PUBLIC SERVICE REFORM: THE NEXT BIG ‘ASKS’

PUBLIC SERVICE REFORM: THE NEXT BIG ‘ASKS’

Dr Eddie Molloy, Director, Advance organisation, Management Consultant

In essence, the terms of the recent Haddington Road Agreement required acceptance by public servants of longer working hours for lower pay.  Added to earlier pay cuts, roster changes and a pension levy this  was a bitter pill to swallow, so there was great credit due to negotiators on both sides that  the vast majority of unions and their members signed up to the Agreement.

No doubt conscious of having gone to the well one more time, Minister Howlin sought to allay the fears of public servants saying:  “This will be the last ask, we will not be coming back to you again for more”.  He added, crucially, that although this would be the “last ask” for pay cuts, further savings would be necessary but they would come from “widespread work practice reforms”.

The eminent former public servant, Maurice Hayes, in his Padraig de Brun memorial lecture in NUIG last March defined the next big ‘asks’, beyond pay cuts and longer hours,  as “deep structural and cultural reform”. Among the very demanding changes in prospect for public servants are :

Disruptive innovation:

The term ‘disruptive’ describes game-changing structural change in an industry, such as the impact of on-line booking on travel agents or e-books on publishing, which is now being applied to radical changes in all sectors, including the public service.  For example, the average cost of care for people with a disability in a number of Irish institutions was €79,000 per person but when they were provided with viable, individualised solutions in the community the average cost was €25,000.  A second example, reported in a comparison of cardiovascular care in two Irish hospitals, shows costs per procedure averaging €22,800 in one place versus €6,400 in the other; this example illustrates why this kind of innovation might be called “disruptive”.  In the more expensive setting, they are stuck with legacy job structures comprising 8 different professional roles, demarcations and grades, compared to 4 job categories in the other situation.  Crucially, in both less costly settings there were much better outcomes for the people concerned.

The key to “doing more with less” from now on will not involve  working harder, for longer and less sociable hours, further away from home-and all of this for less pay; more cost-effective services can only be delivered through deep structural changes that will require  reconfiguration of roles and consequent disruption of long-held professional demarcations and departmental boundaries. 

Spinal cord of personal accountability – with consequences:

We are told that one of the young women shown roughly handling a child on an RTE investigation into creches was summarily sacked.  But the programme revealed that such staff commonly earn about €10 per hour, are untrained and unsupervised and are likely to be caring for too many children.

This kind of failure is usually explained away as a “systems failure”, but there are rarely any consequences, like being sacked, for managers, boards or ministers who are well paid precisely to ensure there are good systems in place.  In a case involving failures in the Office of the DPP, here is what supreme court judge, Adrian Hardiman, thinks of this convenient, self-serving explanation:  “I also wish to say that the phrase ‘systemic delay’,” he said, “is not only meaningless, it is a caricature of a meaningless bureaucratic phrase and is an insult to any tribunal to which it is offered”.

When things go badly wrong in the public service the conflation of ministerial and civil servant roles and responsibilities means that neither can be held personally accountable.  At the BurrenLawSchool in 2010, Pat Rabbitte , now a government minister, presented a forensic, damning critique of this blurring of respective roles and responsibilities. He added: “Defenders of the status quo, as you might imagine, are those with most to lose from proper, effective oversight and accountability. “

These “serious deficits in accountability arrangements”, as they bluntly describe them, are now being addressed by a team of senior civil servants who say that: “Robust and effective accountability arrangements are an essential prerequisite to the creation of a high performing civil service”.  It is imperative, in the public interest and the interests of all civil and public servants themselves, that this vital work be brought to fruition without being compromised by the political system.  Otherwise, the culture of impunity which bedevils politics and public administration will endure.

Creation of a ‘Senior Civil Service’:

In his NUIG speech, Maurice Hayes characterised the civil service as the “Fifth Estate” and, as such, a distinctive, indispensable institution that “performs a vital balancing role in the machinery of a functioning democracy”- like the media or the judiciary.  Dr. Hayes reminded us that de Valera would not concede this role; he prohibited senior officials from congregating and in doing so he stymied  the emergence of a  “Fifth Estate” capable of acting as a ”brake on autocracy” and as a bulwark against mad and bad politics.

Work is advanced on this absolutely pivotal structural reform, to establish a properly constituted, resourced and empowered Senior Civil Service, perhaps led by a Head of the Civil Service. Integral to this reform is the aforementioned differentiation of the responsibilities of ministers and officials.

Deep cultural reform:

These working papers also take an important step towards the “deep cultural reform” urged by Maurice Hayes, in naming the core values of the public service, including “honesty, courage, transparency, protecting the public interest and personal accountability.”  In all domains – childcare, prisons, banking, mental health services, the Catholic Church, hospitals – it is now understood that there can be no reform without cultural reform, but publishing your core values is only a first step. (AIB, FAS and the Financial Regulator published their core values.)  The OECD ‘s 2008 Review of the Irish Public Service recommended that the“ greatest resource of the public service, its core values” be mobilised  by “restating traditional and new values to provide  an ethical framework for staff “ and,  tellingly, “to be established in their hearts and minds”.

Contestability, plus effective regulation:

Monopolies, public or private, do not serve the public interest so any constraints on outsourcing must be re-visited. It will not be sufficient, however, simply to open up more public service work to competition.  We have seen, for example, that privatising child care, nursing homes and other activity has to be underpinned by effective regulation. It is the structure of the market and the quality of regulation that matters, as is the case in Denmark which provides unrivalled public services from cradle to grave but without the State being the major provider.

Targetted redundancies:

It was revealed during in August that the numerous mistakes in this year’s Leaving Cert papers were attributed to a loss of senior staff due to recent incentivised early retirement programmes.  Similar collateral damage has occurred right across the public service, with the exodus of experienced gardai, nurses, teachers, keepers in our libraries and museums – and so on.  What makes this situation particularly galling is not so much that  a recruitment embargo blocks the hiring of replacements – even if such precious expertise could be found in the marketplace – but that, while this haemorrhaging  of some of the best and most needed staff continues apace, incompetent and underemployed staff remain secure in their jobs. It is surely indefensible that, for example, front-line disability services are cut while highly paid HSE staff who were in effect made redundant when the HSE was formed out of 11 eleven health boards are still in place. Any future agreement has to include provision for targetted and, if necessary, compulsory redundancies.

Funding pensions:

We have a fiscal crisis, a banking crisis and, possibly bigger than both, a pensions crisis. There has been a catastrophic collapse of the value of private sector pensions, semi-state funds are in deficit to the tune of billions and the current funding model for public service pensions is not sustainable. This crisis will have implications for every citizen for generations to come, and it is inconceivable that the solution will not impact on the pockets of public servants.

In addition to Croke Park, Haddington Road and the above seven additional big ‘asks’, less well known are the 14 major change programmes being rolled out by a team of internal and newly recruited external specialists in the Dept. of Public Expenditure and Reform – initiatives such as rationalisation of property, streamlining procurement, shared services and  process re-engineering.

Imposing pay cuts and longer working hours, though very painful, is a relatively straightforward administrative process.  But the heavy lifting involved in deep structural and cultural reform will tax the capacity and willingness of staff to adapt for the next five years at least and, above all, success will depend on the collective leadership of the Senior Civil Service, the core of the “Fifth Estate”.

In order to minimise the negative impact of this huge programme of reform on staff and services to the public it is essential to adopt a longer time frame than for previous agreements which were designed to meet short-term Troika targets.  Work is under way in the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform to ensure that future reform programmes will be informed by a comprehensive vision of the kind of public service we want to create, rather than by frantic efforts to cut costs – at any cost, as is happening right now in the health services, schools and elsewhere.

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