Alison O'Connor: We haven't had enough salary shaming when it comes to our top civil servants

Robert Watt's proposed pay increase alone – €81,000 – is way more than twice the median annual earnings of Irish workers
Alison O'Connor: We haven't had enough salary shaming when it comes to our top civil servants

Robert Watt has been appointed interim secretary general of the Department of Health. If, as all expect, he gets the job, it will be on a salary of about €292,000, meaning he gets a pay hike of €81,000. Picture: Gareth Chaney, Collins

Personally, I’d be utterly mortified. I don’t care how many courses you’d done to improve your self-worth or how often your parents told you as a child that you were so special you could hang the stars. How many 'because I’m worth it' vibes would a person need to be channelling to allow themselves to accept an obnoxiously large public service salary bonus in the middle of a pandemic?

Having said that, how could a Government award such a belter of a salary to a public servant – the clue is in the title – at a time like this? If this is salary shaming, well then we haven’t had enough of it.

The insider’s insider, Robert Watt, has been appointed interim secretary general of the Department of Health. If, as all expect, he gets the job, it will be on a salary of about €292,000, meaning he gets a pay hike of €81,000. 

This is the ultimate 'do as I say but not as I do' from a man who has been hanging on to the nation’s purse strings for a number of years in his role as secretary general of the Department of Public Enterprise and Reform (DPER). 

Pandemics have few positives. One plus for a government, though, is that if there is any other bad news to be dealt with, it usually gets swallowed up by the absolute deluge of virus-related awfulness that assails us every day. 

However, this pay hike has continued to garner attention because it is the antithesis of everything else that is going on in our lives. 

It affronts, it insults and it erodes that sense of collective Covid-fighting effort – already on shaky ground after the explosion of Christmas-related cases.

At a time when hundreds of thousands of people are concerned about their jobs and what the future holds financially, this proposed pay increase alone – €81,000 – is way more than twice the median annual earnings of Irish workers. 

If we are to look at the salary, boosted to about €292,000 now, that’s over eight times those median earnings of about €36,000.

Looking around the immediate health landscape, HSE CEO Paul Reid gets paid about €350,000 in a financial package that had to be increased after an initial competition failed to find a successor to Tony O’Brien, who stepped down at the height of the CervicalCheck controversy. Mr O’Brien was paid about €200,000 when he did the job.

The other “door opener” as far as eye-watering salaries in the public sector is concerned was for Garda Commissioner Drew Harris.

When Mr Harris was appointed Garda Commissioner in 2018, it was on a salary of €250,000 – a bump up of €70,000 compared with his predecessor, Nóirín O’Sulllivan. Actually, it was also a bump up of €70,000 for him personally, compared with what he earned as PSNI deputy chief constable.

When Drew Harris was appointed Garda Commissioner in 2018, it was on a salary of €250,000 – a bump up of €70,000 compared with his predecessor, Nóirín O’Sulllivan. Picture: Gareth Chaney, Collins

When Drew Harris was appointed Garda Commissioner in 2018, it was on a salary of €250,000 – a bump up of €70,000 compared with his predecessor, Nóirín O’Sulllivan. Picture: Gareth Chaney, Collins

Nóirín O’Sullivan announced her retirement in September 2017 after a number of controversies, chiefly surrounding Garda whistleblower Maurice McCabe. The force would be left without a permanent commissioner for one year until Drew Harris was finally appointed.

Are you seeing a pattern here? An arm of the State – be it An Garda Síochána, the HSE, the Department of Health – ends up in bad shape over a long period, giving the strong impression of being really poorly run and desperately in need of a shake-up. The public becomes weary of the never-ending cycle of controversies. The government of the day makes every effort to keep it at arm's length until things become so bad it has to act.

In the case of the previous secretary general of the Department of Health, Jim Breslin, he was due to finish a seven-year stint there at the end of this year, but departed during the summer to take up the same position in the Department of Further and Higher Education.

'Do you want Robert to go down to the Department of Health to be Paul Reid’s boss on half the money he’s on?' asked one senior civil service insider. Picture: Sam Boal / Photocall Ireland

'Do you want Robert to go down to the Department of Health to be Paul Reid’s boss on half the money he’s on?' asked one senior civil service insider. Picture: Sam Boal / Photocall Ireland

There has been much worthy praise for the work of our health services and the Department of Health during the pandemic. But the structural issues that always existed remain. Traditionally, when there is a problem, the department blames the HSE and vice versa. For its part, the Government says it is almost impossible to deal with the department in terms of policy change.

So it was another case of the Government needing to attract a 'change agent' of high calibre and with a proven track record. 

Regardless of the pandemic times in which we find ourselves, and indeed the efforts and sacrifice being made by health service staff all over the country, the salary apparently had to be one that made a statement that this was another 'big boy' job.

“Do you want Robert to go down to the Department of Health to be Paul Reid’s boss on half the money he’s on?” 

This was the question posed by one senior civil service insider when asked his opinion on the salary issue. He also acknowledged that the vast majority of people who work in the civil service, including those in the upper echelons, are not generally motivated by financial reasons.

On top of all this cash floating around, we also have the personalities involved. Mr Watt, soon to be on €292,000, is known to be pugnacious. He used to work in the DPER with Paul Reid, now on about €350,000. 

The HSE boss is said to have an extremely strained relationship with chief medical officer Dr Tony Holohan, also known to have a strong personality. He is on €187,000. 

At the bottom of the salary pile is Stephen Donnelly, the health minister, not a man with any obvious confidence issues either, on just under €180,000.

However, even in retirement Mr Watt will remain, by a long stretch, the top money dog. Is it naive to mix into this the notion of the satisfaction of serving one's country during a 100-year event such as a pandemic? 

This question is posed particularly in light of Robert Watt already being guaranteed an extraordinarily generous retirement package funded by the State. It’s no longer available to anyone else, but he is one of a very select few, less than a handful of men at the same level in the civil service, that will receive an annual pension of around €145,000, a once-off lump sum of around €438,000, and a separate special severance payment of €142,670. 

No top-of-the-head calculations here. You’ll need to pull out the calculator. That’s a total package of around €725,000 the year he walks out the door. That is truly an embarrassing amount of money. Well for some of us anyway. Or maybe it’s just me.

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