PUBLIC SERVICE REFORM — THE BALANCE SHEET
Patricia King, Vice-President, SIPTU
A considerable amount of heat but not too much light has been generated in the ongoing debate on public service reform and the Croke Park Agreement in particular. Behind much of the noise posing as informed comment invariably lurks an agenda that is based on a false premise that slashing public services and the pay and conditions of those who provide them is some ‘quick fix’ solution to this country’s deep economic crisis. Since the banking and economic collapse of 200, there has been a prolonged attack on workers in the public service from some quarters, including voices that should know better in business and politics, and reflected in sections of the media. The dominant narrative has been that this workforce, unlike that in the private sector, are cosseted and protected with jobs for life and gilt edged pensions. Instead of looking at the real causes of the financial mess we are in, the blame is put on those who were nowhere near the scene of the crime that has indebted the Irish people for generations ahead.
A key part of this agenda is to achieve, in the absence of fiscal autonomy, an internal devaluation by cutting wages across the economy, public and private sector alike. One obstacle to this agenda is clearly the Croke Park Agreement which offers the prospect of fundamental change in the manner in which public services are provided and a real reduction in their cost. Clearly, the challenge of public service reform is far wider than the Agreement but for the purpose of this forum I am going to examine whether the arrangement, now approaching its third year, is delivering on its promise. Under the deal agreed in June 2010, the government as the employer was promised industrial peace and time bound arbitration whereby changes can be put in place on foot of a simple Labour Court recommendation.
For their part, workers in the public service were guaranteed that no further pay cuts and no compulsory redundancies would be unilaterally imposed by the employers in the public sector while redeployment would be curtailed to a maximum of 45 kilometres. Put simply, this Agreement is an enabler which allows decisions by ministers or management to be implemented in a more seamless, efficient and less bureaucratic manner. The objective of the exercise is the wholesale transformation of the way in which public services are delivered. The aim is to achieve an integrated public service across the health, education, local authorities and the civil service, that is cost efficient and reliable. In short, it is to deliver what any modern self-respecting democracy should be judged by and that is its ability to provide quality essential public services to its citizens. In comparison with most of our EU partners the Irish public service is not the bloated monster some claim it to be nor was it ever that way. Back in 2008, when public sector employment peaked, the Irish numbers were ranked below the OECD average and were only two thirds of the public sector share that existed, for example, in France and the Nordic countries. Given the large scale reduction in numbers that has taken place here over the past four years, the Irish ranking is likely to be even lower again.
I believe that there has been good and competent management of our public service over the years even though there are, as in any large organisation or system, those who do not or cannot meet their responsibilities or the demands placed upon them. These deficiencies have, if anything, been exposed more starkly over the past three years as public service management has been faced with its most serious challenge since the foundation of the State. What has also been exposed in this hostile new environment brought on by the banking and financial collapse is that the traditional public sector management tools are neither appropriate nor adequate to meet these challenges. The Croke Park Agreement is the means by which fundamental reforms can be delivered. In that sense it is an enabler of what should be a long term programme that will have effects in terms of public service provision for decades to come. In my view, it may indeed be ahead of its time in that it has too often asked difficult questions of people and systems in the public service that are still entangled within what I might term the management by circular culture.
What we need is a co-ordinated management strategy approach, and more importantly the necessary leadership to apply it across the public service. To effect a transformation of this scale also requires vision. Unfortunately, that vision is sadly missing where it is needed most. Indeed it is evident in some key instances that workers are more advanced when it comes to identifying the changes necessary to advance the Agreement and its objectives than many of those further up the management food chain. In the health sector for example, it is clear that a blueprint is required where all the stakeholders have a clear vision of the end goal and a timeframe to achieve it. Such a co-ordinated strategy is simply not in place while workers in the health service have delivered substantial savings and transformations that will have a lasting and positive impact. There are real savings and sacrifices being made by our already low paid members in the health services that have resulted in significant hardship for them and their families. In contrast, hospital consultants continue to supplement their very generous public salaries through lucrative private practice. Meanwhile, the moratorium on recruitment in the public service is also having a damaging effect on the ability of our members to deliver quality services.
The Agreement provides a framework within which the necessary strategy and blueprint can be developed and applied to ensure that its enabling function can be realised. Yet it is not being done. Look at the situation where we have 27 local authorities providing a fire service. We have proposed that a single service could achieve consistency in training, cut down on administrative costs and end the obstacles placed by county boundaries. It would provide for a co-ordinated and developed emergency response which would reduce costs and, more importantly, save lives. Some months ago, we presented this proposal to the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform who responded positively. He recommended that we bring it to the attention, which we did, of the Minister for the Environment. The response, to date, has been tardy to say the least.
Such change proposals at least deserve to be considered unless of course they are a threat to those who already control too much power in local government and are reluctant to loosen their grip on the empires they command. Is this the leadership that is required to fundamentally change the public service? I, and I’m sure many of those present, could point to several other points of resistance to change on the part of those whose function it is to lead the transformation. The government is seeking a reduction in public service staffing to 282,000 by 2015, involving a further decrease of 12,000 workers over the next three years. It is seeking cuts of 3.5 billion in spending for each of the next two years.
This can only be done without a diminution, or the destruction of core public services, through the co-operation of public service employers and their workers. The Agreement offers the opportunity, and the only opportunity, to achieve such challenging objectives. There are, no doubt, others who think it can be done by taking the gains they have pocketed to date and then going back to the same well for more attacks on the working conditions of mainly low paid public service workers. Such thinking is flawed short termism and will endanger what is possible through this agreed transformation process. We have already witnessed a situation where management across the public services could not find imaginative and new ways to make the necessary savings and returned to the same well of low paid workers? Well I can assure you that this particular well is dry and there is no point in going back there anymore.
We need to think outside the box on this one and be careful that we do not endanger the advances we have made or what can be delivered to those who will depend on our public services in the decades ahead in order to achieve short term savings.
Let me take another example of the failure to utilise the enabling function of the Agreement. In the local authority sector there are 34 main employers each with their individual administrative systems. Surely this is a case for a sharing of services in a way that upholds the principle of local democracy while delivering it with greater efficiency. Where is the resistance to this obvious innovation? Could it be possible that senior management, including the county managers, are protecting their individual fiefdoms and refusing to concede to change that affects their interests? Does it mean it is ok to take the allowances and strip the wages of the man or woman with the shovel as long as it does not impinge on the pay packet of someone earning ten times more? More importantly, is this the type of leadership that such a fundamental transformation of public services requires?
As you are aware, the latest review of the Croke Park Agreement confirmed that significant reductions in payroll and staff numbers in the public service have been achieved over the period from April 2011 to May 2012. A total of 819 million in annualised payroll and non-pay savings were delivered for the second year of the Agreement. The report confirmed that public sector workers are continuing to provide essential services despite the significant drop in staff numbers by 17,300 over the past two years. It confirmed that those workers at the lowest pay levels across the public service have contributed substantially to the reforms in work practices to date through roster changes, redeployment, the extended working day and loss of allowances. They have also suffered from the loss of regular, rostered overtime which, in the majority of cases, is calculable for pension purposes. That the lower grades in the public service have taken the biggest hit is clearly illustrated by an analysis of Labour Court recommendations in relation to public sector claims over the past two years. Any future strategy will have to give credit to those who have contributed the most to the savings and transformation achieved to date.
To address the question put to us today there has been real reform in the public services on the basis of industrial peace and that could not have happened without this Agreement. But the real threat to the Agreement comes from those unwilling to embrace the necessary transformations. Inevitably, the temptation at the top will be to return to the low hanging fruit if what I have identified as management resistance to change is not overcome. That is the real challenge facing the Agreement. It comes not just from those who seek to bring it down in order to enforce a deeper wage cutting agenda across the whole economy but from those who are charged with leading the transformational change required. Finally I would say to those who will influence the key decisions on these matters over the coming months; do not sacrifice the potential of future transformation in public service provision for the quick fix solution of short term, but short lived, cost savings.