BAD GOVERNANCE BROUGHT US TO OUR KNEES
John McGuinness TD, former Minister of State, Chairman Public Accounts Committee
There can be no doubt that Public Service Reform and The Croke Park Agreement need to be carefully scrutinised and policed. To paraphrase Jane Austin: It is a truth universally acknowledged that a country brought to its knees by mediocrity, indifference and lack of professionalism, at the highest levels in its political, trade union, public service and financial institutions, must be in want of straight talking. Thank God for Leo Varadkar!
As you know, I am a member of Fianna Fáil and I accept that we made big mistakes and deserved to be punished for them. I saw what happened and learned hard lessons about government, politics and compromise. I hope these experiences and insights will be of some use today.
Straight talking should not just be confined to Public Service Reform. Two other pillars of Irish society require careful scrutiny: politics and trade unionism are not doing a particularly good job in keeping a roof over our heads, and they are both inextricably linked to the success of any reform programme. But let us look at the Agreement first.
A Public Service Not Fit For Purpose
The Croke Park Agreement was negotiated by unionised senior public servants, representing the government, and unions that were, well, representing public servants. That is as big a conflict of interest as you can get. The then Fianna Fáil government should have appointed external labour relations and human resources professionals to do the negotiations, or, at least, lead the team, which might have made the exchanges a little more robust, and cost the country a lot less. The fact that they didn’t was a failure of leadership.
The Agreement copper fastened the pay, pensions and perks of senior public service managers much more than it protected front line workers. Very little reforming was done, until the Troika rode into town and began kicking the current government into action. But determining how much progress has actually been made is difficult.
There have been reductions in staff, but was this done crudely and have we lost people we should have retained? How many people have been rehired and at what cost? Actually, numbers lost depend on how you separate hard facts from fiction in government press releases.
Now, again, a government is depending on trade unions and public servants to implement programmes that it should be driving and controlling itself, using a team of independent, external professionals. Again, a government is showing a lack of backbone, or maybe two backbones are fighting with one another. It is, again, a failure of leadership.
Public Sector Reform will proceed at a snails pace. The Government will crow loudly and walk gently, and slowly, over eggshells.
Like previous governments, it lacks at least four essentials necessary to deal with the problem: a clear vision of what needs to be achieved; an understanding of how it can be achieved; an appreciation of just how serious the problem is and how urgently it needs to be addressed and, crucially, the courage and maybe the ability to take on the task in any meaningful manner. And it does not understand that it is a culture, rather than people, it is dealing with. I believe the outcome will be a failure of leadership.
Why do we need to radically reform our public service? Because it is not fit for purpose and is becoming a weight too heavy to bear on the shoulders of our economy. Tennyson put it well :
“The old order changeth, yielding place to new,
And God fulfils Himself in many ways,
Lest one good custom should corrupt the world”
He was talking about change being the only certainty and telling us that those institutions, political parties, cultures and countries that do not embrace it, no matter how good or great they originally were, stagnate and finally die, or are destroyed. Look at Fianna Fáil, whose reliance on its culture of blind loyalty and obedience drove it over a cliff, taking most of the blindly loyal and obedient with it. Now it is wasting time worrying about the past and trying to put Humpty Dumpty back together again. There is really no use blaming people in the public service for the decrepit state it is in now. The slide into that condition began some time ago.
Those people were overpowered by the culture and they committed to the instincts of the collective, with its suspicion of individuality and exceptionality and its desire to resist change and defend the status quo. That is how spent cultures survive, and they self perpetuate until they self destruct, unless a strong exterior force intervenes, which is what successive governments have not done. And, I believe, this government isn’t doing it either.
Our public service, like a number of others in Europe, as is now becoming obvious, is unable to deal with the needs or pace of a modern economy. The many, many good people in it, at all levels, are hostages to a culture that is so past-its-sell-by-date that it is becoming dangerous, heavy ballast on a ship trying to right itself. For the sake of the public service, and the sake of the country, something has to be done about that situation quickly.
I want to be very clear about where I stand in relation to the people in the public service, as distinct from the culture of the public service. The service is full of good people, at all levels. Frontline workers deserve great credit for the work they do keeping antediluvian systems operating. I have met many senior public servants that any country would be proud to have. They do not worry about change and will embrace and welcome the challenge and opportunities it brings. If they can escape from the culture, they will be willing participants in the reform process. Recently a senior public servant told me that the core values of the service were: honesty, integrity, impartiality, respect for the law, respect for persons, diligence, responsiveness and accountability: all very Corinthian, necessary and laudable, even if I have some difficulty with “responsiveness and accountability”. But, generally, I agree. And it is how the culture sees itself.
But, if professionalism, transparency, personal responsibility, value for money, speed, vision, state of the art management systems, controls and human resources practices, and a commitment to excellence are not quickly added to the list, Ireland will be left behind, because a public service that is Corinthian – in both meanings of that word, in fact – is ill equipped to meet the challenges facing this country nationally and internationally, which the following example illustrates.
Four years ago, when I was a junior minister I did everything I could to persuade officials in the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment to finish the work I was told they had been doing for some years: updating our Companies Act. Business leaders will tell you that a clear, easily understood Act is a major plus for any country they are thinking of investing in. Every obstacle was placed in my way; preventing a politician from involving himself in public service matters was more important than serving the needs of the country. After at least 10 years, we are still awaiting the publication of the Bill.
We cannot afford a culture that supports and promotes that reactionary, indifferent attitude, and we desperately need ministers who will confront it at every turn.
Competition among nations for jobs, tax, exports, natural resources and inward investment is intense and growing, and with it the need for public servants that believe, think and act differently than was, and is, the case. We live in a world where every organisation in our country has to be involved in commerce and obey its rules.
I see our public sector as a major pillar of our economy. I don’t want it to be in the back seat. I want it to be confidently up front, supporting, advising and urging on our businessmen and entrepreneurs, giving ministers real best advice, arguing for it if necessary, and ensuring that public service organisations, paid for out of the public purse, are managed and run in accordance with the standards of private sector best practice.
In the future, much more will be required of senior and middle managers in the public service. Attitudes, qualities and qualifications will be required, which, for historic and cultural reasons, and restrictive employment practices, are rare in many European countries, including Ireland, which rely heavily on generalist, and place too much value on consensus which, in my opinion, has contributed greatly to the state Europe is in today.
The exception, of course, is Germany, particularly, and one or two others, in my experience, who have hardened their socialist hearts with sensible doses of capitalism. You can see that in Germany’s stand on Europe today. It is listening to Nietzsche, who, echoing Tennyson, said: “Pity preserves that which is ripe for destruction”.
German money will not be spent on propping up poor management and sloppy thinking. Irish taxpayers’ money shouldn’t either. And the Irish public service should be proudly and confidently in the forefront of value for money management.
Leaders in the public service should face down its cultural fear of change and take hold of Excalibur to sever the chains that bind it to the past. They should accept that it must make itself fit to face the challenges of a modern economy and employ or hire the professionals they need with that work.
That task cannot be undertaken without the active involvement, encouragement and support of Leinster House and Liberty Hall, neither of whom, in my opinion, have shown much appetite for anything carrying the description ‘radical’, apart from rhetoric, since they left the Ark. Trade unions need to take a long look at how their lack of engagement with modern labour relations practices has help to maintain a culture that has done so much damage for so long to our public service, and the working lives of public servants.
Union co-operation will be needed if government is to achieve the radical reforms that are required in the public service. It is important that they see themselves as the players on Team Ireland who can be relied upon to counter the labour market competition that we are facing, not just from countries with no labour laws, but from advanced countries, like Germany. There, unions, employers and workers have accepted the realities of the market, and co-operate with and respect each other in a manner that makes Germany a world leader in industrial relations, which is a huge economic plus for that country.
It is an extraordinary fact that in discussions regarding public service reform no one, to my knowledge, has made the point that a modernised professional public service with motivated people doing good work and contributing to our economy, might pay better and might need more people as a result of cost savings and productivity, exercising their positive effect. And that is an absolute realistic possibility.
Politics Has Lost its Way
Finally, we come to Leinster House, the home of great visions, strong leadership, social conscience, reform, rectitude and rigour. Even I can sometimes get carried away with the greatness of it all! The pity of it is that there is no evidence to show that that which the inmates believe they are providing ever gets past the gates. It either stops at a microphone on the plinth, or gathers dust in a department. And that is what is likely to happen with Public Sector Reform.
Ladies and gentlemen, you will not get real reform in the public service until the people of Ireland put backbone into Leinster House. That is not an obligation they have taken too seriously in the past, but that is changing and I hope it continues. All change and reform begins at the ballot box.
The politicians in Leinster House were given the responsibility for driving and leading change. It is the fault of politicians we haven’t had steady, gentle change down through the years. And, too often, we have failed to deliver the leadership and good governance that this country requires. I believe politics has lost its way and the Dáil is too soft to deal firmly and powerfully with the many reforms, now made necessary by so many years of inaction.
How can a Dáil that for nearly twenty years has been unable to reform itself and has handed out power like snuff at a wake, transform the country? It wasn’t Lehman Brothers, the public sector, trade unions and greedy bankers that brought this country to its knees; other, better run, countries avoided that.
It was bad governance, weak leadership, lack of rigour and the absence of a strong desire to make a difference, which should be at the heart of politics, from all parties in the Dáil, to a greater or lesser extent, that brought us to our knees. If governments didn’t govern, somnolent oppositions did not hold them to account.
We are on our knees because governments, whose primary duty is to keep their country safe, did not do that job, and they were joined by others who shared at least part of that duty. And my experience of the current government of rectitude, reform and, particularly, rhetoric, does not encourage me to believe that much will change.
And, without wishing to diminish in any way our part in what happened, it wasn’t all down to Fianna Fáil riding a wave of financial madness. Let’s keep it real – the trade unions, opposition parties, senior public servants and regulators all had their surf boards out. If you do not keep it real you are already on a journey to another mistake.
The management of the country is in disarray. Politicians say they are in charge, but they are not, because they are afraid or unable to use the power they have. Public servants say they are not, but, substantially, they are. For instance, CountyManagers run the country using local politicians as glove puppets and quietly ensure that the Comptroller and Auditor General cannot directly look at their spending. Some ministers, without a bull’s notion of what their department is about, or not about, sign documents, and read speeches they do not understand while concentrating on camera angles. That too has been going on for too long.
Political parties pretend to be on the far right and left when, in fact, they are all leaning that way from a position in the middle, using outdated ideologies they no longer believe in, to protect brands the country no longer cares much about, while they try to work out where to go in a world where socialism and capitalism are working on their relationship and considering marriage. Real politics will have to engage with the consequences of that marriage and how best to use its fruits and support its progress. That real politics may have to come from new parties, or old parties with new ideas. We need parties that will engage with the future.
Vainglorious blather, ideological posturing and political point scoring, followed by inaction, are the defining hallmarks of Irish politics over the last twenty years or so. Yes, there was progress, great progress, on certain fronts, but governance slipped and politicians, elected on empty promises, decided they could get away with illusions. The biggest of which was, and is, the idea that they are running the country.
What we have is a country run by an inchoate, unstructured, vague coming together of ministers and senior public servants – The Alliance Of The Lost – which, I think, is in the gap between the broken stools of politics and public service. That is dangerous, and nothing is really being done about it. To a great extent, the country is rudderless and perhaps we are fortunate that the Troika are keeping us on course.
No One Is To Blame
I am the product of a hard education in local politics, when power was still close to the people. Council members were paid a pittance, but we had the confidence, pride and authority to run our little patch of Ireland and, working with officials prepared to take risks, we made a difference.
Perhaps because local politics has been emasculated, a process that continues, I see little of that determination, confidence and desire to make a difference now. The representatives I sat with then, some of whom were TDs, would, in disgust, dismantle what we now have in fifteen minutes, and stamp on the Alliance of the Lost, because its record is not good.
For a number of years I have been a member of The Public Accounts Committee, which now has teeth that it was never meant to have, because its members down through the years grew them, doing work that leads me to hope that making a difference is still what drives politicians. Still relatively powerless, as elected representatives of the people of Ireland, we do our best to discover what political weakness and public service inefficiency has been doing with tens of millions of tax payers’ money.
Having come from our weekly clinics, where we hear about relatives on trolleys in hospital corridors; sons and daughters on aeroplanes going to far off lands; families in houses they can no longer afford and small businessmen watching their life’s work disappear, to sit at PAC meetings listening, politely, if incredulously, to shocking tales of waste, inefficiency, lack of control and mismanagement, involving huge amounts of taxpayers money.
The lives of people in our clinics, the lives of decent, hardworking and law abiding people throughout the country and the lives of the weak and vulnerable in our society, would be infinitely better if the hundreds of millions of hard earned taxpayers’ money which have disappeared down black holes, for reasons we find hard to understand, or stomach, had been saved or spent on them.
And no one is to blame! We are told that “it was systemic failure” – which is what I am talking about when I speak of “The Alliance Of The Lost “. The machine did it! Nobody gets blamed or censured, nobody loses their job. People just wander back to pay, perks and pensions and the promise of lush European pastures!
Until the Irish people approach the ballot box with hearts of steel to elect politicians with the vision and courage to handle power, take responsibility and make a difference, who are determined to pull down and make better the cultures and the systems including their own, that are no longer fit for purpose, Ireland will only take baby steps on the path to reform, because politicians will talk big and act small.
We must never forget that the path to reform starts or ends at Leinster House. Governments will only step on to it and stay on it because they forced to, after which they may learn to their surprise that doing a real, big job is not beyond them. They may even enjoy it, and get re-elected!
I believe that politicians can make a difference. I believe that a reformed, professional, confident and proud public service would be a huge asset to our economy, and our people. I am passionate about reform and I want to encourage a wide ranging public debate about the road we should take and the goals we should aim for. The fact that I am direct about what I see as obstacles to progress does not stop me from being positive.
We are a proud, resilient and creative people. Our businessmen and entrepreneurs have built successful, international companies, some of them world leaders in their field, and they continue to do so. It is clear that they have Ireland’s interest at heart and they are doing what they can to help. We need to listen to them, when they talk about the need for reform and suggest what we need to do. Remember, no person, family, business or country would keep feeding their liabilities and starving their assets, without going broke in a very short period of time. Also, we need to realise they are becoming impatient and have other options. They know what it takes to build successful organisations and they know lack of professionalism and effort when they see it. They will not pay for it.
Our political leaders too need to be impatient about rebuilding this country. Our people are in a hard place. They have not been kept safe. But this is a time when strong, visionary leadership can work wonders. It is a time when politics can reclaim the ground that it has lost, by leading the climb up the mountain of challenges and opportunities that lies ahead. Politicians, trade unions and public servants should accept the responsibility and grasp the opportunity they have to make a real difference.
There can be no holding back, no fudges, no turning away from tough decisions and hard miles, no time wasting. We are playing against the world. We have a match to win and Ireland is calling all of us onto the field.