Civil servants whose mistakes cost millions 'can be sanctioned'

But secretary-general Robert Watt unclear on what sanctions those 'who do their job badly' would face
Civil servants whose mistakes cost millions 'can be sanctioned'

Secretary General for the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform Robert Watt. 'Every worker is entitled to a second chance.' Picture: Oireachtas TV/PA Wire

The top civil servant in the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform has insisted that public servants “who do their job badly” at a loss to the State can face disciplinary sanctions.

Secretary General-Robert Watt this morning appeared before the Public Accounts Committee and said that the matter is one of proportionality, with every worker entitled to a second chance.

Mr Watt’s appearance was to discuss his department’s audited appropriation accounts for 2019.

Under questioning from Fianna Fáil TD Marc MacSharry over the rental of Miesian Plaza in Dublin, headquarters of the Department of Health amongst others, Mr Watt said that it was important to have a working scenario which allows for public servants to “learn from their mistakes”.

However, he was less clearcut as to what disciplinary processes are available to the public sector in such cases.

“You can do your best and make a legitimate mistake,” he said.

We’re not talking learning curve mistakes here. It was a basic mistake, and we’re on the hook for it

Mr MacSharry stated that the Office of Public Works, which manages many of the State’s property assets, had “cost the State €10m” with regard to the miscalculation of rental costs at Miesian Plaza.

“What is the process if definitively, fingerprints on the murder weapon, I messed up. Can you fire me?” he asked.

“I’m talking about negligence and poor performance, not fraud. These are uncertain concepts,” Mr Watt replied. “You can do your best and make a legitimate mistake.” “You have to make it clear to people that if you make repeated mistakes that you will be dealt with.” 

“We’re not talking learning curve mistakes here. It was a basic mistake, and we’re on the hook for it,” Mr MacSharry said.

“If people make a significant mistake it might be that sanction could be appropriate,” Mr Watt replied.

Fianna Fáil TD Marc MacSharry questioned the secretay genegeral over the rental cost of €16m paid by the OPW for Miesian Plaza. Photo: Gareth chaney Collins
Fianna Fáil TD Marc MacSharry questioned the secretay genegeral over the rental cost of €16m paid by the OPW for Miesian Plaza. Photo: Gareth chaney Collins

The OPW had paid rent on Miesian Plaza of €16m after initially agreeing its lease in December 2016, despite the fact it had subsequently stood empty for nearly 18 months.

In 2018 the Comptroller and Auditor General asserted that the wrong rate of rent had been paid at the building due to the floor space within being miscalculated by OPW staff.

The OPW is one of the bodies of interest to the committee which is expected to appear before PAC before the end of this year with regard to the financial management and procurement of State assets.

The PAC was meeting this morning amid news its secretariat was self-isolating after one of its clerks tested positive for Covid-19.

However, the committee heard that the PAC’s members were not considered to be close contacts and as such could continue to attend the Oireachtas in person.

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