Public servants paying the price

 

THE list of unfinished government projects that cost the taxpayer an estimated €650 million during the past decade could have been longer.

Fees for consultants, lawyers, computer experts, architects, engineers and estate agents gobbled up huge amounts of money during those years, as did the cost of acquiring sites. Chief reporter Carl O’Brien has itemised the most egregious of these in an article that suggested no one is responsible for anything.

The projects shared a common feature in that they originated in large spending departments and were politically driven. Due to the political input, blaming public servants may appear unfair. Yet they have a duty to advise and, where necessary, to formally register their opposition to bad ministerial decisions. During long-lived governments, however, such principled actions tend to give way to personal, promotional interests. A “Yes, Minister” culture develops and is facilitated by a lack of accountability. It is time to change all that. Strict accountability, involving both politicians and public servants is urgently required.

In opposition, Fine Gael and the Labour Party recognised the need for radical reform. After a year in office, progress has been painfully slow. Promises to roll back changes to the Freedom of Information Act are still just that, promises. Legislation that would clearly delineate the responsibilities of Ministers and senior civil servants and – by inference at least – introduce the concept of personal liability, is still awaited. On the positive side, the outline of a whistleblower Bill has been published. Considerable uncertainty remains about its impact on the Official Secrets Act, however, and the disclosure of sensitive government information.

The only mechanism that reveals financial waste and serious shortcomings within government departments is an annual review conducted by the Comptroller Auditor General. Yet, since it deals with past expenditures, it has a limited effect on current practices. For that to change, a clear separation of responsibilities within government is required. Civil servants must be allowed to comment on policy aspects of decision-taking when they come before Dáil committees. Not only that: details of planned government programmes, their expected costs and outcomes, should be made available to opposition parties.

In itself, the Croke Park agreement will not provide the necessary change. It was designed to facilitate a reduction in public service numbers and to introduce flexibility into working hours and conditions. Nothing there about personal accountability. But until public servants – at all levels – can be held responsible for their actions, waste and bad practices will persist. The CAG will continue to report on poor procurement and administration practices every year. And ministers will reach for the hoary excuse of “systemic failure” before moving on. Taoiseach Enda Kenny has declared he will sack any Minister who is shown to be incompetent in this Government. It would send a useful signal if public servants were issued with the same warning.