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Opinion The Irish civil service is a genuine success story – other countries should follow our model

So much irrationality is directed at our civil service, including the dangerous notion of privatisation of functions, that the hard work of many decent people is overlooked.

READERS ARE UNLIKELY to encounter the above headline very often. However, the lead negotiator of the Troika expressed such sentiments to the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Brendan Howlin, before they departed our shores.

So much irrationality is directed at our civil service, including the dangerous notion of privatisation of functions, that sight is lost of the value of a professional service staffed by people selected on merit from open, public competitions that, unlike many administrations elsewhere, is non-partisan politically and is non-corrupt. In the search for scapegoats following our economic collapse much public discourse focused on perceived shortcomings in our public sector, overlooking the fact that our crisis was precipitated by the unbridled greed of our financial sector. We have ended up in a foolish public v private debate and, frankly, with some absurd accusations directed at our civil and public service.

Only a fool would suggest that our public service is perfect or that there is never any need to look at how it does its business. Also, there are occasions when individual failings at senior level have significant consequences. Equally, however, it is unwise to ignore the enormous value to our citizens of the type of public administration that they enjoy or, indeed, to ignore the hard work of the many decent people in serving our citizens.

Civil Service Renewal Plan

That is the context for the latest proposals from Government in respect of our civil service, (which is made up of central Government only and constitutes about 10% of our public service overall). The obsession of our media’s reaction in concentrating almost exclusively on how many civil servants can be sacked speaks sadly of the corrosive coarsening of public discourse.

The proposals themselves are a ‘mixed bag’.

Since 2009, Government departments have been subject to a moratorium on recruitment and rigid controls, enforced by the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform, on their staff numbers. As a consequence, some services are at a critical stage of capacity. Now Departments will be given multi-annual pay budgets and will be allowed to decide their own staffing mix within those budgets. This is to be welcomed.

Equally, an overall management board and an accountability board for the civil service will help with greater integration of service delivery.

However, other aspects of the proposals are vague, such as suggestions of changed grading structures and changes to the system of performance management. These impact on service delivery and on the conditions of those employed to deliver service. They will require considerable ‘teasing out’ in discussions with the unions representing staff.

Ideas about reform

One of the worrying consequences of the negativity directed at the public service has been the casual assumption that bringing in outsiders will improve the service automatically. In fact, the civil service always recruited at a range of different levels – however, suggestions in the latest plan of a move to fill all management posts by open, public competitions would, if implemented, generate logistical problems. This would de-motivate staff who could, even if deemed to be performing excellently, find themselves competing in the initial psychometric ‘ culling’ tests that are used to make the numbers manageable in public competitions, without any weighting for their performance. Such a daft outcome would be the opposite to the intention of encouraging excellence and this idea requires considerably more thought and discussion.

In general, much is made of the so-called bureaucracy of our civil service. However, it is not clear how else, say, the Department of Social Protection would deliver payments to over one million citizens in the form of pensions, disability payments, jobseekers’ allowance, child support etc, the overwhelming bulk of which are paid correctly and on time, week in and week out.

We should celebrate one of the great achievements of our State

Our civil servants also represent us in negotiations with EU institutions, with considerable success. They provide ministers with detailed policy advice, ranging from industrial policy to programmes of school-building; from constitutional reform to the allocation of scarce resources; from economic policy to environmental reform. They collect the revenue necessary to fund our State; they ensure that guards and teachers are paid on time and that they are equipped properly; they ensure the smooth running of our parliament; they deliver grants to our food providers; they protect our built heritage, and so on. It is the cumulative effect of many such examples of effectiveness that led the Troika to its admiration for an institution whose value is denigrated unfairly so often.

The problem with ‘reform’ plans is that they generate an incorrect perception of wholesale failure when, in fact, what is required is constant renewal – as with any institution – however difficult that might be in respect of something that is so diverse. It would be good, though, if just once we could celebrate one of the great achievements of our State and recognise its value to us all, just as the outsiders of the Troika did.

Civil servants have every right to be proud of the job that they do and our citizens have every right to be proud of a genuine success story.

Tom Geraghty is General Secretary of the Public Service Executive Union; Secretary of the Public Services Committee of the ICTU; a member of the Oversight Body for the ‘Haddington Road Agreement’ and a member of the ICTU Executive Council.

Read: New plan will make it easier to sack civil servants who are doing a bad job

Opinion: Attempts to reform the civil service (again) may simply waste more money

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