Croke Park accord needs more than recalibration

 

Opinion:Low-key statements before Christmas signalled a significant breach in the impregnable fortress that is the Croke Park agreement. First, Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform Brendan Howlin declared that the agreement would continue to protect the core pay of “the bulk” of public servants, and later a union spokesman insisted they would not tolerate pay cuts for “lower-paid” public servants. Blanket protection for all seems over.

So far, the only details we have on what the Minister is calling the Croke Park “extension” are that it will focus on “stringent performance management”, “new exit mechanisms” and “working hours”.

An effective performance management system is like a spinal cord; if it is broken at the apex of the organisation, it will be a dead letter down the line. We have no effective system for holding our ministers accountable for their performance; Ireland is at the extreme, compared to other countries, in the powerlessness of our parliament (Dáil) to hold our government to account.

Nor is there an authentic system of accountability for senior civil servants. The relevant legislation conflates the performance of ministers and their officials, such that the former can say they acted on the advice of their officials, for example in regard to the Dublin Docklands Authority scandal, but the officials are forbidden to disclose their advice.

The Taoiseach, of course, vowed to hold his Ministers to account; he would apply a “scorecard” and not flinch from removing those who didn’t measure up. But where is the evidence of this kind of accountability, with consequences, for the stream of monumental political and administrative failures in the Departments of Health and Environment, just for example? Brendan Howlin repeatedly refused to name managers who failed to “step up to the plate” in delivering cost savings, yet over Christmas he was threatening, again, to get rid of poor performers.

Until this black hole at the apex of our system of accountability is addressed, with the promised underpinning legislation, sabre-rattling about “stringent performance management” will have little impact, and the inherited culture of impunity will prevail. To make matters worse, few public service managers have the training, tools or delegated authority to implement human resource policies for grown-ups.

Tackling hours

Another focus of the Croke Park extension is to be working hours.This would mean tackling flexitime, a system whereby staff can generate an extra 18 days’ holidays and high sick-leave levels. It must also mean addressing the length of the working week, and especially the structure of rosters. Among the deals protected by the agreement are a 34-hour week for local government staff and a 32.5-hour week for some Central Bank staff.

Teachers’ union leaders trumpet their contribution of “two million additional hours” but, for each teacher, this amounts to no more than an hour per week, in a 36-38-week working year, to be devoted to “school planning”, “professional development” and the like – and not, for example, to extra classes in maths or English for weak students. The delivery of these hours is not systematically monitored. Nursing rosters have yet to be restructured to match the pattern of patients’ needs.

As for “new exit mechanisms”, this raises a more fundamental challenge to Croke Park than working hours. Significant overmanning remains, mainly among “generalist” staff in middle and senior administrative roles who now find themselves lacking the deep technical, policymaking and managerial skills needed for a reformed public service. So, let us say, for example, redundancy terms are offered to persuade 800 such people – and many more exist in the health sector alone – to accept the terms, and only 200 do so. What then? Do they let more staff go from already overstretched front-line services, as heretofore – “cutting off your arm to meet your WeightWatchers targets”, as Ming Flanagan put it – or do they face up to the reality that Croke Park promises of guaranteed pensions and increments, no pay cuts and no compulsory redundancies are unsustainable?

In addition to performance management, exit mechanisms and working hours, two other items must be tabled: contestability and radical restructuring. The power of public service unions derives from their monopoly of essential services so, unless other parties can compete to deliver these services on a level, accurately benchmarked playing pitch, what they have they will hold and “industrial muscle will rule”, as was the case until recently with the ESB monopoly, for example.

The kind of restructuring possible is illustrated in the organisation of cardiovascular care at the Galway Clinic. At a conference on “implementation science” in Trinity College last August, Dr Niamh Hynes, who is attached to the clinic, presented statistics that indicated the clinic handled more cases at significantly lower cost and with better health outcomes than the adjacent university hospital. While the latter has to carry additional overheads as a training hospital, this – and other factors cited in response to Hynes on the day – would not fully explain the difference. A key factor in the clinic’s superior performance was that it has far fewer staff demarcations, grades and hierarchical layers than the more complex inherited role structures accumulated over decades in hospitals.

Fossilised structures

Partly to manage this kind of complexity, one Dublin hospital has nearly 80 people working in the HR department – at least four times more than you would find in any well-run company of comparable size. Remember PPars, which collapsed in the face of this complexity? Parts of the public sector are decades behind private and semi-State companies in replacing fossilised work structures that are locked in by long-established professional identities and separate union affiliations, with fit-for-purpose, streamlined, flexible arrangements supported by modern information technology.

The arithmetic of the recent budget depends on achieving €1 billion in savings during 2013 from the Croke Park “extension”. There isn’t the slightest prospect of such savings within 12 months, through anything remotely resembling the original agreement, while maintaining even threadbare essential services and protecting vulnerable people.

A radically different accord is called for – perhaps with a new name that evokes a vision of a great public service rather than an expedient “extension” to a deal designed primarily to meet short-term budgetary targets.

Above all, the negotiations must be imbued with a commitment to the kind of “social solidarity” that embraces all citizens, including newly hired staff, and not just those who are inside the tent.

* Dr Eddie Molloy is a consultant in strategy, change management and innovation

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