Daniel McConnell: Nothing will change if nobody is held responsible

Robert Watt from the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform told a gathering of business leaders in 2014 that the civil service was in need of structural change and required some new leadership — but five years later, €1.8m bill for the Oireachtas printer scandal typifies just how little things have changed, writes Daniel McConnell

Robert Watt
Robert Watt

FIVE years ago, Robert Watt, the top-spending civil servant in the country, addressed a high-powered business breakfast of movers and shakers in a Dublin hotel.

In what was a surprisingly frank address, Watt laid out a very stark impression of the performance and culture of the civil service.

“I am upfront about the deficiencies we have in terms of our capacity and our delivery. I accept the criticisms being made. We are as frustrated at times as others at the pace of reform.

“There are structural changes within the system we are trying to address. In the past, nobody was responsible for the public sector, nobody was responsible for driving change.”

Watt continued:

“Now the Taoiseach knows, sadly and regrettably from my point of view, who to ring to give out to when he is not happy. That is a first step, an important first step.”

For him, he said, the biggest challenge had been a lack of leadership by managers throughout the public service, whether it be in the health sector or in education or another department.

“There are leadership gaps across the public sector. Often when you see a failure in a good project and you delve down, you find what it is going on and you find the leadership or the lack of leadership that is the problem. It comes down to individual people who, for some reason, are not willing to go with it,” he said.

But it was in response to one question that Watt conceded that, all too often, decisions are slowed down by fearful officials who are afraid of making mistakes and being caught out.

“In our system, people are risk-averse. But they are risk-averse because they respond to incentives. If you do wonderful things in the public service, you don’t get that many plaudits, you don’t get any plaudits. You might get your minister thanking you and you know you are doing a good job.”

He continued:

“If you mess up, you’ll read all about it in the papers. You’ll be hauled before the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) to explain. So they are risk-averse. That leads to slow decision-making and a lack of decision-making.”

He then gave a most revealing description of the culture of mediocrity that permeates the permanent government.

Watt said: “Someone said to me once that the perfect civil service career is to play 40 games, score no goals, concede no goals, win no matches, lose no matches — draw all your games and they will make you secretary-general. And there is an element of truth to that statement.”

He added: “We need to make the structural changes. We need new leadership, but overarching all this is a cultural change that involves us, involves the business community, it involves the media, it involves the PAC to accept the mistakes that we made to try and deal with success and failure in sensible ways.”

Watt also spoke of the “very inefficient” way in which the State has to date spent its money when buying goods and said that many millions of euro would now be saved as a result.

Coming to the end of 2019, it is clear very little has changed as to how our civil service operates.

This has not been a good week for those people who are charged with running the State’s affairs and minding the public purse.

The €1.8m bill for the Oireachtas printer scandal typifies just how little things have changed.

As played out before the PAC on Thursday, this was “a mess from start to finish” as Sinn Féin’s David Cullinane put it.

Sinn Féin’s David Cullinane
Sinn Féin’s David Cullinane

A rush to spend money before a budget deadline appeared to set in train a series of events which has hit the taxpayer with an eye-watering over-spend. Depending on your perspective, that over-spend is either €500,000 or €750,000.

Either way, somebody cocked up.

“This was a mess from start to finish and we were not informed when the accounting officer was before us,” Cullinane said.

“It is clear mistakes were made, but it is not clear from this report who made them.”

Cullinane said the cost of the printer was “significantly more than it should have been, it seems, because mistakes were made”.

The truth is mistakes like this continue to happen because there is no sanction.

No one is ever held to account. Ever.

I remember ringing the Central Bank and the Department of Finance well into the crash to ask had any of their staff been sacked for bringing the country to its knees. Unsurprisingly, the answer was a clear no.

On Thursday at the PAC, Fianna Fáil transport spokesman Marc MacSharry hit the nail on the head.

“As always happens at this committee when matters like this emerge — a few at least occur every year that capture the media’s attention in a major way — and I have said this many times here before, that there are no tangible sanctions when we have blatant incompetence,” he said.

“Would one last the rest of the day in the private sector? One certainly would not be after a month. In this instance, people are entitled to look for a head. We cannot have a level of autopilot that leads to waste and loss of money which is down to pure incompetence.

“There is nothing complex about this at all. It is basic cop-on. No university degree, no master’s or PhD qualification is required, just a simple cop-on. The seven-page report, as far as I am concerned, may as well be thrown into the nearest shredder.

“It is an utter disgrace and it is going on in every aspect of Government Departments and State agencies, and we then blame it on systemic failure in a very complex process, where very specialised people are required to advise us on this.

“It is about time our public service and individuals who are paid high salaries, ourselves as politicians included, had to answer and face tangible sanction for blatant incompetence.”[/quiote]

But the people involved in the printing scandal are not alone.

The PAC also published its latest progress report into various matters and unearthed a whole series of cock-ups, overspends, and bad practice across the system.

There was the €750,000 lost by a department in the NTMA because of a foul-up on a currency conversion.

When asked was anyone sanctioned or sacked, the answer again was no.

There was the revelation that the number and cost of claims against the State continues to escalate year on year, particularly claims arising from clinical negligence.

“To date, there is no evidence of a functioning systems-wide approach in the Health Service Executive to incorporate learnings from associated incidents across the entire health sector. The failure to incorporate learnings is itself likely to contribute to the increase of such claims,” the PAC said.

While Watt’s perceptions of the dysfunctionality of the civil service in 2014 were well-founded, the revelations this week have shown little has changed and little will change as long as people can waste money and get away with it.

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