Sunday October 16 2011 – Sunday Independent
Top public sector staff are incompetent and have a toxic influence, the maverick TD tells Daniel McConnell
Last Wednesday, outspoken Fianna Fail TD turned chairman of the Public Accounts Committee, John McGuinness, entered the lion’s den to address 250 of the country’s top senior civil servants at a Dublin conference.
And he let them have it — with both barrels.
McGuinness’s career suffered from him speaking his mind, including standing up to civil servants, and he was cast out from his position as a junior minister in 2009 by former Taoiseach Brian Cowen.
From the podium, he denounced suggestions that civil servants were afraid of standing up to ministers for fear of damaging their own career prospects. “Utter nonsense,” he retorted.
Protected by status, knowledge and powerful unions, top civil servants have engaged in a “Faustian pact” with ministers, whom they use as glove puppets, he told them staring into the whites of their eyes.
It was a brave and shocking indictment of how our country is being run.
Twenty-four hours later, we sit down in the bowels of Leinster House.
Expanding on that powerful speech delivered the day before, he describes a deeply corrosive culture within the top echelons of the public service — rotten to its core — and incompetent at top levels that still has a “toxic influence” on the running of this country.
“I’m not talking about the nurses, the guards or any of those on the front lines who the unions hide behind. I am talking about those at the top,” he sought to clarify early on.
In 2008, McGuinness said: “The public service destroys ambition, resists change and is now so insulated from reality that information is withheld from ministers, unfavourable reports are doctored, and parliamentary questions are master classes in dissemination and obfuscation.”
So has his view changed at all?
“No, nothing has changed. Nothing at all.”
He says that those at the top of the civil service at present are like an isolated out-of-touch old boys’ club, more interested in empire building and protecting their own positions than focusing on finding a cure to the ills of the country. And this is even during the worst economic collapse in our history.
“They are nothing more than an old boys’ club. They control everything. They even control the delivery on the Croke Park deal, if there is any delivery there at all in terms of reform,” he says .
“People have had enough, are fed up with all of this nonsense, rhetoric that has gone on for far too long, all the excuses, the obfuscation, call it what you like. They just want tangible actions that will get them out of the mess we are in and present them with a new style of management and energy at the top of our State,” he adds.
He argues strongly that this “incompetent” cohort of top civil servants are the same ones who were central to the farcical benchmarking and social partnership. He says such extravagant packages must be stopped and the Government could do it if it was so minded.
“We are cutting the judges, so why can’t we do it to senior civil servants? The same civil servants who were central to social partnership who negotiated all that farce. Why can’t they be penalised? They should be,” he says.
McGuinness argues that a chronic and toxic culture exists within departments and agencies and says that much of this comes from the inherent guarantee of a job for life within the public service. He argues this must be ended and there must be consequences for failure.
“You have to allow the brightest and the best to perform at their levels and promote them based on their ability not on the length of time they have hung around the place.
“And you have to end the job for life. That job for life kills certain dynamics within the workplace.
“Because if you have a job for life people take it far easier than you would if that guarantee wasn’t there. It’s a toxic mix,” he says.
According to the Carlow- Kilkenny TD, social partnership became a corrosive process.
“The social partnership corrupted a lot of thinking; in government, in the unions and pretty much to all those who were involved in it.
“And money was central to that, the common denominator. People were paid for doing things and got grants, and money was used to keep everybody happy,” he says.
“When we look back on it now, huge sums of money were squandered through social partnership and it never really achieved its true goal or potential,” he adds.
He goes even further and says that the Croke Park deal is nothing more than a continuation of that.
“So is Croke Park working? For me it is a work of fiction. And you are using the money the same way it was used during social partnership to keep everyone happy and in place. They are measuring reform in terms of the numbers they can cut out of the system. That is not reform. It is a crude tool to get there, but it is not reform,” he adds.
“Now we are trying to replicate that with some notional agreement, in terms of Croke Park, without looking at any of the major fundamental problems within the public sector.
“They say we are reforming simply because we lost 20,000 people. That is not reform. It did have a corruptive influence; it was not corrupt in itself. It corrupted the system and the culture, but everything has become far too incestuous,” he says.
He argues that numbers are too high and that it is not tenable to guarantee public sector pay until 2014 at a time of such crisis.
“It is recognised the numbers within the [public] service grew by 90,000 in recent years of the previous government and is now way out of kilter from what is required. But it is not tenable for pay to be off the table when we need to get our house in order.
“The HSE represents so much of what is wrong with the public service.
“The structure itself is wrong and has never been fine-tuned. There isn’t an enterprising culture and that hasn’t changed since the abolition of the health boards. It shows a certain amount of disrespect for the Oireachtas in how it answered questions.
“It shows a total disregard for the thousands of its staff working on the front line which is now the band aid holding the entire system together. The entire human resources management performance/system in the HSE leaves an awful lot to be desired, to be honest,” he says.
McGuinness’s criticism of former Taoiseach Brian Cowen (whom he described as a poodle to his civil service masters) and former Tanaiste Mary Coughlan (whom he described as incompetent) is well known, but said he has seen little or no change since Enda Kenny and his government have assumed office.
“They have steadied the ship, but they have so far abandoned the huge mandate for reform given to them by the people. Most if not all of the reforms so far, like Friday Dail sittings, are meaningless — pure tokenism. This government has been given a clear mandate from the people for change, and they must if this country is going to survive.”
As chairman of the PAC, McGuinness has called on Public Expenditure Minister Brendan Howlin to beef up the powers of the committee, to enable it to make a difference, but so far he hasn’t even received a reply.
“I have written to Brendan Howlin asking him to come before the committee about the reforms, so we know where we fit in, but he hasn’t even responded yet.”
McGuinness insists he does not make these harsh criticisms to offend or cause rows. He insists he wants to start a debate about “what we have to do now, based on what we have learned from admitted and fully understood mistakes”.
He says those mistakes are signposts that can put us back on the right course.
He also points to a handful of examples where reforms have been achieved. “There are some great people in there. You come across them in the PAC, you come across them in the National Standards Authority of Ireland where they work to make a profit. You see them in Enterprise Ireland, I have travelled with them and seen them out there
selling Ireland. Look at the Department of Defence; it downsized, it got its technology systems in order and it watches what it spends. Look at St Luke’s Hospital. It can be done, so why isn’t it being done across the board?”
McGuinness is that rare breed of politician who has a brain and isn’t afraid to speak out. Such determination has cost him in career advancement and has not always endeared him to his party colleagues.
But it is a quality far too lacking in Irish politics and certainly lacking around the cabinet table. Given Fianna Fail’s electoral wipeout last February, John McGuinness is now unlikely ever to make it into cabinet. That certainly will be Ireland’s loss.