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Mairéad Farrell: Mary Lou is entitled to question our public service. It's not a criticism of staff

The Sinn Féin spokesperson defends the comments of her party leader earlier this week.

Mairéad Farrell

LIKE PAPER TIGERS squealing in the rain, TDs from our legacy parties lined up to cry that Mary Lou McDonald had attacked our public and civil servants. They were rather weak attempts to misconstrue her words.

For anyone who read the article in the Irish Examiner earlier this week from which the word ‘constipated’ became the unfair focus – it was clear some TDs hadn’t – my colleague Mary Lou paid tribute to the quality and hard work of our public service workers.

The irony of this outrage won’t have been lost on those who remember well the harsh pay/pension cuts and increased working time these parties imposed on them. It also won’t be lost on healthcare professionals who’ve been treated appallingly during Covid, with the government’s performative claps being of little comfort.

So, let’s deal with what Mary Lou actually said. She was rightly critical of “certain aspects” of the public service “system”. She wasn’t talking about individual workers.

Remember when we are talking about any complex system, that system isn’t just the sum of its individual parts. Large complex systems produce their own dynamics and develop their own internal logic and culture. There’s a whole academic field about this kind of stuff – it’s called systems dynamics, and our legacy parties would do well to read the literature.

Let’s take a concrete example to illustrate this. Few people would disagree that there’s dysfunctionality in the HSE. It’s one of the reasons we’re moving towards Sláintecare.
But when the HSE system produces some inefficient or dysfunctional outcome, that doesn’t mean that the workers who comprise the system have necessarily been inefficient or dysfunctional.

That’s not how it works. The system is more than the sum of its parts and produces what are called emergent properties. These are properties that the individual parts of the system don’t have on their own, but by interacting with the wider whole, new behaviours emerge.

A knock-on effect

Think about it like this: staff members within the HSE, or any other public service organisation for that matter, generally work within the confines of the rules, processes and procedures of the job. Plenty of workers will have often found themselves in a situation working within a given process that has seemed like it wasn’t the most efficient way of doing things. Perhaps it was the result of a “work around” to try get past some other poorly functioning process.

But in that attempt to resolve this through a “work around”, other parts of the system are then impacted, there’s a knock-on effect and suddenly some new dysfunction arises. This isn’t the fault of the staff members.

What’s more, if an internal logic and culture develop whereby personal advancement occurs more rapidly through a “get along to go along” modus operandi, then attempts at reform can be discouraged.

Complex hierarchical systems, be they public or private, can by their nature be slow to change. Think about it. You take orders from above, you pass them down below, and you wait for this to filter its way down through the organisation.

This is even truer for public organisations that tend to be more bureaucratic, rule and process-driven, with greater potential for lifetime tenure and thus less exposure to new ways of doing things.

Pointing this out isn’t a slight on the workers within these organisations, and anyone who thinks it is, is either very naïve or attempting to score a cheap political point, or rather an own goal.

Culture also matters. Our partitioned state is barely a century old. To put that in context, the life expectancy of a woman here is 82 years old.

Our institutions are still somewhat post-colonial in culture. We’ve often heard the joke that we only “painted the post boxes green”, but there’s a real kernel of truth here. There’s always been a fraught relationship with the ideals of transparency and accountability.

The foundational piece of legislation governing our civil service (Ministers and Secretaries Act 1924) has gone largely unreformed, alludes to our colonial heritage and has led to cultural issues of accountability.

It’s said that ministers “shall be a corporation sole” which “shall have perpetual succession and an official seal”, terms that are ultimately theological and monarchical in origin.

They historically relate to what former Fianna Fáil government advisor Gerald Howlin described as “the pretensions of kingship, delegated to his ministers, transported into the new state and still intact”.

Howlin said that whilst the Minister may theoretically be in charge, this is “the great nonsense of the Irish political system” as they are not “in any effective way responsible for the administration”.

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Changing the system

Only last month, a similar argument was made by the former chief advisor to our Minister for Finance, who previously served as an advisor to the Labour party. He said that our democracy is essentially fugazi and that a senior civil servant told him the Secretary Generals have to run the show because our political system isn’t “mature”.

I’m not sure if the childish response to Mary Lou’s comments made such people change their view on this lack of maturity. But I don’t accept the argument that things cannot change. Nor do I accept the argument that public sector organisations can’t change for the better, or shouldn’t try.

Historically when we look at government and the public institutions which comprise the state apparatus, we’ve seen great examples of reform. The New Deal in the US and the reconstruction of Europe after WW2 along with the development of the Welfare state. There have been initiatives like New Public Management, the rise of e-government, and recently we saw the rapid rollout of the pandemic income and business supports.

Reform of our systems of healthcare, housing and central government is no small task. It will take well-crafted legislation, strong political leadership and buy in from the electorate.

In my own regard, I’ve already introduced legislation in regards to our FOI, lobbying and protected disclosures regime, and I’m currently working on more substantial reformist legislation still.

But the government won’t support these bills, we can only do this ourselves. How can our legacy parties fix such problems when they aren’t even willing to accept they exist?

There is a nascent reformist wind blowing across Europe which is breathing new life into the EU institutions. It’s changing the way we conceive of things like fiscal and monetary policy.

A new government with new legislation and new leadership could try to catch this wind and ride a reformist wave toward a domestic renewal of our public and civil service.

Mairéad Farrell is Sinn Féin’s spokesperson on Public Expenditure and Reform.

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