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Column: The public sector isn’t there to provide jobs, it’s there to work for us

Truly intelligent efficiencies would deliver more fulfilled workers as well as better services, writes Aaron McKenna.

Aaron McKenna

Aaron McKenna wrote for TheJournal.ie about the ‘Lost Decade’ Ireland is facing into, and why we need a new vision for the nation to bring us through it. In this sixth part of hisseries on ways forward he outlines a vision for true government reform to provide better services and lower costs.

NO MATTER WHETHER you’re for big or small government you can surely agree that efficient government is something we’re short on in Ireland. Our state spends too much money to provide what it does, and it often doesn’t provide services at all that we might expect.

From over-stuffed bureaucracies passing paperwork around without achieving much to departments that can’t count the national debt, or the number of children being taught in school prefabs, or benefits handed out to rich and poor alike; we have an inefficient and ineffective government in many regards.

Inefficiency both wastes money and provides poorer outcomes. We have scores of specific examples of program failures, everywhere from the Comptroller and Auditor General’s reports to Freedom of Information revelations and our daily dealings with the State. The multiples of spending increases provided during the boom led to some good outcomes, but in many cases we saw money frittered away.

Even before the crash we were the land of a thousand quangos with citizens dying on hospital trolleys and a quarter of our teenagers functionally illiterate.

Attempts at reforming this in recent years have mostly revealed just how easy some savings could be attained, like better procurement policies, without tackling fundamental issues. The minister in charge of reform has set some example for his charges in attempting to get the highest salary of any political adviser for his own while approving cap busting ones for the stooges of other ministers.

‘Do as I say, not as I do’ is a fundamental leadership deficiency that stymies any reform process.

Soldiers can’t go on strike

The public sector needs a root and branch reform that goes back to square one and establishes what every function of government is and what is required to fulfil that role down to every department, job description and work process. This is not unprecedented either in the private sector or in our own public sector.

The Department of Defence underwent a massive reform process in the 1990s which, while not perfect, was transformational. The mission of the Defence Forces was changing and the organisation needed to modernise to meet the challenge and to be able to participate in overseas missions.

The DoD brought in outside consultants and international expertise to the job and gave them complete access. Everything from training and equipment to facilities and civilian employees was looked at and a white paper produced that made recommendations on everything from units to uniforms. Much of it was acted on and our military reformed itself.

In the process the Permanent Defence Forces reduced in size by 37 per cent, civilian employees were reduced by 67 per cent and civil service employment by 50 per cent. Barracks were sold off and modernisation was the name of the game with old work practices thrown out wholesale.

A cynic might remark that soldiers can’t go on strike, and have a life or death vested interest in their organisation being as modern and effective as possible. But the DoD reforms show a clear path to a better government: Take an honest fundamental look at what you’re doing, reassess what your goals are and how you are working to achieve them, take recommendations and implement them with buy in from your staff.

‘Reform’ does not come simply through a recruitment embargo that sees you lose key people indiscriminately, while hanging on to other roles you no longer need.

A lab in a hospital loses three of four technicians and must close when the remaining one goes on holiday. Meanwhile some county councils maintain the same number of people in their planning departments despite the construction sector collapse. That’s not reform.

It’s not about protecting jobs

Promised bonfires of quangos do not materialise, and even if they did the new amalgamated bodies wouldn’t lose a single person – despite the fact that it takes less administrators per head to run a larger body. If we decide a body is completely extraneous you can abolish the logo but nothing else.

The individuals in these jobs are likely hard working and diligent people. But we must decide whether the public sector is there as a work program, or to provide essential services in the best manner possible, perhaps firing administrators and keeping teachers.

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When discussing reform unions like to say ‘It’s about protecting jobs.’ I would beg to differ: It is about creating a public service that provides the most benefit to all of us.

Politicians, senior public servants and union bosses opposing any real transformation are the enemy of anyone who encounters an inefficient state, who is angered by wasted money or is frustrated by working in an ineffective organisation.

The money we spend propping up an inefficient bureaucracy is money we can’t spend on key services. Money that must be cut bluntly from people who need it or taken out of the economy through growth killing taxes. It is a very fair comment that the majority of workers have no part in creating this problem and are just as trapped by it as others are frustrated. But we need to shed the recruitment embargo and create a public service that is as dynamic as any successful organisation.

It is natural to focus on the negative side of dynamic – cutting jobs that are not needed because of efficiencies made – but it has a positive side too. Most public servants I meet are frustrated at working in archaic organisations that stifle any creativity or genuine effort to serve and improve.

A modern and reformed public service should strive to become a more open and fluid organisation that focuses on outcomes, not process. Why not have a beanbag culture, hot-desking offices and flat organisational hierarchies to go alongside genuine performance reviews, an up-or-out work ethic and performance driven incentives?

Invest in a public service where people want to go to work with the best, to have training and advancement opportunities and a place where people can dip in and out of roles at different levels in their careers. Make it a fun and fulfilling place to work, not a staid and conservative body as it is today. Improve the lot of the typical public servant so that they can improve the service they offer us.

Aaron McKenna is Managing Director of the e-commerce company Komplett.ie. He is also writing a book on the future of Ireland to be published later this year.

You can read his previous pieces on the way forward for Ireland on TheJournal.ie here.

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