Croke Park pact achieving agreed public service targets


OPINION:IT HAS become fashionable among sections of the political class and commentariat to say that the Croke Park agreement cannot or should not survive.

They could not be more wrong. This is lazy, knee-jerk and often ideologically driven thinking.

It ignores progress made in public service savings under that accord, dismisses the reduction in employees and hitting targets in this regard. The lazy critique ignores reforms in working practices that have been, and are being, introduced in the public service.

Such an argument is also ignorant of the fact that for almost two years – despite the sacrifices that have been made, the cuts endured and the impact of previous reductions in pay and entitlements – the Republic has, in large part, enjoyed industrial peace. This stands in stark contrast to many European neighbours whose economies have also suffered and who have experienced strikes and riots.

There is no effort to pretend that the agreement is perfect. Indeed, there are specific areas where progress has not been as fast as we would have liked. However, it offers the best hope of achieving lasting public service reform, maintaining good relations between Government and those, such as my members, who work hard on behalf of the State, and generating savings.

For that reason it is arguable that instead of calling for the agreement to be shelved, we should be working to extend it beyond its 2014 deadline. This would enable the process of public service reform to continue.

In his most recent report for the period April-September 2011, chairman of the implementation body PJ Fitzpatrick said that in terms of reducing the public service, “the figures confirm that the public service as a whole remains on track to achieve the end 2011 target for numbers of 301,000, as set out in the National Recovery Plan 2011-2014”.

He said he anticipated “further significant departures” over coming months, as the service moves towards the target of less than 280,000.

In addition, public service payroll costs will have fallen by 15.5 per cent from their 2009 peak by the end of this year. This has been achieved through annual savings of more than €680 million in the first year of the agreement, according to the implementation body’s first annual report. This amount comprises savings of some €300 million each in payroll and non-payroll costs and a further €80 million in cost-avoidance initiatives.

The savings that have been achieved thus far have exceeded Government targets and have been acknowledged by the troika in their own quarterly reports.

On top of this, the latest report by the implementation body states that this progress is accelerating and that payroll savings will once again be ahead of target in 2012.

What is clear is that the public service unions who signed up to the pact have stepped up to the mark. Their members are complying with reductions in numbers, changes in work practices and modernisation being sought by the Government.

The challenge for those of us in leadership positions within these unions is to continue with this process over the next few years when the pressure to achieve reforms may become even greater during a deep recession.

But we are committed to doing so. We are also aware that there are some reforms under the agreement where progress is required, but where the onus is on Government rather than public service workers.

One such area is the redeployment and retraining of staff into new areas. Another is providing them with the skills necessary to perform new jobs when their existing office is either closed down or merged, or their abilities become surplus to requirements.

The lack of a formal skills assessment process is hampering staff redeployment and means that very often a person without the necessary abilities to perform a specific role can find themselves assigned to an office they do not have the capacity, or ability, to service and vice-versa.

Furthermore, international studies have shown that by investing in certain parts of the public service – for example by expanding and developing revenue collection services and skills – the State achieves a better yield from staff working in this area and also through generating additional revenues for the exchequer.

In general terms the Government has been happy to let the agreement meet its initial targets and achieve real and tangible savings in the short term. It has also, more often than not, held the line against those who have been against the agreement.

But arguably it has yet to fully realise and embrace the potential of the pact to not only deliver savings, but also transform work practices and achieve a better, more efficient public service in the medium to long term.

That is why the focus in 2012 should not be on a narrow defence of the agreement to ensure its survival over the next 12 months.

Instead we should be examining the ways in which it could be expanded and developed to provide the template for reform of the public service over the next decade.