Embedding Stronger Governance, Programme Management and Technical Skills in The Public Service
Paul Reid, Chief Executive, Fingal County Council
Having spent the vast majority of my senior executive management career in the private sector, the first point I would like to make today is that it has been a true privilege to have spent the past 5 years in senior leadership roles in both the not-for-profit and public sectors. There is no doubt that, at a senior level, the private sector is extremely more financially rewarding. However, at a personal level, I have never felt more fulfilled than working in conjunction with the political system, at both a national and now a local level, in developing policy to make a difference in society and to people’s lives.
Three Sectors With Very Different Drivers And Focus
Having now had the experience working across the private, public and not- for- profit Sectors, my experience has been that there are very different drivers of each sector. This has led to the development of different skill sets and competencies. The challenge for the Public Service is to embrace and embed the best from each sector.
The contrast is often made, particularly during the time of the economic crisis over the past few years, between the private and the public sectors. At times, you could be forgiven for believing the simple proposition that the public service needs to replicate what the private sector does and that then we would have a better public service for citizens. This can sometimes be simply interpreted as “the private sector is good and the public service is bad”.
However the reality is, as mentioned, that there are very different drivers across each sector. The private sector has a very clear mandate which is to add value, maximise profitability and to deliver the greatest return for the shareholder. This ensures a great discipline across the private sector of a relentless focus on efficiency, innovation and continuous improvement. It should also be recognised however that, increasingly, major private sector organisations have developed a strong commitment to corporate social responsibility. However, the ultimate driver is to maximise the return on the bottom line. Therefore, the skills that are incubated in the private sector are technically strong with a high level of management competency.
The not-for-profit sector, almost by complete contrast, has its primary focus on issues such as social justice and equality. This drives a focus on advocacy, public engagement to strengthen its fundraising capacity, investing in programmes to improve people’s lives and aiming to deliver a more just society. In my experience, people working within this sector have a very strong value system that is really well aligned with the organisation they have chosen to work for or support. This value based organisation is something the private sector strives to achieve but can never succeed in to the same extent because of a very different mandate.
The public service has a very clear mandate to support and advise the political system on policy development. It is the political system that has the democratic mandate to develop public policy choices and they are the ones that are held accountable for the delivery of this at election time. Therefore, some of the required skill sets and competencies of the public servant need to be in the area of evidence based analysis, so as to advise the political system on choices. Various reports and analysis have outlined that there has been a lack of these core competencies.
It is my contention that the public service, at both a central and local government level, needs to develop a mix of skills from across the three sectors discussed above. As public servants, we must have a relentless focus on ensuring value for money and ensuring the best return for taxpayer funds. We need to nurture a culture of continuous improvement and change management. We need to do all of this in a manner that supports the political system in thoroughly evaluating evidence based choices to implement policies for economic development and building sustainable communities. We must also truly value the privileged position that we have to influence the improvement in people’s lives.
A Strengthened Public Service At A Time of Crisis
Since 2011, it is my view that Government and the public service has mobilised a compelling process of change, from which has emerged a strengthened set of skills at Ministerial and senior public servant level.
The establishment of the Department of Public Service and Reform has set the context and the governance structures to implement a suite of changes, at pace, across the public service. Many of these changes are what would be described as “best practice” in the private sector. I was in a very privileged position to work with some of the key ministers in government to support the policy development and to obtain Government agreement for many of these changes. There is no doubt that the economic crisis set the compelling case for change in how the public service is organised. I will reference some of these changes briefly.
The establishment of shared services across the civil service has resulted in significant efficiencies, reduced duplication and improved service levels. The fact that up to 50 public service bodies carried out routine and similar tasks in areas such as HR processes, pensions administration and payroll was an obvious area for consolidation. There has been considerable progress made in implementing these shared services, supported by the appointment of a dedicated CEO for Shared Services.
In 2012, we conducted an analysis of the total Government spend on goods and services. This outlined a huge opportunity to reduce the cost of public procurement, which stood at almost €9billion. The report demonstrated that in some instances, different public bodies or Departments were buying the same product from the same supplier at different prices. Good progress has now been made in this regard with the appointment of a Government Chief Procurement Officer, the establishment of the Office of Government Procurement, a focus on category management and the development of more centralised framework contracts. There has been significant recruitment into this Office of staff and management with specialist procurement skills.
In a similar vein, it became obvious that there was a similar requirement in the area of ICT. With the rapid pace in the development of technology solutions, there was an obvious need for a stronger oversight of Government policy in this area. Proposals were brought by the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform and were agreed by Government to establish an Office of the Government Chief Information Officer. Again, this has facilitated a greater Government vision and strategy for ICT across all Government Departments and the appointment of new skills into the public service.
The Haddington Road Agreement also provided a clear demonstration of difficult policy choices being implemented which had a clear democratic mandate. The continued consolidation of public spending, to meet the Troika targets, couldn’t have been solely focused on a reduction in the costs of services without addressing the public service pay and pensions bill, which represented 30% of the total Government expenditure. So whilst it was a very difficult process for all public servants and trade unions, the outcome did represent all that is good about the public service in supporting the political system in implementing a difficult policy choice. On a lighter side, it was a little surreal for me, as the Government-appointed lead for these talks, to be negotiating my own pay reduction!! However, it has been stated by a number of commentators that this agreement was key in exiting the Troika programme. For me, it was probably one of the most privileged positions that I have been assigned to in my career to date in any of the three sectors in which I have worked.
Improved Governance Structures In Oversight and Accountability
As mentioned, a lot of the above changes were facilitated by the extent of the economic position that the Government found itself in. However, in my view the strongest enabler was putting in place some best practice programme management and governance structures at both Government and Executive level.
The creation of a dedicated Cabinet Committee on Public Service Reform, chaired by An Taoiseach and with all of the key ministers, was key in putting in place structures to hold the executive and political system accountable for driving a process of change. This was supported by a dedicated programme office with a very clear action plan on reform, with timelines and assigned accountability to senior public servants.
Again, I was privileged to have been in a position to advise the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform on the process, structure and content of two major change plans for the public and civil service, which were subsequently approved by Government. The Public Service Reform Plan, published in November 2011 and the Civil Service Renewal Plan, October 2014 both set out a process for ambitious change in how the public service is managed and led. Both of these plans have resulted in the recruitment of further technical and managerial skills across the public service.
An Opportunity for Transformational Change in Local Government
There is no doubt that the Local Government sector also played its part in rapidly reducing costs during the past few years. The numbers employed across the sector have been reduced by approximately 10,000 from 2008. This is a reduction of almost 30%, compared to a figure of 10% for the public service as a whole. The total saving in the local government pay bill for the same period was over €472 million, a 27% reduction. These savings are considerable.
However, the sector now has the opportunity to completely redefine its role and purpose in Irish society. The Government approved policy of “Putting People First” in 2012 and the enabling legislation of the “Local Government Reform Act”, 2014 set out a major process of change in the sector.
Elected members of the councils all across the country now have new reserved powers in the areas of economic and community development. This facilitates a process for councillors to play a strategic role in growing the economy and building sustainable communities, at both a county and regional level. Dedicated Strategic Policy Committees (SPCs) on “Economic Development” have been established in each city and county to support this process. Each council will develop “Local and Economic Community Plans” which are to be aligned at a regional level.
The redefining of the role of the “County Manager” to a new role of “Chief Executive” should also be seen as more than just a change in title. The changes referenced above facilitate a stronger role for the Chief Executives and the elected members to work more like a “Board of Directors”.
In my view, the new legislation and policy direction for Local Government offers the greatest opportunity for change since the establishment of the sector. Indeed, the very reason I gave up a very privileged position at Central Government level was to lead this process of change in Fingal County Council. The sector now has a very real chance to ensure that is the hub for the delivery of many social services, as it is the sector which is closest to the citizen, their needs, and the one which can have the greatest impact. However, to embrace and deliver these changes there are a couple of specific challenges at both the executive and political level.
At the executive level, we need to strengthen our skills and competencies in terms of making economic impact assessments. All of our plans in the areas of planning, housing, community and economic growth need to be evidence based and grounded on macro, regional and local economic analysis. To be successful we need to recruit more economists, which is probably not a skill set historically associated with local government.
At the political level, the elected members need to continue to represent local matters as part of their democratic mandate. However, they also have a mandate to play a more strategic role in terms of economic and community development. This requires much greater debate and analysis of matters of city, county and regional concern. Whilst most of the changes are just over a year old, in my experience far too much time in many council chambers, across the county, is spent on debating matters of a “national” level. Whilst this is understandable from a political perspective it has been, in my view, at the cost of addressing and debating the matters that the new councils have a very real mandate on and control over.
I do believe, however, that both of the above challenges will be met by Local Government over time and the sector will continue to grow in strength.
After all, this is what the public expects from its politicians and public servants.