Diarmaid Ferriter: Robert Watt cannot have his cake and eat it

Civil servant champions accountability but will not answer questions on children’s hospital

Robert Watt, secretary general of the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform, declined to appear before the Dáil committee investigating the spiralling cost of the national children’s hospital. File photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

Robert Watt, secretary general of the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform, declined to appear before the Dáil committee investigating the spiralling cost of the national children’s hospital. File photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

 

“By a very sound tradition, we are not allowed to answer back.” This assertion by the iconic civil servant TK Whitaker, secretary of the Department of finance from 1956-1969 and subsequently governor of the Central Bank, was only partly true.

Whitaker answered back throughout his career and his memos were on occasion hard-hitting and defiant when it came to identifying what he regarded as mistaken policies.

What he was extremely careful about, however, was keeping his criticisms discrete and private, being loyal to the idea, as laid down by the 1924 Minister and Secretaries Act, that the minister was head of department and “corporation sole” so that civil servants acted only in the name of the minister.

Historically, civil servants have rendered the State considerable service by working hard in fairly sheltered environments.

Another notable shift of emphasis has been in relation to management

The way Leon Ó Broin, secretary of the department of posts and telegraphs in the 1960s, put it in his memoirs, there was a widely held view that “the best way to get results was to allow an old and well-tried machine to function effectively”.

There has always been much preoccupation with hierarchy within the service and over the decades there was a certain hostility to autonomous thinking and public visibility of civil servants; a government decision 50 years ago, for example, declared the “undesirability of civil servants deputising for their ministers at public functions”.

They were also forbidden from “speaking publicly or contributing articles for publication conveying information, comment or criticism on public matters.”

Reform

These strictures were regarded by some as excessive; George Colley, for example, as a Fianna Fáil minister in 1971 felt it appropriate, when the Department of Education was initiating a new schools policy, for senior civil servants in the department to attend public meetings and “explain, clarify and listen”.

But there was a reluctance to contemplate reform; the Devlin commission report of 1969 which, unlike previous reviews of the Civil Service, recommended bold change, especially in relation to separating policymaking and its execution, was controversial and many of its recommendations were ignored.

In more recent times a variety of reviews have stressed the importance of efficiency, openness and transparency on the part of civil servants while emphasising the endurance of honesty, integrity and impartiality within the service.

Another notable shift of emphasis has been in relation to management; the Public Service Management Act of 1997 divided responsibilities between the minister and the senior civil servant in each department, creating a secretary general in place of the departmental secretary and devolving a significant managerial role to the secretary general, requiring them to produce strategic plans to improve performance and efficiency.

Legislation in 1997 also gave Oireachtas committees the right to hear testimony from and question senior civil servants.

In 2011 the creation of the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform removed responsibility for expenditure from the Department of Finance amid determination to streamline the Civil Service.

Robust engagement

Robert Watt, appointed secretary general of the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform in 2011, seemed to revel in the idea of a more robust engagement by a senior civil servant with the public and media.

The year of his appointment he spoke of the need to improve implementation due to the lack of “focus or premium” placed on “project delivery skills”; to “try and engender across the system a culture of questioning what we do” and for government departments to think of themselves, not as one entity, “but part of a wider system which is funded ultimately by the taxpayer, and which is providing services to the citizens, who are also the taxpayers”.

He also suggested “we need to start boasting more about what we’re doing” and in 2013 mentioned “moving beyond traditional channels of accountability to also having informal external oversight with interventions by citizens, interest groups and the media” as well as “greater efficiency and effectiveness for public bodies in achieving targets” and “the benefits of open data”.

Last year he highlighted “nonsense and waste” in the public service, while noting that civil servants were now held accountable through parliamentary questions, freedom of information requests and appearances before Oireachtas committees.

Spiralling cost

But only to a point, it seems.

This is the same Robert Watt who has declined to appear before the Dáil committee investigating the spiralling cost of the national children’s hospital because, apparently, it is not his responsibility but a matter for the Department of Health.

For him to appear would, he maintains, “cut across existing lines of accountability”.

In 2016 this hospital project was expected to cost about €640 million; the estimate cost at present is a staggering €1.7 billion, while we learned this week that an independent review into the cost overruns will itself cost €450,000.

But the secretary general of the department with responsibility for public expenditure, a great champion of accountability, efficiency, oversight, achievement of targets, project delivery and open data, will not appear before the Oireachtas Health Committee.

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