Reform agenda’s leading light

THE leaves are brown. The Battle of the Estimates is under way. Blood is flowing along the corridors at the heart of Government.

As usual, the spending departments are seeking to fend off encroachments from a Department of Finance now operating to the instructions of the experts from the troika.

It is almost a year since Ireland became a ward of the European Central Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the European Union.

Under the terms of the bailout, the state operates within a painfully tight straitjacket and officials must achieve the Mission: Near Impossible of sucking another €4 billion or so out of the economy to ensure that in 2012, the country’s budget deficit is kept to within 8.6% of national output.

One politician scratching furiously this week has been the Communications and & Energy Minister Pat Rabbitte.

The seasoned Labour politician popped up on the national airwaves to let people know that an impass-ioned debate was under way in Cabinet about the scale of cuts and tax increases.

Rabbitte has made clear which side he is on. He favours limiting the adjustment to €3.6bn, tying himself closely to the position of trade union leaders such as ICTU’s David Begg, or so we are being led to believe.

There is a real debate under way among economists. Members of the new Fiscal Council argue we should cut and tax even more to get ahead of the curve so we have something in reserve next year to meet the possibility of further deterioration in the economy.

This view is not shared, however, by Alan McQuaid of Bloxham Stockbrokers, who argues that too much austerity could hit the country’s ability to grow itself out of trouble.

The ESRI’s John Fitzgerald, meanwhile, is taking a wait-and-see approach, but his colleague, Joe Durcan, opts for deeper cuts now.

Right at the heart of the struggle is the Public Expenditure and Reform Minister&, Brendan Howlin, and his right-hand man, Robert Watt, the secretary general of Howlin’s newly created department — effectively the domestic wing of the Department of Finance.

Howlin and Watt have been out and about in recent weeks unveiling plans for a new public service model. We have been here before. In the 1980s, John Boland was put in charge of public service reform.

Boland brought in new blood from outside the service as well as career breaks. However, he was gone before he could really change the culture.

In the 1990s, we had Delivering Better Government; lots of glitzy documents delivered in marbled halls.

The last decade brought euphoria and a spending binge. Reforms got sidelined. And then suddenly we were revisiting the 80s.

So given the sheer scale of our crisis, will it be different this time round?

Howlin is an able politician who knows how to deliver a good speech. But the jury is out on whether he will be able to match this with concrete achievement in the face of those formidable barriers, inertia and collective self interest.

Watt, meanwhile, is more of an unknown quantity. At 41, he is just older than the legendary Ken Whitaker was when he assumed control at the Department of Finance in 1956.

If Watt turns out to be fit to lick Whitaker’s boots, we will all be in a better place. They, at least, will have the backing of the troika. Irish people have been better at taking orders from outsiders than responding to one of their own.

This week Watt spoke at the annual conference of the Institute of Public Administration. The hall was tightly packed with a sprinkling of public sector chiefs executive.

The secretary general sounded self-confident — almost excessively so, in the view of one shrewd observer, an old public service hand.

When deputy John McGuinness, chair of the Public Accounts Committee, harked back to the golden age of Lemass and Whitaker, Watt could not suppress his impatience.

“I hate these analogies with Whitaker. That was a long time ago,” he declared.

The secretary general proceeded to set out his vision of a public service based on e-government and shared services, with significantly fewer officials available to answer the phone to the public.

But McGuinness raised a valid concern: online government is all very well, but what about those people, the older or less educated, who do not have access to a computer?

One public servant raised a concern about the danger in a lack of reflective, long-term thinking. Watt responded: “If you are in a boat that is leaking, you are not worrying about the next boat trip.”

The secretary general has the breezy enthusiasm of a man who has experienced the world of the private sector, having worked with leading economic consultants Indecon, for much of the past decade.

Watt will have gleaned real knowledge from his experience of outside corporate life.

In June, his department launched a new data bank, improving public access to Department of Finance figures going back to 1994.

At the time he said: “Our aim is to put Ireland at the leading edge of what is available, in terms of openness and transparency of public expenditure data.”

UCC political scientist Jane Suiter described this as “arguably the biggest piece of political reform that this Government has under-taken”.

However, the struggle to overhaul Ireland’s public service will be lengthy and it will be years before we can gauge the extent of the success enjoyed.

Watt talked about efficiencies in state asset management and the use of IT, both of which have more than a whiff of noughties sensibilities about them.

The Institute of Public Administration expert Richard Boyle believes, however, that dogged work on the data, ensuring that sources of reliable information are put in place, is what really achieves results.

In other words, public service reform is about hard graft. And Watt will need to put in the hours while making sure he can bring the bureaucrats with him.

While politicians like McGuinness, Howlin and Rabbitte live in the here and now, living and dying by the soundbite, the permanent officials must work to ensure that the figures add up and that the ship does not drift off course.

At the same time, their job is to plan for the public service of the future.

Perhaps Watt should be reading up about Whitaker after all.

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