John McGuinness T.D.

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© 2020 by John McGuinness

Constituency Office, O’Loughlin Road, Kilkenny


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Challenge and Change in the Public Sector

Speech  given to Public Sector Managers by Deputy John McGuinness this morning  at The Westin Hotel, Dublin, as part of the Public Affairs Ireland Conference.

I have been asked to speak today on the subject of Challenge and Change in the Public Sector. I am more than happy to do so, because I believe an efficient, cost effective public sector is so important to the health of our economy and the happiness of our people.

I know that I have form with regard to my view of the public service, but that needs to be carefully studied, because it is much misunderstood.  I am not an enemy or a serial complainer, I am a concerned member of the Oireachtas drawing attention to a problem, who understands what you do and how much you, as individuals, can and want to contribute.

I say ‘you as individuals’, because it is the individual public servant I respect, not the systems or culture of the public service generally, which I believe are antiquated and unfit for purpose.  That culture is now so dominant that it is severely limiting Ireland’s ability to right itself.

The controversial author of “The Fountainhead” and “Atlas Shrugged”, Ayn Rand, once said “A collective does not think, only individuals think”.  And, while I do not agree with all she says, I believe that is very true.  It is also true that an established culture can keep even strong minded individuals in their place, to the point that they either give up or get out.

Challenging the status quo, in a culture where powerful high priests guard the secret that it has outlived its purpose, is a difficult and dangerous business.  It has filled tumbrels, removed the heads of prophets, silenced dissent, bullied people into submission and put junior ministers in their place.  Yet, you only have to look at the ruins of ancient empires, and at Ireland, Greece and Italy today, to realise how change can powerfully overcome the obstacles placed in it’s way.

As Walter Bagehot said: “The whole history of civilization is strewn with creeds and institutions which were invaluable at first and deadly afterwards”.

This seminar is about Challenge and Change in the Public Service.  But really change is the challenge for the public service. Once you as individuals agree to embrace change the rest will follow.  Make no mistake about it, the culture will beat you if enough of you do not stand up and challenge the status quo.

If this is not done, it will not just be Ireland that loses, it will be you as individuals, because the burden of conformity and submission crushes the spirit and smothers the desire in all of us to do our best, and grow in work that challenges, satisfies and fulfils.

I don’t believe this seminar or the expensive, and ambiguous, consultant’s reports that will undoubtedly be required, as a means of deferring an evil day and as a substitute for leadership, will tell you anything that you don’t already know in your hearts. The culture is failing and the systems and structures around it are falling down. It is time for a radical overhaul. Now.

You already know that you have to change. You are simply worrying and wondering about what to do and how to do it.  In fact, because you have accepted the need for change, in your hearts you already know what has to be changed.

My purpose over the last few years, has been, and is today, to encourage people like you within the public service to reject the old and embrace the new.  I want a radically reformed public service, dynamic, confident and contributing as a partner of all the other players in our economy and a driver of improving initiatives in our society.

In recent days, we have seen the appointment, not of politicians or public servants but of technocrats to take charge of both Italy and Greece, and they are already working behind the scenes in Ireland.  Some say this is anti-democratic and disgraceful.  I do not agree. It is a reflection on how badly politicians and public servants have performed and an indication of a loss of public support.

It is the lesser evil for the greater good of democracy, arising from the fact that, generally, politicians and senior public servants in many countries have not done what their contract with the public and their obligation to democracy demands.  Too many of us did not do what we were paid to do: Give leadership. That had to change, which is why I welcome the arrival of the Horsemen of Reality.

Many Greek, Italian and Irish people, despite the austerity they will have to face, are also happy with the arrival of professionals who have the integrity, experience, courage and ability to take hard decisions and drive change, while respecting democracy and the limits of their mandate. They are doing what we should have done a long time ago.

Really, we don’t need to discuss change. We are about to be given a master class in how to face change, implement change, and benefit from change or suffer the alternative. We are already witnessing what happens when individuals, politicians, public servants, companies and countries take their eye off the ball, ignore efficiency, are not cost conscious and believe that if they stick their heads in the sand reality will disappear.

If you want to see exactly how much harm this has done, all you need to do is look at a video of the last three or four Public Accounts Committee meetings.  In them you will see the old culture clashing with, and being confused by, what are essentially the standards of the market place in which everyone outside the public service does their business. 

It is evident from the exchanges that many of the senior officials coming before us still have not grasped that they now live in a different world, where condescension and stalling do not work and detailed answers have to be given, which should lead them to question the culture that encouraged them to put their trust in the status quo.

It gives me no pleasure to apply these standards in a top down, determined manner and I regret that it is necessary to put individuals on the spot. But had that always been the case, change would have taken a more gentle trajectory and would have been driven internally.  That has not happened, partly because individuals in senior positions within the public service did not give leadership and were not forced to do so by their political masters.  Too many hands washed one another and proper governance was ignored by both parties.

It constantly surprises me that management and staff in the public service do not take note of the functions that have been lost to quango’s and, sometimes, private companies, driven out by the restrictive practices promoted and defended by public service unions.

In the private sector that would not have been allowed to occur and I can only conclude that your culture has so encouraged reactionary behaviour, that public services employees generally, are unable to understand that they are losing out by not embracing private sector standards and beginning to positively engage with, and contribute to, our economy could result, over  time, in an increase in numbers.  Instead, the reverse often occurs. For example, I have heard members of State Boards complain that their public sector directors are often only there to monitor, control and report back to their departments. 

This lack of confidence and lack of understanding of your real position is deeply disturbing.  If the public service cannot defend itself by lifting its game in the face of competition how can it defend the country?

The reality is that politicians and public servants are in the service industry, an important section of our economy and our society.  We are not grandly doing the State some service.  We are being grandly paid to deliver services to our client, the public.  We have not done that very well over the last ten or fifteen years. In fact, we have betrayed the trust the public placed in us.

Public Services (Ireland) Ltd is mismanaged, inefficient and largely indifferent to the needs of its client.  The company, ladies and gentlemen, is in a mess, administrators are demanding efficiency and cost cutting in all areas and our shareholder are deeply disappointed and angry with its directors.  We need to respond with positive and prompt action.

Once we accept that we are, broadly, a service company competing against other services companies nationally and other countries internationally, reality is in plain view and the only way forward is clear: apply the standards of best practice that we find in the private sector immediately.

There will be those who, out of self interest, want to deny all of this.  They will drag out the much abused sacred cow called “you can’t reduce the lives of our people to a balance sheet and a fumble in the greasy till” to support their argument. 

Well that bloated cow is dead.  It was kicked around in Ireland, beaten up in Greece and has been sacrificed to the Gods of Reality, Pragmatism and Efficiency in Rome by technocrats, whose job it is to slaughter the sacred cows and tooth fairies beloved of self serving cultures and trade unions, before they do any more harm.

Our starting point has to be pragmatic and objective.   Once the directors, staff and unions of Public Service (Ireland) Ltd see their company as a provider of services, legislation,  safety, etc to a client who is pointing out that those services can be obtained cheaper and better elsewhere we either compete or die.  It may be a slow death, but it will happen if we do not respond to what the market place is telling us.

Certainly, off the top of my head, I could probably give you five or six public service agencies and services that private companies would run better and cheaper, and more that should be amalgamated or shut down.  The only reason why that hasn’t been done up to now is that governments were prepared to waste money, rather than talk sense to trade unions, culminating in that great monument to sacred cows, The Croke Park Agreement.

That monument is now being eyed by technocrats who have no respect for cloud cuckoo land and have a great desire to pull down any monuments built to false Gods.  The Croke Park Agreement certainly falls into that category.

We have to tear down and rebuild better.  We have certain advantages over the competition which we should develop further.  Our staff are generally honest and experienced and just need to be released from the shackles that bind them and encouraged to step up to the plate. 

The existing culture has been weakened by its exposure to reality and there is a growing demand for change that can be harnessed.  We are the providers of first choice to our client, even if we have badly damaged our reputation, which we must now speedily rebuild.  A great deal will now depend on the determination with which we approach the task and our ability to demonstrate quickly the positive steps we are prepared to take to regain lost ground.

Change will drive us towards the templates of best practice that exist in the private sector as we consider a new style and a new culture for our public service.  Those templates lay down that accounts must be prepared and audited each year; that staff get bonuses only for extra work, measured and done; that HR departments interview carefully and ensure that square pegs are put in square holes and are encouraged to develop their strengths and possibilities; that management meetings are meaningful and involve hard information, strong exchanges of views and examination of targets and there is firm management and constant engagement with the possibilities of change and the needs of the market place.

What objections could there be to using this model? I agree that some minor alterations might be necessary, but it is there for us and should be used.  Also, there is the ISO standard that the public service encourages every company in the country to strive to achieve, but, strangely, seems to have no desire to achieve itself. 

Indeed, when I recommended this course of action, nobody I spoke to in the public service was prepared to consider it. I was a bit surprised by this as it was only another benchmark, and you guys know how easy they are to achieve! But the fact is that if we do not pursue excellence we will never be better than mediocre.

The templates of proper management, accountability and transparency for every single area of our operation already exist.  We have no need to waste time designing our own. 

The critical question is: Will we use all this available knowledge or will there be discussions, consultations, reflections, think-ins and seminars- the paraphernalia that comes with the activity that impedes action? Will the key of the library available to us lie ignored, because self interest is allowed to dominate patriotism?

We need to listen to Socrates: “An unexamined life is not worth living”. We need to examine ourselves and have conversations with ourselves about where we want to go, because this is about patriotism, the greatest of the offsprings of enlightened self interest.

Ireland, our children and future generations will enjoy or suffer the results of the decisions public servants and politicians take in this generation about the road we must travel. 

We have spent fifteen years on the wrong road and we now have to find the right one. We can begin by fundamentally changing the way we control and spend what we take from the pockets of our citizens and from the legacy we will pass on to our children. Indeed, that is a moral and patriotic duty that public servants and politicians have always owed to the Irish people, which may have been forgotten in the last decade and a half. We must not forget it again.

Do not waste time debating about the colour of the vehicle we will use to travel this road.  It has been built and tested, and sometimes misused and abused. We may need to adapt it slightly, but what we really need is the courage to climb on board and drive it carefully, honourably and expertly to a better, fairer and happier place for our people.

Perhaps the challenge is not change.  Perhaps the challenge is courage and conviction. The question is:  Will we rise to it.

This speech was written prior to Minister Brendan Howlin’s announcement. However, I didn’t feel it needed to be changed, because no matter what reforms are proposed, you will still have to deal with the culture, you will still have to use private sector thinking and systems and you will still have to have conviction, determination and courage. Above all, you will still have to answer your countries call.

Now, with the chairman’s permission, I am happy to take a few questions, applause, insults or anything you may care to throw at me.  There needs to be an open full debate about this and I am willing to engage in it. I have made my contribution and I would be delighted to hear yours.

Thank you for your timeSpeech  given to Public Sector Managers by Deputy John McGuinness this morning  at The Westin Hotel, Dublin, as part of the Public Affairs Ireland Conference.

I have been asked to speak today on the subject of Challenge and Change in the Public Sector. I am more than happy to do so, because I believe an efficient, cost effective public sector is so important to the health of our economy and the happiness of our people.

I know that I have form with regard to my view of the public service, but that needs to be carefully studied, because it is much misunderstood.  I am not an enemy or a serial complainer, I am a concerned member of the Oireachtas drawing attention to a problem, who understands what you do and how much you, as individuals, can and want to contribute.

I say ‘you as individuals’, because it is the individual public servant I respect, not the systems or culture of the public service generally, which I believe are antiquated and unfit for purpose.  That culture is now so dominant that it is severely limiting Ireland’s ability to right itself.

The controversial author of “The Fountainhead” and “Atlas Shrugged”, Ayn Rand, once said “A collective does not think, only individuals think”.  And, while I do not agree with all she says, I believe that is very true.  It is also true that an established culture can keep even strong minded individuals in their place, to the point that they either give up or get out.

Challenging the status quo, in a culture where powerful high priests guard the secret that it has outlived its purpose, is a difficult and dangerous business.  It has filled tumbrels, removed the heads of prophets, silenced dissent, bullied people into submission and put junior ministers in their place.  Yet, you only have to look at the ruins of ancient empires, and at Ireland, Greece and Italy today, to realise how change can powerfully overcome the obstacles placed in it’s way.

As Walter Bagehot said: “The whole history of civilization is strewn with creeds and institutions which were invaluable at first and deadly afterwards”.

This seminar is about Challenge and Change in the Public Service.  But really change is the challenge for the public service. Once you as individuals agree to embrace change the rest will follow.  Make no mistake about it, the culture will beat you if enough of you do not stand up and challenge the status quo.

If this is not done, it will not just be Ireland that loses, it will be you as individuals, because the burden of conformity and submission crushes the spirit and smothers the desire in all of us to do our best, and grow in work that challenges, satisfies and fulfils.

I don’t believe this seminar or the expensive, and ambiguous, consultant’s reports that will undoubtedly be required, as a means of deferring an evil day and as a substitute for leadership, will tell you anything that you don’t already know in your hearts. The culture is failing and the systems and structures around it are falling down. It is time for a radical overhaul. Now.

You already know that you have to change. You are simply worrying and wondering about what to do and how to do it.  In fact, because you have accepted the need for change, in your hearts you already know what has to be changed.

My purpose over the last few years, has been, and is today, to encourage people like you within the public service to reject the old and embrace the new.  I want a radically reformed public service, dynamic, confident and contributing as a partner of all the other players in our economy and a driver of improving initiatives in our society.

In recent days, we have seen the appointment, not of politicians or public servants but of technocrats to take charge of both Italy and Greece, and they are already working behind the scenes in Ireland.  Some say this is anti-democratic and disgraceful.  I do not agree. It is a reflection on how badly politicians and public servants have performed and an indication of a loss of public support.

It is the lesser evil for the greater good of democracy, arising from the fact that, generally, politicians and senior public servants in many countries have not done what their contract with the public and their obligation to democracy demands.  Too many of us did not do what we were paid to do: Give leadership. That had to change, which is why I welcome the arrival of the Horsemen of Reality.

Many Greek, Italian and Irish people, despite the austerity they will have to face, are also happy with the arrival of professionals who have the integrity, experience, courage and ability to take hard decisions and drive change, while respecting democracy and the limits of their mandate. They are doing what we should have done a long time ago.

Really, we don’t need to discuss change. We are about to be given a master class in how to face change, implement change, and benefit from change or suffer the alternative. We are already witnessing what happens when individuals, politicians, public servants, companies and countries take their eye off the ball, ignore efficiency, are not cost conscious and believe that if they stick their heads in the sand reality will disappear.

If you want to see exactly how much harm this has done, all you need to do is look at a video of the last three or four Public Accounts Committee meetings.  In them you will see the old culture clashing with, and being confused by, what are essentially the standards of the market place in which everyone outside the public service does their business. 

It is evident from the exchanges that many of the senior officials coming before us still have not grasped that they now live in a different world, where condescension and stalling do not work and detailed answers have to be given, which should lead them to question the culture that encouraged them to put their trust in the status quo.

It gives me no pleasure to apply these standards in a top down, determined manner and I regret that it is necessary to put individuals on the spot. But had that always been the case, change would have taken a more gentle trajectory and would have been driven internally.  That has not happened, partly because individuals in senior positions within the public service did not give leadership and were not forced to do so by their political masters.  Too many hands washed one another and proper governance was ignored by both parties.

It constantly surprises me that management and staff in the public service do not take note of the functions that have been lost to quango’s and, sometimes, private companies, driven out by the restrictive practices promoted and defended by public service unions.

In the private sector that would not have been allowed to occur and I can only conclude that your culture has so encouraged reactionary behaviour, that public services employees generally, are unable to understand that they are losing out by not embracing private sector standards and beginning to positively engage with, and contribute to, our economy could result, over  time, in an increase in numbers.  Instead, the reverse often occurs. For example, I have heard members of State Boards complain that their public sector directors are often only there to monitor, control and report back to their departments. 

This lack of confidence and lack of understanding of your real position is deeply disturbing.  If the public service cannot defend itself by lifting its game in the face of competition how can it defend the country?

The reality is that politicians and public servants are in the service industry, an important section of our economy and our society.  We are not grandly doing the State some service.  We are being grandly paid to deliver services to our client, the public.  We have not done that very well over the last ten or fifteen years. In fact, we have betrayed the trust the public placed in us.

Public Services (Ireland) Ltd is mismanaged, inefficient and largely indifferent to the needs of its client.  The company, ladies and gentlemen, is in a mess, administrators are demanding efficiency and cost cutting in all areas and our shareholder are deeply disappointed and angry with its directors.  We need to respond with positive and prompt action.

Once we accept that we are, broadly, a service company competing against other services companies nationally and other countries internationally, reality is in plain view and the only way forward is clear: apply the standards of best practice that we find in the private sector immediately.

There will be those who, out of self interest, want to deny all of this.  They will drag out the much abused sacred cow called “you can’t reduce the lives of our people to a balance sheet and a fumble in the greasy till” to support their argument. 

Well that bloated cow is dead.  It was kicked around in Ireland, beaten up in Greece and has been sacrificed to the Gods of Reality, Pragmatism and Efficiency in Rome by technocrats, whose job it is to slaughter the sacred cows and tooth fairies beloved of self serving cultures and trade unions, before they do any more harm.

Our starting point has to be pragmatic and objective.   Once the directors, staff and unions of Public Service (Ireland) Ltd see their company as a provider of services, legislation,  safety, etc to a client who is pointing out that those services can be obtained cheaper and better elsewhere we either compete or die.  It may be a slow death, but it will happen if we do not respond to what the market place is telling us.

Certainly, off the top of my head, I could probably give you five or six public service agencies and services that private companies would run better and cheaper, and more that should be amalgamated or shut down.  The only reason why that hasn’t been done up to now is that governments were prepared to waste money, rather than talk sense to trade unions, culminating in that great monument to sacred cows, The Croke Park Agreement.

That monument is now being eyed by technocrats who have no respect for cloud cuckoo land and have a great desire to pull down any monuments built to false Gods.  The Croke Park Agreement certainly falls into that category.

We have to tear down and rebuild better.  We have certain advantages over the competition which we should develop further.  Our staff are generally honest and experienced and just need to be released from the shackles that bind them and encouraged to step up to the plate. 

The existing culture has been weakened by its exposure to reality and there is a growing demand for change that can be harnessed.  We are the providers of first choice to our client, even if we have badly damaged our reputation, which we must now speedily rebuild.  A great deal will now depend on the determination with which we approach the task and our ability to demonstrate quickly the positive steps we are prepared to take to regain lost ground.

Change will drive us towards the templates of best practice that exist in the private sector as we consider a new style and a new culture for our public service.  Those templates lay down that accounts must be prepared and audited each year; that staff get bonuses only for extra work, measured and done; that HR departments interview carefully and ensure that square pegs are put in square holes and are encouraged to develop their strengths and possibilities; that management meetings are meaningful and involve hard information, strong exchanges of views and examination of targets and there is firm management and constant engagement with the possibilities of change and the needs of the market place.

What objections could there be to using this model? I agree that some minor alterations might be necessary, but it is there for us and should be used.  Also, there is the ISO standard that the public service encourages every company in the country to strive to achieve, but, strangely, seems to have no desire to achieve itself. 

Indeed, when I recommended this course of action, nobody I spoke to in the public service was prepared to consider it. I was a bit surprised by this as it was only another benchmark, and you guys know how easy they are to achieve! But the fact is that if we do not pursue excellence we will never be better than mediocre.

The templates of proper management, accountability and transparency for every single area of our operation already exist.  We have no need to waste time designing our own. 

The critical question is: Will we use all this available knowledge or will there be discussions, consultations, reflections, think-ins and seminars- the paraphernalia that comes with the activity that impedes action? Will the key of the library available to us lie ignored, because self interest is allowed to dominate patriotism?

We need to listen to Socrates: “An unexamined life is not worth living”. We need to examine ourselves and have conversations with ourselves about where we want to go, because this is about patriotism, the greatest of the offsprings of enlightened self interest.

Ireland, our children and future generations will enjoy or suffer the results of the decisions public servants and politicians take in this generation about the road we must travel. 

We have spent fifteen years on the wrong road and we now have to find the right one. We can begin by fundamentally changing the way we control and spend what we take from the pockets of our citizens and from the legacy we will pass on to our children. Indeed, that is a moral and patriotic duty that public servants and politicians have always owed to the Irish people, which may have been forgotten in the last decade and a half. We must not forget it again.

Do not waste time debating about the colour of the vehicle we will use to travel this road.  It has been built and tested, and sometimes misused and abused. We may need to adapt it slightly, but what we really need is the courage to climb on board and drive it carefully, honourably and expertly to a better, fairer and happier place for our people.

Perhaps the challenge is not change.  Perhaps the challenge is courage and conviction. The question is:  Will we rise to it.

This speech was written prior to Minister Brendan Howlin’s announcement. However, I didn’t feel it needed to be changed, because no matter what reforms are proposed, you will still have to deal with the culture, you will still have to use private sector thinking and systems and you will still have to have conviction, determination and courage. Above all, you will still have to answer your countries call.

Now, with the chairman’s permission, I am happy to take a few questions, applause, insults or anything you may care to throw at me.  There needs to be an open full debate about this and I am willing to engage in it. I have made my contribution and I would be delighted to hear yours.

Thank you for your time