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

The only effective public sector reform is privatisation.

Aaron McKenna

IT SO HAPPENED this week that as the Government launched a three-year “action plan” for civil service efficiency reforms, I was reading extracts from a book titled “Empty Labour”, a study of workplace idleness.

In it, the author – Roland Paulsen of Sweden’s Lund University – comes to the conclusion that the average worker spends between one-and-a-half and three hours skiving. Large organisations in the private sector are prone to becoming skivers paradises, but the public sector wins at some of the very best examples.

It took Finnish tax inspectors two whole days in 2004 to notice that one of their colleagues had died at his desk. In 2009 the Swedish Civil Aviation Administration discovered that some of its employees devoted three-quarters of their working time to watching pornography. In 2012 a retiring German civil servant wrote a farewell note to his colleagues, confessing that he hadn’t done a jot of work for the past 14 years.

Improving efficiency

The reforms outlined in the ‘Civil Service Renewal Plan‘ outlines 25 specific actions that the Government hopes will improve efficiency in the smaller branch of our public sector, which covers off Government departments and core functions. The headline-grabbing notion of the reforms is that it will make it easier to fire underperforming civil servants, a hitherto nearly unheard of practice.

At first glance the 25-point-plan (plan point inflation being a troubling feature of this Government’s tenure) is a relatively bland exercise in stating the obvious. The civil service requires accountability, and so we will get an accountability board to keep track of that. It needs coherent management across departments, ergo a management board. We need better strategic planning and stronger human resources management. Transfers in and out of and between civil service departments should be easier. Etc, etc.

That most of this stuff is not in place already, such as the innovative suggestion that it be easier for the civil service to recruit from outside its ranks rather than simply promoting the home grown talent all the time, speaks to the staid nature of the organisation.

The second thing one is taken to wondering about all these reforms is, wasn’t all this what benchmarking was about? When massive pay increases were handed round in the Bertie years we were promised increased efficiency, a more flexible public sector and all that. And yet, here we are still talking about implementing the most simple of reforms – and, incidentally, at a time when the Government is talking about increasing pay in the service again after years of thrift.

This grand sounding plan will simply add a few new layers of bureaucracy

One has to look upon the efforts of this mighty bastion of organisational conservatism and wonder at its ability to implement the recommendations wholeheartedly. Civil servants are well known for their abilities to frustrate reforms of things that directly affect their pay and working conditions.

The civil service is not to be confused with the public service, which staffs the health service and the quangos and local government, and makes up the bulk of public sector workers. The reforms to take place at the centre of government that the civil service represents will inform any that spread out to the periphery, and so this is an important process.

Frankly, I don’t believe in the capacity of the public sector to reform itself wholeheartedly into the most efficient organisation it can hope to be. Indeed, I actually believe that the organisational tendency is to resist reform at all costs, bury good performing workers, and even everything out to a slow pace of mediocrity in which fiefdoms are preserved and activity, not results, is the measure of success.

I think that this grand sounding 25-point plan will just introduce a few new layers of bureaucracy, with committees and boards to oversee glacial reforms. We went through benchmarking “reforms” and still got out the far side with people clinging on to their time off for cheque cashing, despite receiving their pay via electronic transfer.

The public sector is filled with many hard-working individuals, not least those on the frontlines. The organisational structure frustrates the effort of anyone truly motivated and brilliant, and discourages people from working hard when good performance is rewarded at the same pace as poor.

Frustrating the effort of anyone truly motivated and brilliant

The public sector is also an expensive beast to run, particularly with its defined benefit pension scheme in place that is now practically exclusive to government workers. The long-term costs of running the inefficient behemoth are seen in over inflated admin headcounts and, ultimately, fat pension bills. The public sector pensions bill went up by 67%, to €2.5 billion per year, between 2007 and 2012 alone.

Government estimates between now and 2060 predict that public sector pension costs will rise, as a percentage of GDP, over 50% faster than health care spending. All the new public sector workers we’re thinking about hiring, starting with 550 next year, are un-fireable, superannuated performance gambles that will add substantially to costs over their working and retired lifetimes. It’s an expensive way to get results.

I think a more radical approach to public sector reform is required, to actually see results and to reduce costs over time that will otherwise eat up more and more money that could be used to actually deliver services.

I fear reform attempts will fail, again, and squander yet more money

I think that, as much as possible, we need to take hundreds of thousands of people directly employed by the State off the books. There are many functions of government departments, quangos and other state bodies that could be carried out on contract to third party providers who would not carry the burden of decades of entrenched union interests, cushy conditions and inefficient working practices that are held on to by intransigent shop stewards.

It is much easier to hold a third party on contract to key performance indicators than a union-controlled organisation where any change is, in their eyes, tantamount to a 1913 lock out.

It is ridiculous that poor performers practically cannot be fired in our public service. Every euro they burn up in salary is a euro taken from a guard, a nurse, a child or just someone to actually accomplish whatever they were hired to do. It is endemic of a public service that has been unable to reform itself over the years, and I fear it will fail again and squander yet more money as we start to get back on our feet.

It’s 2014 and the recession is over, but the civil service is only now getting around to addressing some of its most basic flaws. Perhaps if they haven’t fixed themselves up by now, they never really will. It’s time to rethink how we deliver public services, and ditch the colonial era management apparatus that has failed us so well for so long.

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

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

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