Placing the public good ahead of political masters


OPINION:The bedrock of public service reform is training and educating staff to inculcate in them the values of serving the citizen, not themselves or political officials, writes EDDIE MOLLOY

WHAT can we do about the Civil Service?was the title of an article published 10 years ago in the Jesuit quarterly, Studies. The author, William Kingston of Trinity College Dublin, reflecting on the revelations of tribunals and other inquiries extending back over the previous decade drew attention to how badly the Civil Service had come out of them. Primarily set up to investigate the behaviour of politicians, these inquiries – such as the beef tribunal, the Dirt inquiry and the Cromien report (of which I was co-author) – revealed “appalling levels of incompetence and worse on the part of the public service”.

Back in 2001, Kingston was something of a lone voice advocating effective public service reform but today he would not be alone if he were to put pen to paper on the same topic. A spate of reports over the past decade on a wide range of scandals, culminating in the recent cluster dealing with the financial and banking crises, reveal continuing appalling levels of incompetence and worse on the part of the public service.

One of the most remarkable features of the recent general election was how the issue of reform surged to the top of the political agenda, particularly in the final weeks of the campaign.

Until then, institutional reform had been a preoccupation mainly of academics like Kingston but quite suddenly the general public, seeing before their very eyes the awful consequences of institutional incompetence, impotence and corruption, were clamouring for reform. Seasoned canvassers reported that the need for reform was repeatedly raised on the doorsteps for the first time in their experience.

To their credit, politicians such as Richard Bruton and Pat Rabbitte had long since seen the need for comprehensive reform and Fine Gael and Labour had prepared impressive policy statements on the matter well in advance of the election. Normally such worthy stuff would not have caught the public imagination but this time it did and reform became a close second or third to the economy in the minds of the electorate. It was the only plank in the campaign of a discredited Fianna Fáil.

Following the election it now seems the Government will soon implement a whistle-blowing system, together with other instruments that will make it less risky for officials to take a stand. All of these provisions will not be enough, however; clever people can easily find ways to bypass the best designed system if they are minded to do so.

So, echoing the title of Kingston’s first article, what more needs to be done to reform the public service? The answer lies in teasing out the distinction between “modernisation”, which is used sometimes in the title of the new department, and “reform”.

Modernisation has to do with efficiency, the delivery of services online, staff flexibility, rationalisation of back offices, the elimination of waste, duplication and extravagant allowances and providing good customer service and the like. The Croke Park agreement is essentially about modernisation. In this respect the public sector is merely catching up with the private sector, 10 to 20 years later.

Reform includes modernisation but also carries the connotation of a deeper transformation, a renewal of the culture and underlying value system of the public service. It will entail confronting the unpalatable fact revealed in decades of inquiries and tribunals that the ethos of the public service requires fundamental reform.

A parallel transformational challenge in our times is that which faces the Catholic Church. The parallel with the church prompts a point that, in fairness, must be made in all of this: predominantly good people have been trapped in a system wishing they could do something to change it but finding themselves powerless to do so.

In so far as staff are powerless, they are also blameless. A corporate culture is formed and locked in by a critical mass – not necessarily a majority – of powerful individuals at the apex of any system. It is these people in leadership positions who ultimately are responsible for the bitter fruits of a dysfunctional culture.

There are several steps that can be taken specifically to enhance the prospects of cultural transformation, for example, bringing in new blood from outside, as promised in the programme for government. We have seen the game-changing impact of outsiders in the reform of the RUC and in the office of the Financial Regulator.

But one policy initiative that is vital is to establish a formal, structured process for the formation (not just training) of public servants, such as they have in the Army and An Garda Síochána, in the French public service or indeed in large private companies such as General Electric or Intel.

More important than the acquisition of administrative and relevant technical skills, these systems of formation are designed primarily to inculcate a set of values, a deep individual and collective commitment to a noble purpose and to a code of behaviour that will be manifested consistently in every aspect of the organisation’s work.

The whole process of enculturation begins at the point of recruitment (and promotion) where the deciding criterion would be evidence of a commitment to serving citizens rather than the political objectives of the incumbent government. The initial and continuing formation process would seek to strengthen and support this orientation and align all the promotion, performance management and reward systems with this core value.

There is no such system of recruitment and formation in our public service except, as mentioned in the Army, An Garda Síochána and to some degree in areas like the Revenue Commissioners. People can reach the very top without a day’s training in management and, crucially, without any explicit engagement with the governing values of the public service. There is hardly a gesture in the direction of leadership development.

How is it that the failures revealed in so many reports recur and are so pervasive, popping up in most departments and several agencies? For example, how did people learn to stop keeping accurate written records and instead to rely on oral exchanges, a practice criticised in the Wright report on the Department of Finance and in a section in Moriarty?

How did the culture of deference mentioned by Regling and Watson and echoed in Wright’s reference to the failure of officials to raise the tone of their warnings come to be so prevalent?

How did the Performance Management Development System, technically an excellent performance management system, become a dead letter in so many areas? Where did the culture of entitlement and disregard for public money, as revealed every year by the Comptroller and Auditor General (C&AG), come from? How did the clubby, hear-no-evil-see-no-evil milieu revealed in every page of Nyberg take hold?

In the absence of a formal, structured system that is anchored to the core value of serving citizens, new staff inevitably learn from the hidden curriculum, “the way things really work around here”. They learn that primacy attaches to protecting the Minister from embarrassment and advancing their own careers rather than to vindicating the public’s right to know, for example.

Taken together, the stream of reports over the past 20 years reveal a deep malaise within the ethos of the public service that will not be exorcised by mere modernisation, difficult as that in itself will be.

The country desperately needs a technically qualified, ethical, accountable public service, one that will place the public good ahead of the preferences of the incumbent Government whenever officials are faced with hard choices between the two.

We need a public service that will use all available legal and other instruments to provide a bulwark against mad or bad politically motivated edicts, like decentralisation, for example.

The onus of responsibility for driving modernisation and reform rests primarily on the shoulders of senior public servants. Right now they are faced with a moment of truth, and the choices they make will have enormous long-term implications for good or ill.

Either they can take offence, close ranks, shoot the messengers, cling to their inherited self-image as being people who are above reproach and plead innocence and powerlessness in the face of venal political masters whose “only ethics are the ethics of being re-elected” (Bertie Ahern).

Or, they can face up to painful truths about incompetence, impotence and catastrophic failure in many areas of the public service; accept personal responsibility for their part in this sorry tale; and recommit themselves to the core mission of the public service, which is to serve the public good.

This is not only a technical challenge, to do with modern structures or systems; it is an existential challenge for each individual, particularly managers, to re-appropriate the foundational values of our public service and breathe new life into them; it is a call to demonstrate vision, leadership and an unflinching commitment to cultural transformation.

In the domain of banking, we have seen how the underlying ethos of Allied Irish Bank repeatedly, over several decades, spawned one scandal after another.

A year ago I expressed concern that, while Colm Doherty presumably had the technical competence to run a bank, “as an insider he would oversee continuity of the culture of AIB” (Opinion and Analysis, March 29th, 2010.) So news of his €3 million exit package may have shocked but it didn’t surprise. The root causes of such egregious behaviour had not been addressed.

Improved efficiencies and elimination of waste are absolutely essential if we are to reduce the fiscal deficit but unless there is deeper cultural reform of the public service we will be fated to endure more reports about more scandals as sure as night follows day.

Senior public servants are not powerless. Far from it. So, is it too much to hope that they will be in the vanguard of the “genuine revolution in Irish society and thus in Irish politics” yearned for by Garret FitzGerald and the rest of us?

Eddie Molloy is director of Advanced Organisation which helps groups manage change

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