Culture change

The Croke Park deal maintains the status quo within our public sector when what is required is a radical reform of the service, says John McGuinness TD

THERE are only so many ways you can say you believe it is not going to happen — and, in my opinion, the Croke Park Agreement was the greatest heist since Paris put his arms around Helen of Troy. And the outcome is proving to be just as costly.

Public service reform and the Croke Park Agreement needs to be carefully scrutinised and policed.

I am a member of Fianna Fáil and I accept that we made big mistakes and deserved to be punished for them.

The Croke Park deal was negotiated by unionised senior public servants, representing the Government, and trade unions that were, well, representing public servants. That is as big a conflict of interest as you can get.

The then Fianna Fáil-led Government should have appointed external labour relations and human resources professionals to do the negotiations, or, at least, lead the team, which might have made the exchanges a little more robust, and cost the country a lot less. The fact that they didn’t was a failure of leadership.

The agreement copper-fastened the pay, pensions and perks of senior public service managers much more than it protected front-line workers. Very little reforming was done, until the troika rode into town and began kicking this Government into action.

There have been reductions in staff, but was this done crudely and have we lost people we should have retained? How many people have been rehired, and at what cost? The extent of the reforms and how radical they are depend on how you separate hard facts from fiction in government press releases.

Now, again, a government is depending on conflicted trade unions and public servants to implement programmes that it should be driving and controlling itself, using a team of independent, external professionals. It is, again, a failure of leadership. When you take into account who negotiated the agreement and who is largely implementing it, is it that difficult to come to a decision about its worth?

Eighteen months after this Government came to power, most quangos are still there and, while it may not be difficult to get rid of them and their board members, it will be a very different matter with their secretariats, because they are manned by public servants. What do you do with them if you close down the quangos? Where will they go?

Reform will proceed at a snail’s pace. The Government will crow loudly and walk gently, and slowly, over eggshells. Like previous administrations, it lacks at least four essentials necessary to deal with the problem:

* A clear vision of what needs to be achieved;

* An understanding of how it can be achieved;

* An appreciation of just how serious the problem is, and

* How urgently it needs to be addressed and, crucially, the courage and maybe the ability to take on the task in any meaningful manner.

And it does not understand that it is a culture, rather than people, it is dealing with. I believe the outcome will be a failure of leadership.

Why do we need to radically reform our public service? Because it is not fit for purpose. Like all tired cultures, it is in need of fresh blood, new ideas, challenge and a sense of purpose.

Tennyson put it well: “The old order changeth, yielding place to new, And God fulfils Himself in many ways, Lest one good custom should corrupt the world”

He was talking about change being the only certainty and telling us that those institutions, political parties, cultures and countries that do not embrace it, no matter how good or great they originally were, stagnate and finally die, or are destroyed.

There is really no use blaming people in the public service for the decrepit state it is in now. The slide into that condition began some time ago. Most of our current public servants joined the service on leaving school, becoming members of a culture already way beyond its finest hour.

They committed to the instincts of the collective, with its suspicion of individuality and exceptionality and its desire to resist change and defend the status quo. That is how spent cultures survive, and they self-perpetuate until they self-destruct, unless a strong exterior force intervenes, which is what successive governments have not done. And, I believe, this government isn’t doing it either.

What do you expect from this bonfire of ambitions, individuality, effort, vision and enthusiasm?

Do we really need to count the many ways it is not working, or why it cannot work? Better to concentrate on where we are, where we go from here and how we get there.

Recently a senior public servant told me that the core values of the service were: honesty, integrity, impartiality, respect for the law, respect for persons, diligence, responsiveness and accountability.

All very Corinthian, necessary and laudable, even if I have some difficulty with “responsiveness and accountability.” But, generally, I agree. But, if professionalism, transparency, personal responsibility, value for money, speed, vision, state-of-the-art management systems, controls and human resources practices, and a commitment to excellence are not quickly added to the list, Ireland will be left behind, because a Corinthian, in both meanings of that word, public sector is ill-equipped to meet the challenges facing this country nationally and internationally.

I see our public sector as a major pillar of our economy. I want it to be confidently up front, supporting, advising and urging on our businessmen and entrepreneurs, giving ministers real best advice, arguing for it if necessary, and ensuring that public service organisations are managed and run in accordance with the standards of private sector best practice.

In the future, much more will be required of senior and middle managers in the public service. We must have experienced generalists and professionals, operating together, who can negotiate, take decisions, lead, control and manage, and, if necessary, argue with their political masters for the good of the country.

Attitudes, qualities and qualifications will be required, which, for historic and cultural reasons, and restrictive employment practices, are rare in European countries, including Ireland, who rely heavily on generalists, and place too much value on consensus, which in my opinion, has contributed greatly to the state Europe is in today.

The exception is Germany, particularly, and one or two others, in my experience, who have hardened their socialist hearts with sensible doses of capitalism. You can see that in Germany’s stand on Europe today.

German money will not be spent on propping up poor management and sloppy thinking. Irish taxpayers’ money shouldn’t either.

Leaders in the public service should face down its cultural fear of change. They should accept that it must make itself fit to face the challenges of a modern economy and begin the process of change by employing, or hiring, accountants and management and human resources specialists, with private sector experience, to introduce and maintain the modern workplace practices and procedures needed.

That task cannot be undertaken without the active involvement, encouragement and support of Leinster House and Liberty Hall, neither of whom have shown much appetite for anything ‘radical’, apart from rhetoric, since they left the Arc.

Trade unions need to take a long look at how their lack of engagement with modern labour relations practices has help to maintain a culture that has done so much damage for so long to our public service, and the working lives of public servants.

Unions, and the world, have travelled far from the days of the Todpuddle Martyrs or James Connolly. Workers are in a much better place, and attending to their higher needs is as important as their pay and conditions.

I say this because nobody who represents the public sector is doing them a favour. They are doing a job they have chosen to and are usually well paid to do. Once we are seen as professionals, and judged as professionals, rather than the guardian angels some public representatives pretend to be, the public will expect more and be much harsher in their judgments.

Union co-operation will be needed if Government is to achieve the radical reforms that are required. The time to abandon narrow interests for the sake of the country has come. In any case, the positive outcomes will certainly benefit public servants, and their unions, in the long term.

Our political leaders too need to be impatient about rebuilding this country. Our people are in a hard place. But this is a time when strong, visionary leadership can work wonders. It is a time when politics can reclaim the ground that it has lost, by leading the climb up the mountain of challenges and opportunities that lies ahead.

* John McGuinness is chairperson of the Dáil’s Public Accounts Committee.

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