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Aaron McKenna Why are we still rewarding failure and sparing punishment in the public sector?

The public sector employs hundreds of thousands of people, yet it rarely if ever actually dismisses anyone. It’s bizarre.

THIS GOVERNMENT HAS lost two secretary generals during its tenure under difficult circumstances. Brian Purcell has gone this week amid controversy at the Department of Justice and after months without the public backing of his Minister. Kevin Cardiff left the Department of Finance when the new administration took charge, after being recommended as a candidate for the European Court of Auditors by the newly appointed-Finance Minister, Michael Noonan.

As if to punctuate Cardiff’s departure, his department miscounted the national debt by a mere €3.6 billion as he was heading out the door. Purcell goes amid a controversy that has claimed the careers of a Garda Commissioner and a Minister for Justice.

Neither Cardiff nor Purcell were fired, and I’m not suggesting they should have been, but both were or will likely be moved to plumb jobs elsewhere in the great bureaucracy. Kevin Cardiff now sits on the European Court of Auditors with a six year contract worth about €276,000 a year, all in with expenses. Brian Purcell stepped aside from his job and asked to be reassigned, and will likely keep his €200,000 a year secretary general salary no matter what job he gets in the civil service.


Only last week another Secretary General, Robert Watt of the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform, was musing on how the public sector should deal with poor performers. When pressed, Watt did say that ‘of course’ consistently poor performers should be fired. But the majority of his theory on the topic is that poor performers should be dealt with softly, through lollipops and sweeteners offered to them to leave the service.

This sounds like another benchmarking exercise, when a fancy ‘performance management’ structure was proposed that was really just a cover for a universal pay day that kept unions on side. In theory the mechanisms existed under benchmarking to stop increments and service length based promotions, but they were rarely if ever invoked. Everyone, it seems, was a stellar performer and got their lollipop.

Now we are being softened up by the secretary general of the department responsible for reform to another soft system, this time for getting rid of the poor performers. For sure there will, in theory, be mechanisms to fire someone who is egregiously bad at their job. But more likely they’ll get a big payoff to clear out their desks so someone else can come in and do the job.

It’s not as black and white, of course, as saying someone should be fired. Brian Purcell has had an exemplary, long career in the civil service. As a junior manager in the Department of Social Welfare he cut off the dole of The General, Martin Cahill, and was kidnapped from his home and shot twice in the legs for his troubles. For this and many other contributions, one could perhaps say he deserves an early retirement and a pension… but does he deserve a job elsewhere in the civil service on €200,000 per year?

Strict bureaucratic structures

Secretary Generals stick out because of their positions. There are many layers beneath them where hundreds of thousands of employees work. It is easy to paint a picture of an ineffective public service in many areas, but this is probably more down to strict bureaucratic structures rather than the place being stuffed to the gills with the cast-offs of the workforce who couldn’t make it in the private sector.

There are probably no more ineffective workers in the public sector than the private. Where the two differ is that, generally, the private sector is better at weeding out the poor performers or, more often, those who are simply the wrong fit for a particular job. The public sector employs hundreds of thousands of people, yet it rarely if ever actually dismisses anyone. This is bizarre. Better people lose their motivation when they see that less work and ability gets weaker types the same salary and opportunities.

If it has been said once it has been said a thousand times: the public sector is too closed a shop, where most of the senior ranks are lifers to a highly stringent bureaucracy that is slow to change. That was one of the lines of criticism in the report that led to Brian Purcell to step aside; and it was one of the criticisms of Kevin Cardiff, a 27-year-veteran of a Department of Finance that neither saw the crash coming nor knew what to do about it.

It is difficult to come and go from the public service voluntarily, let alone involuntarily for the weak performers.

Victims of public sector ineffectiveness

In the private sector people think nothing of moving from one unrelated company to another over the course of their careers. In the public sector, the best you’ll manage is a move from one department to another every 10 or 15 years. Real performance management is a joke, with managers living in fear of a restive union when trying to take on weaknesses.

Along the way there are real victims to all of this public sector ineffectiveness. The Department of Justice response to criticisms of the way it does its business has seen victims of crime and Garda whistle-blowers materially harmed in their lives and careers. Had the Department of Finance been more on the ball during the boom and bust, who knows how many job losses or emigrations might have been prevented?

We’re six years on from a calamitous collapse of our economy that was partially the fault of poor governance, and we’re still rewarding failure and sparing punishment in the public sector. It seems to me that the lessons still haven’t quite sunk in.

Aaron McKenna is a businessman and a columnist for He is also involved in activism in his local area. You can find out more about him at or follow him on Twitter @aaronmckenna. To read more columns by Aaron click here.

Read: ‘The public will have a problem with Brian Purcell keeping his €200,000 salary’

Read: Secrecy has become part of Justice Dept’s DNA, damning report concludes

Read:  30 Days in September: An Oral History of the Bank Guarantee

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