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Speech at Institute of Public Administration National Conference

Aviva, Dublin – 12/10/11

Theme of Conference – Developing a High Performance Public Service – Challenges and Choices

Ladies and Gentleman,

I would like to thank the institute of Public Administration for giving me the opportunity to speak to you today regarding the Next Stages in Public Sector Reform. I must confess the first stages, and the progress they generated, have not impinged on my consciousness.

I have been specifically asked to speak about public expenditure and accounting for results.  I can deal with that very quickly: there is too much of the first and very little of the second.

That is my contribution on that subject, but to fill the time allotted to me, with the permission of the chair, and in the hope that you will be tolerant and hear me out, I would like to tell you what I think about Public Sector Reform and what the Oireachtas and the Public Service can do about it. I will speak bluntly because I think the time for fudge has passed.

People born from about 1940 onwards lived in a golden age. By the time they were in their teens, Flower Power, Beatle Power, Pill Power and, in Ireland, Lemass and Whittaker Power were driving changes of one sort or another, in a time of peace and growing prosperity.

I mention Lemass, not because he was Fianna Fáil, but because he was a great statesman.  He, along with TK Whittaker, a great public servant, sidelined De Valera’s romantic vision and, embracing change and pragmatism, which neither of them feared, they set about building a new, dynamic Ireland. It took them, I think, seven years.

In the last twenty years Fianna Fáil, politicians generally, senior public servants and leaders of public service unions, began to dance together to the sound of EU money tinkling into the national till. 

The patriotism that motivated Lemass and Whittaker was buried or blunted by thirteen pieces of EU silver, beginning the decline that has taken us to where we are now.

Last Sunday, on the Marion Finucane Show, in defence of the public service, it was said that senior public servants would not stand up to ministers, because “their career prospects could suffer” As someone whose career prospects did suffer, who is on the Public Accounts Committee and who has interacted with the public service for thirty five years, I can say that this is nonsense.

In fact, many ministers did not stand up to the public service. They allowed themselves to become the glove puppets of senior civil servants,  taking best advise, reading from scripts prepared by their officials and generally acting like press officers for their departments.  The unwritten contract between politicians and public servants was we will look after you if you don’t bother us. It was a Faustian Pact.

No senior public servant, and it is senior public servants we are talking about here, has feared losing his or her job, or having their career prospects damaged for as far back as I can remember. Actually, protected by status, knowledge and powerful unions, they had no difficulty keeping under control those few ministers who wanted to make a difference, as distinct from those who wanted to make a career.

What is shocking about the comment, however, is the acceptance that a senior civil servant should or would place their career prospects before their duty to the Irish people.  I do not believe either politicians or public servants should do that on any serious matter and I am surprised that the statement went unchallenged by the panel or the public.

The fact is that the healthy tension that once existed between officials and their political masters was lost to the detriment of both. I think this happened because ministers became soft and in most matters accepted “best advice”, not having a policy position, or not wanting to engage fully in the process, resulting in senior public servants having to fill the vacuum thus created.

The result was that the power of senior public servants expanded and their respect for ministers, and politicians generally, diminished. Balance was lost and arrogance and lack of accountability crept into the system.  Both politicians and public servants were to blame, but it was the people of Ireland who were to suffer.

Lemass must now be spinning in his grave and I would love to know what Whittaker thinks of the Governments, including somnolent oppositions, senior public servants and the unions, who contributed so much to the mess we are in today.  All of this happened on our watch. Not only are we not fit to stand in their shoes, we should be afraid of their shadows.

I sat on the Public Accounts Committee from 2002 to 2007 after which I began my short but very interesting career as a minister who wanted to make a difference. In both roles, I was shaken by what I saw. I am now Chairman of the committee and if the evidence of the last few months is anything to go by not much has changed. 

The entrenched culture of the public service continues to quietly resist attempts by the Oireachtas to regain control and impose accountability, transparency and efficient management. 

Let me give you some examples of poor public expenditure:

Computer systems in the Central Statistics office and the Garda Fingerprinting Service are not operating properly.

The H.S.E., six years after its establishment, still does not have an integrated financial management system.  How can an organisation with a budget of €14 billion operate without it? Is it any wonder that the H.S.E. is one of the most poorly run organisations in the State? 

It appears not to have the ability to collect €1.47 million wrongly paid to G.P.s  in respect of dead medical card holders. But it has no hesitation about sending debt collectors after vulnerable members of the public who owe it nickels and dimes.

In the coming months PAC will be dealing with infrastructure for which vast sums of money was paid in the boom.  Bought and/or built with enthusiasm, but with little understanding of commercial realities or forward planning, many now are underused or empty.

€2 billion has been spent over the past ten years on water services. Yet, on average, 40% of expensively treated water still leaks back into the ground.

Nearly €5 billion of public money goes to Local Authorities who, along with the Department of Local Government, have quietly done all they can to prevent the Comptroller and Auditor General being able to investigate how it is spent, preferring to use, in defiance of common sense and best practice, an in house auditing division that long ago should have been put under the control of the Auditor General. In house auditing divisions are not a good idea.

Finally, details of the Local Authority audit for 2010 is scheduled for completion in March 2012.  My experience tells me it will be nearer 2013 before we know if €5 billion of public money was well spent, which means that we have no opportunity to make what might be useful and necessary corrections in 11,12 or 13.

The PAC will deal with all of this far too late. It will also deal with some senior civil servants who appear before it barely disguising their contempt for the process and the politicians who are engaged in it, talking down the clock, confident in the knowledge that, incredibly, one of the most important committees of the Dáil has no power to enforce demands for written replies from any official or department, or penalise those who do not comply. So much for accountability.

It is very difficult for politicians, who deal daily with small businessmen, farmers, individuals and families, including frontline public service workers, whose lives have been devastated by an economic collapse that they played no part in, to sit and watch those who presided over the losses of tens of millions as they try to explain how the black holes that the money disappeared into came about.

It is very frustrating to see some senior officials obfuscate and dissimulate about their responsibilities when you know what the cost has been to the ordinary people of this country.

Furthermore, it is a very bad sign when servants of the people treat representatives of the people as an inconvenience.  Perhaps they have forgotten that we live in a republic.

What would Lemass think and what does Whittaker think of the shambles that politicians, public servants, trade unions, bankers and regulators have created. 

We were handed a country on the way up, built on competence, confidence and vision, and a deep sense of public duty and patriotism, and we blew it.  We didn’t measure what was being done, we didn’t save for a rainy day, we were not prudent, we lost the run of ourselves and forgot our duty. We cannot be proud of that.  Now we have three senior international public servants in our country telling us to do what we should have done in the good times without pain or pressure: good housekeeping.

Our grannies, with their care of the pennies and the rainy day money in the teapot, would have done a better job.

I have not come here today to offend or start a row.  I am here because I want to start a debate about what we have to do now, based on what we learned from admitted, fully understood and acknowledged mistakes.  Mistakes are signposts that put us back on the right course, if we heed them.

You are the people in the public service who can do so much for this country. You are the public service leaders of today and tomorrow.  You are the ones who can make Whittaker proud again.  You are the ones who can take decisive, imaginative action. 

You are the ones who can embrace change and deliver the radical actions that will help to restore confidence and prosperity to the country. No government can make a real difference without your help.

Lemass, the politician, could not have done what he did without Whittaker, the civil servant. They respected one another and acted together confidently and courageously in the interest of the country. That is what the government and the public service has to do now. That is what the public are demanding.

Politicians, public servants and unions have to face the realities and meet the standards of a global market place, which demand that a country must be efficient, cost conscious, quick witted, fleet of foot and well managed if it is to succeed. For that to happen here in Ireland, politicians must stand up, public servants must engage and trade unions must co-operate.

Socially, we have to build a country where ambition, achievement and success is recognised and respected, but where naked greed, excess and arrogance are not tolerated.  We have to protect and encourage the people who make up the backbone of this country, the small businessmen, the farmers, the frontline public servants and so on, who want a life, rather than a fortune, for themselves and their families. And, finally, we have to ensure that the weak, the sick, the old and the marginalised are not just given financial support, but also get the thought and care that encourages self belief, supports dignity and avoids creating dependency.  

Forget about the plural.  Are you going to take on the challenge and make the choice that you are going to play a major role in delivering to this country a public service so efficient that it has the support and respect of the Irish people, is a model of best practice at home, and a unique selling point for Ireland abroad.

Will you consign the old orders and attitudes to the dustbin, forego the consultants reports that are an expensive excuse for little or no action, open the windows of your departments to new ideas and state of the art management and human resource practices?

Will you ensure that the bright, eager, ambitious young men and women entering the service are not confronted by a hierarchical system, concerned more with conformity than challenge, but a system within which they can achieve promotion as a result of their efforts and ability, and not because they are prepared to wait, keep their noses clean, avoid mistakes and show a willingness to conform, rather than achieve results.  Will you create a modern vibrant workplace that attracts and allows entrants from the private sector into an organisation that is proud of the fact that the private sector seeks applicants with public sector experience?  Will you promote the values, standards and workplace terms and conditions that make this possible, because you accept that there should be no difference between public and private sector in this regard and this country cannot afford a two tier workforce.

You may feel that I am too forthright, too confrontational in my approach, but all I want is a great public service and I am willing to be all of those things to achieve that goal. Ireland needs what you can give; it needs you to fulfil your potential and encourages others to fulfil theirs.  It needs you to embrace change, to take chances and follow Whittaker.

I urge you to take on the challenge of making our public service part of the team that helps this country to be successful and sensible, and not just simply to be controllers and spenders of that success. I want you to be proactive in supporting business. I want you to be eager to give Ireland a better cutting edge; eager to engage; willing to take risks; happy to help and confident enough to be flexible and understanding, without feeling the need to reach for the rule book to the point of suffocation, thereby dispelling the resentment that many businesses and individuals now feel towards the State.

This country needs public service organisations to be on the field rather then in the dressing room. At a time when bureaucratic institutions in many countries are under pressure to act faster and do more with less, we should show the way.  You are not separate from our economy.  You are a huge and important part of it. Ireland is a small nation of about 4 million people and I don’t believe that our public servants are any less creative, courageous, inventive and enthusiastic for success as their fellow countrymen, who fight for business in the market places of the world.

Join them.  Be adventurous, take a chance. Whittaker was a great civil servant.  Lemass was a great politician.  In six or seven years they radically reformed this country.  Working together, politicians and public servants can do that today.  It is a prize worth fighting for; a bullseye worth aiming for; a mountain worth climbing. Together, we can do it.

Thanks very much for your time.

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