Public accountability: let in the light

Ensuring Civil Service accountability for mistakes or deliberate obstruction is important

 

A long-standing tradition that serving ministers do not publicly criticise civil servants was shredded this week when Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, angered by the forced resignation of Frances Fitzgerald, described the Department of Justice as dysfunctional, promised radical action to restore public confidence and announced an external inquiry into the belated production of damaging emails.

Former Labour Party leader Pat Rabbitte once maintained that public accountability was grounded in a lie. The system, he said, enabled civil servants to hide behind the skirts of ministers and allowed ministers to dodge accountability. The last coalition government attempted to do something about that by reforming performance management systems for civil servants and establishing an accountability board. Since then, work on reforming performance systems has made significant progress. The same cannot be said for discipline and accountability.

Of all departments, Justice is the most secretive. Having responsibility for national security, as well as policing, it operated a tightly-sealed system for decades. A need-to-know culture became prevalent throughout the organisation. A symbiotic relationship with An Garda Síochána developed, following a succession of policing scandals.

The critical emails involving Fitzgerald had not come within the scope of the Charleton tribunal’s discovery orders, some in the Department insisted – an explanation that reflected the traditional Dáil defence of stonewalling ministers who maintained “the right questions” had not been asked to get the necessary information.

Ensuring Civil Service accountability for mistakes or deliberate obstruction is important. But ministers also have a responsibility to ensure official business is conducted in an open and transparent manner. That is not happening at present. In spite of repeated political commitments and public announcements, the corrosive practice Rabbitte described continues. Until that issue is addressed, public accountability will remain an aspiration.

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