We need evolution not revolution in public service


Media clamour for a ‘big bang’ approach to public service reform may be self-defeating, writes FRANCES RUANE

THE SCOPE of public sector reform being promoted in Ireland at present is unprecedented, as are the implied speed and scale of implementation.

There is now growing pressure on the Government to be seen to be active across all reform domains. Progress is being sought on 200 items on the reform agenda of the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform.

This creates a dilemma for the political and public sector systems. It was seen as necessary to identify a large number of action items, to avoid criticism that some important issue had been overlooked.

However, it is not possible or sensible to implement them all simultaneously and with the same intensity. Strategic implementation requires prioritisation.

Progress is also being sought on overdue economic reforms, many of which are needed to underpin the public sector reform agenda. They include improving the funding model for healthcare to make patient access to appropriate services easier and more cost effective, and the broadening of the tax base.

Economic reforms focus on what should be delivered, while public sector reform focuses on how it should be delivered – more efficient policy implementation and better service to individuals.

Much discussion of reform fails to recognise that the process of change must be continuous. We live in an evolving environment. It is not a question of defining a single reform agenda and simply getting it done quickly.

Reforming large-scale systems requires care and planning. The “big bang” change, which might earn great media headlines, might not deliver on the ground. It is often associated with the creation or the abolition of a structure. By contrast, it can often be mundane actions, such as opening hours, better information and easier payment systems that deliver most. This is particularly the case when transforming a system from a traditional (producer-centred) mode into a “client-centred” one.

These actions focus on changed behaviours rather than changed structures.

Several developments would benefit the reform process. One is a more open dialogue within the Civil Service. This might be assisted by the assignment of a devil’s advocate role in policy discussions. One civil servant would be given the job of critic, tasked to question analysis, conclusions and proposed interventions. In addition to developing a more open culture, this practice would increase quality, reduce silo behaviour and, most importantly, mitigate the risk of groupthink.

While much emphasis has been placed on managerial and leadership skills, the skills base itself could be broadened. This would mean increasing the number of specialists, such as statisticians, urban planners, IT specialists, environmental specialists, project managers, lawyers, accountants, economists and other social sciences. We must move on from the current generalist model and allow the Civil Service to develop a multiskilled work force that offers real career paths to specialists.

Changing the skill mix requires a robust but strategically flexible approach to the implementation of the employment control framework. In planning the downsizing/resizing of the public sector workforce, reform leaders need to be mindful of the link between productivity and the working environment. Heralded changes that cannot be implemented for several years can be very damaging to morale.

Specialists must be allowed to use their skills strategically and not be transformed immediately into quasi-generalists.

Reform implementation means assigning staff to where their skill sets are needed, augmenting those skills where necessary and making real changes in roles.

In relation to reform, Ministers will have to withstand two types of pressures: pressure for non-action from interest groups (in both the public and private sectors) benefiting from the status quo; and pressure (often from the media) to be seen to act more quickly than is justified by evidence and analysis. They should see reform as an ongoing process of incremental improvements, resist calls for dramatic actions and work for medium and longer-term gains.

As a society, we need to be realistic and recognise that no system can be perfect. While we must be patient, we must not allow ourselves to be pushed back into believing that nothing can be done – it can and must.

Frances Ruane is director of the Economic and Social Research Institute. This article draws on a longer paper prepared for the MacGill Summer School on July 26th.

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