Dysfunctional culture of Civil Service management


OPINION:CARL O’BRIEN has reported in The Irish Times (April 11th) that the Government is planning to introduce sanctions for senior civil servants who fail to manage substandard staff. Failure to manage poor performers is by no means the only shortcoming that merits the imposition of sanctions. More importantly, there is widespread failure by Civil Service managers to develop, motivate and engage the excellent people who work for them and most of whom want to give of their best.

One of the most striking differences between much of the Civil Service and the best private and public sector organisations is in the degree of sophistication applied to the leadership and management of staff.

It is not true, as is frequently said, that the Civil Service has been failing to attract bright people. There is simply no system of training and formation; it’s more or less a case of every man for himself.

A fundamental weakness in the Civil Service has to do with the very idea of management. The distinctive work of management is not understood; management work is undervalued; no one is responsible or accountable for the health of the management system, and a dysfunctional management culture has had even more serious consequences than any lack of competence.

When Minister for Finance Michael Noonan said, in commenting on the €3.5 billion accounting error in the Department of Finance, that there was no point in blaming an individual as “it was a systems problem”, he and many others who repeated his diagnosis displayed a lack of understanding about what constitutes the work of management.

The distinctive work of a manager entails working on the business, as distinct from in the business. If the error was caused by a systems failure, then responsibility lies with the senior managers who are paid precisely to design, install and maintain good systems.

Other elements of management work that need to be assessed include staffing, for example ensuring key skills are in place; managing money; improving operational efficiency and developing and executing good strategies. Organisational reviews carried out on several departments, together with other reports, reveal widespread shortcomings in these aspects of management.

Because the substantive work of management is not understood, it is not valued. The more an individual moves up the Civil Service hierarchy the more their attention is directed toward serving the Minister. Career progression depends far more on this than on how well they manage a department with perhaps a thousand staff and a budget of a billion.

That managerial work is neither understood nor valued is borne out in the disclosure to me by a secretary general not very long retired that: “I never received one day’s training in management.”

The research on performance management systems consistently reveals that unless there is authentic accountability at the most senior levels, the system becomes discredited.

As things stand, the 1924 Ministers and Secretaries Act in effect conflates the performance of the Minister and secretary general, such that you cannot give a negative performance rating to the latter without reflecting badly on the Minister.

With this “Faustian pact”, as John McGuinness called it, between the two parties, this is not going to happen, as illustrated graphically in the debacle over the collection of the household charge.

Was it the Minister or his officials who got it wrong? We will never know. Minister for Communications Pat Rabbitte has frequently expressed his desire to bring in the necessary legal changes which at least would allow for the possibility of holding secretaries general and Ministers accountable.

A further consideration is that unlike Britain and other countries, we do not have a “head of the Civil Service”. If we did, that person would have a central role in reviewing the performance of the most senior officials.

In an address to the Institute of Public Administration in 2007 on the topic “Building Capacity”, the late John Murray, a highly respected professor of business management at Trinity College, defined capacity as having these elements:

The ability to deliver services to meet citizens’ expectations. (This is the function that draws most heavily on managerial competence, as it involves getting work done through others.)

The ability to provide effective advice to the political decision-making process. (This reflects the entirely legitimate preoccupation with serving the Ministers.)

Then Murray added “ . . . and in a manner that only those living in captured and corrupt systems can fully appreciate, it [capacity] relates to a value base that owes unswerving allegiance to independence, probity and a commitment to speaking truth to power”.

This reference to the “value base” that is the culture of the Civil Service is of the utmost importance. I have wondered why Murray saw fit to use such strong language as “captured and corrupt systems”.

My own view is that our Civil Service was captured and corrupted roughly from the time of Charles Haughey’s term as taoiseach.

I do not mean by this that all or even a significant number of officials were corrupt. But the unspoken rules of the Faustian pact were such that everyone came to understand that to speak truth to power and demonstrate unswerving allegiance to independence and probity could be career-threatening.

It only takes a very small number of powerful people – politicians and civil servants – to capture a system, against the better instincts of the vast majority of staff.

If we have learned anything from the catastrophe that has befallen the country it is that we need civil servants who have the competence and the character to act in the public interest when necessary, as a bulwark against mad or bad political decisions. Taking a stand should not demand that a person has to run the risk of jeopardising their career.

A performance management system, with new sanctions to be applied to poor performers, will not succeed without the enabling infrastructural supports or a reformed 1924 Act, an effective whistleblowers’ charter, restoration of the Freedom of Information system, the establishment of a head of the Civil Service and the creation of a new senior public service structure.

Most importantly, a renewal of the “value base” of the public service, as recommended by the OECD in 2008, will ultimately determine whether a genuine performance management culture takes root or whether the latest in a long series of efforts to hold people accountable dies on the vine.

Dr Eddie Molloy is a management consultant and director of Advanced Organisation

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