Culture Shift Required

The grilling Kevin Cardiff got over the ‘missing €3.6bn’ was probably unique for a civil servant, but it is not clear yet if this represents a new era of accountability, writes Michael Clifford

KEVIN CARDIFF must think he is the unluckiest bunny ever to emerge from the civil service.

The outgoing secretary general of the Department of Finance has been thrust into the spotlight on two fronts, both of which highlight the culture of our public service. He is being promoted on a basis other than performance, and is shipping blame for malfunction in his bailiwick. The first of these matters has long been standard practice in the public service, but holding to account a senior public servant is almost entirely unique.

Cardiff is being nominated as Ireland’s next appointee to the European Court of Auditors. In monetary terms, this represents a nice promotion. His current job has a pay cap of €200,000, but if, he goes to Europe, he will be on about €240,000. He will also boost his choice public service pension by about €60,000 per annum if he stays the full term. As Senator Shane Ross put it to him in a Public Accounts Committee meeting last week, he is “leaving with his saddlebags full”.

The promotion is not specifically a reward for a job well done, nor is it an effort to improve the workings of the Court of Auditors. It is well known that the Coalition wants to sweep a broom through the parts of the upper echelons of the public service which are identifiable with some of the decisions of the previous government.

Cardiff comes under that category, irrespective of whether such as classification is fair to him. So, the only way to rid themselves of the public servant is to shove him off to Luxembourg.

Cardiff will not be welcomed with open arms by the court of auditors. The current Irish appointee, Eoin O’Shea, replaced his predecessor Marie Geoghegan Quinn in November 2009, when she was appointed to the plum post of European commissioner.

The president of the court, Vitor Caldeira, wrote to the Government last month supporting the retention of O’Shea in the name of continuity and precedent. Caldeira was taking the sensible position that the court should not be a venue for political musical chairs. The Government rejected his entreaties. Plum jobs in Irish political and public service have long been viewed as tools of patronage and convenience; that hasn’t changed, despite Fine Gael and Labour pre-election guff about a new way of doing things.

Now the nomination has run into more trouble. The emergence of the story of the “missing €3.6 billion”, attributable to an accounting error in the Department of Finance, has thrown Cardiff into the spotlight again. As the returning officer for the department, the buck, as he admits himself, stops with him. Yet, as far as the Government is concerned, he can leave the buck behind him in his office when he exits on his saddlebagged horse. Expediency trumps accountability as far as Enda Kenny’s Cabinet is concerned, despite the objections of TDs, Labour MEPs Nessa Childers and Phil Prendergast, as well as Fine Gael’s Sean Kelly, and even junior minister Sean Sherlock.

The episode goes to the heart of the culture that infects the public service at all levels. Performance is an optional extra; promotion often has a distant relationship with performance; a sense of entitlement trumps any notion about serving the public.

The culture prevails despite the best efforts of many within the sector (there is no reason to believe Cardiff hasn’t performed to the best of his ability). Every citizen is introduced to the culture as a child. Many teachers are enthused, conscientious, driven, even vocational about their job. Others are competent. Yet every child has come across the teacher who is serving time, uninterested and as obsessed about her entitlements as predecessors used to be on the Catechism. The problem is that the prevailing culture allows for precious little distinction between all three categories.

The same applies across the board, from janitors to hospital consultants. Of the latter, many who pour practically all their energy into the public service element of their contract, while others keep an eye on the clock in order to shoot off and earn a more lucrative crust from private work.

The culture was illustrated last weekend in a Sunday Times story based on documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act.

A performance ranking scheme introduced for civil servants in 2007 measures on a scale of one to five. Staff who receive at least a two are eligible for an incremental payment, which can be up to €3,000 a year. Staff who score a three or above can apply for promotion.

Initially, the company that designed the system estimated that up to 30% of employees would be rated at two or lower. Last year, just 1.02% of those rated received such a score. Of 17,728 staff assessed by their managers last year, only nine got the lowest rating.

One could read into such figures that we have a public service that is operating at an extraordinary high level. It’s the kind of performance one could imagine being extracted from a staff of German robots on a profit-sharing deal under the command of Michael O’Leary. The idea that the civil service is achieving such levels of efficiency is for the birds.

THE results in the Department of Finance make for surreal reading.

In 2007, while the signs of impending doom were being repeatedly ignored by the department and its political masters, 83% of staff received a rating of four or five. Maybe nobody told them what was going on in the domestic and international economies and they were efficiently living through blissful ignorance.

According to the documents, a recent workshop of civil servants was told that the ludicrous results were partly attributable to managers who “did not like tackling underperformance” and feared a “backlash from unions” if they tried to do so.

This carry-on illustrates the priorities within the system, particularly at management level. For low paid staff, often doing low skilled work, complacency is a constant danger. Now we see that those who succumb to it are as well received as those who maintain their enthusiasm and application.

At managerial level, despite the decent salaries and bloated pensions, many cheerfully admit they are not doing their jobs properly because it would attract grief from the unions. Any manager who admitted to that in the private sector would be down the road in jig time. It’s nothing short of a bad joke, and the joke is on both the public and those within the system who are doing their honest best.

While the culture has long been prevalent, it undoubtedly flourished in the latter decades of social partnership, particularly since Fianna Fáil and the PDs came to power in 1997. One of the great policy decisions which played right into the hands of the prevailing culture was benchmarking.

This was a ruse for votes disguised as an effort to bring pay and conditions in the public sector in line with that available in the private sector.

The first benchmarking report was published in July 2002, and it recommended an average special increase of nearly 9% for middle and high ranking public servants such as ministers, TDs, and managerial staff, along with all public service pensioners.

The report strongly recommended that three quarters of the increase be withheld until agreement was reached on how efficiencies in the service would be delivered, to be monitored by an “appropriate validation process”.

The next year, Charlie McCreevy told the Dáil: “I would like to stress that the payments are dependent on compliance with the terms of the agreement. If the conditions are not met in any sector, grade or organisation, the payments will not be made.”

It was typical McCreevy bluster; little changed, and the money was paid. A tone was set at political level. Here’s a few extra euro for yourself; performance is an optional extra.

The culture has become so pervasive over the past decade that in March, the incoming government created a department to tackle it. The Department of Public Expenditure and Reform has its job cut out, even if the political will exists to implement proper reform. One only hopes any new “appropriate validation process” fares better than those which have been deployed heretofore.

So it is possible to see why Kevin Cardiff might consider himself the unluckiest of bunnies. Precious few of his predecessors ever had to suffer under the withering gaze of the likes of Shane Ross. None ever had to listen to a TD like Mary Lou McDonald effectively submit them to the lash for running a ship that could leak so much money. None of them were ever subjected to such a public, critical evaluation of their performance, particularly if en route out the door.

It just wasn’t the done thing, but it’s high time it started to be if the ship of state is ever to right itself from its listing position. And this Government has yet to show the conviction required to straighten things out.

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