dramatically during the pandemic as its responsibility covers a range of areas from the co-ordination of the public health response to the coronavirus to the management of the mandatory hotel quarantine scheme.
Mr Watt’s appointment as secretary general of the department – a role he has filled on an interim basis since January – was confirmed by the Cabinet last week following an open competition by the Top Level Appointments Committee.
The role comes with a salary of €292,000, but Mr Watt is waiving a pay increase from €211,000, which was his previous salary as secretary general at the Department of Public Expenditure, until the economy begins to recover and unemployment falls.
Mr Watt told a health management conference recently that the “biggest challenge” in the public service was introducing changes and creating a culture of accepting and learning from mistakes in the face of a “political media world’ that is “very unforgiving, very irrational”.