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This top civil servant wants to talk about making it easier to sack public sector workers

Robert Watt has admitted it is easier to sack workers in the private sector than it is in the public sector.

Robert Watt
Robert Watt
Image: Sam Boal/Photocall Ireland

ONE OF THE country’s most senior civil servants has said he would welcome a debate on making it easier to sack public sector workers.

Robert Watt, the secretary general of the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform, told the MacGill Summer School in Glenties that it is easier to dismiss workers in the private sector than it is in the public service where there is ”more financial freedom” to address disciplinary issues.

He said in the private sector they could “sign a cheque to move somebody on”.

In a paper to the summer school on strengthening accountability and performance in the civil service, Watt said: “Let’s be frank – in the private sector senior people can be compensated for agreeing to leave with full assurance of confidentiality which protects everyone’s reputation – the organisation’s and the individual’s.

“Financial transparency and financial constraints exist in the Civil Service which makes this approach impossible.”

He said he would “welcome an open debate as the extent to which there would be support to adopt similar approaches in the public sector”.

Watt told the audience in Glenties there is a “need for a debate” on the “extent to which we could be given some of the tools available elsewhere when we see performance that is not up to it”.

Despite this Watt said that in his experience the number of people who “consistently underperform” in the public service is a low proportion of the workforce.

In his speech, DCU professor Kevin Rafter spoke about his work on a panel set up to look at improving the civil service, outlining some of the proposed changes including setting up a new accountability board and establish the role of Head of the Civil Service.

Rafter said it was unusual that a body such as the civil service, with 287,000 staff, does not have a chief executive.

Management consultant Eddie Molloy claimed that when he was involved with a panel on civil service reform in 2002 it informally concluded that department secretaries general couldn’t be held accountable because if they performed poorly it would reflect badly on the minister of the day.

While he welcomed some of the findings of the recent independent panel report he said ministers and secretaries generals “can still hide behind each others skirts” and there external scrutiny of the civil service remains weak.

Molloy said that consequences for under-performance in the civil service needed to be more robust but not necessarily result in dismissal. He said that gardaí were being fined for improperly cancelling penalty points and this was an effective way of stopping such an abuse.

Watt agreed that the civil service needs to be more accountable but also said there needs to be “a sensible discussion” on public sector pay that focuses not just on cost, but on value for money.

“We need to pay the going rate for the job but must ensure that we have a professional service that is accountable,” he said.

Watt said the public are willing to pay for civil servants who are seen to deliver. He also said the Irish civil service is seen as relatively unbureacratic compared to other European countries.

  • Follow @oconnellhugh for updates from the MacGill Summer School 

Read: The ten commandments for a better civil service

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About the author:

Hugh O'Connell

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