Reform in the public sector


IT HAS taken several years and a collapse in Exchequer funding for the Government to confront the issue of public service reform. We should not be surprised. Evasion of responsibility and an unwillingness to take tough decisions has been the hallmark of recent Fianna Fáil-led governments.

After a great deal of prevarication, the then-taoiseach Bertie Ahern invited the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) to conduct an inquiry into public service reform in January, 2007. But he left the job of implementing change to his successor Brian Cowen. Some details of how that will be managed will be announced today.

The document on which Government action will be based envisages the creation of an integrated public service that will eliminate the traditional division between civil and public servants. And, as our political correspondent Mark Hennessy has reported, a special committee will be established to recommend reductions in both spending and numbers across the public service and to examine a further amalgamation of services. In addition, a centralised purchasing unit will be established to secure economies of scale for the State and to get better value for taxpayers' money.

These matters are of fundamental importance in preparing for the next stage of economic development. We have to get them right. Crude across-the-board cuts would damage worker morale and undermine public confidence. The reform process must be both necessary and transparent and, to the greatest extent possible, conducted in co-operation with civil and public servants. That said, any resistance to necessary change by vested interests should be rejected. The Government will have to show vision, courage and leadership in this exercise.

At this time, when many private sector workers are facing into unemployment or a wage freeze, public servants should be willing to accept more efficient and flexible work practices in return for their privileged and protected positions and extremely generous pension entitlements. By and large, the public service does a good job. It is not the bloated, inefficient monster that is sometimes portrayed by its critics. But, like all long-established organisations, it can benefit from change and restructuring. In particular, it should concern itself with providing flexible, integrated services that meet the needs of citizens.

Eliminating the division between civil and public servants was a prime recommendation of the OECD. It questioned the need for many of the 200 State agencies ministers had established during 10 years in their efforts to avoid political responsibility. It criticised the decentralisation programme and a lack of progress made in developing e-government. It urged greater use of the Freedom of Information Act to encourage social cohesion and trust in government. It did not comment on Mr Ahern's decision, last year, to increase the number of ministers of state from 17 to 20. But that outrageous display of political patronage was wrong at the time. And it is wrong now. Mr Cowen should provide firm leadership and reverse the decision.