Corridors of power emptied

One of the glaring gaps in the current arrangement in the civil service is the absence of a performance management system for secretaries general, writes Kevin Rafter

Corridors of power emptied

THE senior civil servants who run government departments are among the most influential people in the State. Individuals such as Brian Purcell, who headed the Department of Justice until this week, wield considerable power. So when trouble hits a government department — as it has with a tsunami-type impact at the Department of Justice — it is a matter of great public concern.

Earlier this year, I was asked by the Government to chair an Independent Panel to examine how performance and accountability in the civil service, and in particular at a senior level, could be strengthened. Our report is currently on Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform Brendan Howlin’s desk. He is expected to bring an action plan of proposals to Cabinet in the autumn.

Many of the recommendations in the Department of Justice review published this week chime with those we made for the wider civil service. These include introducing regular organisational capacity reviews, ensuring clarity around staff responsibilities, redefining links with agencies and putting greater attention on delivery of promises in strategy statements.

These are not headline-grabbing changes. But their implementation would ensure that the civil service does not in the future receive negative headlines for the type of dysfunctionalities identified in the Department of Justice. Indeed, if our recommendations had been in place, they might well have saved Brian Purcell his job.

One of the glaring gaps in the current administrative arrangement is the absence of a performance management system for secretaries general. Bizarrely, Mr Purcell — like his counterparts across other departments — was not subject to a formal system of performance management. Departments have strategies and targets but the personal objectives for secretaries general are not developed.

It is likely that if Mr Purcell — or before him Michael Kelly at the Department of Health and Kevin Cardiff at the Department of Finance — had been subject to an ongoing performance management system many of the troubles encountered would have been dealt with. We have recommended that a performance management system is in place for 2015. More importantly, we have said it should be accompanied by a structured oversight system.

In truth, these changes, including departmental capacity reviews and stronger performance management systems, would struggle to succeed if they are not matched by an effective oversight system. Somebody needs to oversee their implementation. Somebody needs to challenge senior officials and review progress in their departments. Otherwise, problems fall between the cracks, and dysfunctionalities persist until they reach crisis point.

We talk about the civil service as a single organisation whereas in fact it is a series of organisations. And therein lie difficulties, which our other recommendations, including a new Civil Service Accountability Board with external members and the appointment for the first time of a head of the civil service, would address.

The head of the civil service should be charged with seeking ministerial input into the performance assessment of secretaries general but in a manner that safeguards the independence and political impartiality of the civil service. The performance management system should examine both delivery within departments and contributions to the whole of the government agenda.

With a stronger mechanism for reviewing individual performance and challenging organisation capacity, it should then be easier to address failures to deliver on agreed targets. Contractual obligations may have lessened the ability to dismiss senior officials found culpable for organisational failure. It is frequently said that the private sector appears more willing to dismiss those who are not performing adequately. However, the private sector is not always subject to the strict financial transparency and constraints that exist in the civil service. In this regard, the private sector has more options to deal with poorly performing employees — they can write cheques to pay off problems.

Employment law provisions apply equally in the public and private sector. But there is one crucial difference. Decisions of public sector bodies are open to scrutiny by judicial review. This means a civil servant who is the subject of disciplinary procedures or dismissal has the option to pursue judicial review remedies if the requirements of fair procedures and natural and constitutional justice are not complied with. Having a system that ensures senior officials are actively engaged in performance management throughout the year should however make it more realistic to deal with failure. In the first instance, the probationary period should be used to identify managers who have been promoted to positions that they may be ill-suited to deliver upon. As importantly, when an individual is constantly been reviewed and challenged on their performance problems can be addressed early on, and if appropriate steps can be taken to remove the individual from their position. Such improvements in the management of performance at senior levels would have the additional benefit of having a positive cascading impact throughout the entire civil service.

- Kevin Rafter is associate professor of political communication at Dublin City University and chairman of the Independent Panel on Strengthening Accountability and Performance in the Civil Service

More in this section

News Wrap

A lunchtime summary of content highlights on the Irish Examiner website. Delivered at 1pm each day.

Sign up
Cookie Policy Privacy Policy FAQ Help Contact Us Terms and Conditions

© Irish Examiner Ltd