From passports to driving tests, Covid-19's impact on public services will continue to be felt

Public services have been impacted hard by the pandemic from the outbreak of Covid-19
From passports to driving tests, Covid-19's impact on public services will continue to be felt

While questions have been raised about the status of staff, the Passport Office says that they have been busy handling queries from the public and assisting in consular cases. File picture. 

In 2019, the Passport Office handled a total of over 957,000 applications, issuing 935,000 books and cards.

So far in 2021, it has processed little more than 20,000 "simple adult renewals", in the region 2,000 urgent and around 200 emergency applications.

The numbers are a stark reminder of the impact that the pandemic has had on the international travel which many took for granted. But they are also a reminder of the impact has had on the services of a range of state and semi-state bodies as well as local authorities, as the pandemic forces backlogs which will have to be faced once life returns to even some semblance of normality, to say nothing of the backlogs that Covid will have caused in the health system.

For its part, the Passport Office says that it will resume full services when the country moves to Level 4 restrictions.

"The Passport Service has a comprehensive plan in place to resume all services, in line with the National Framework for Living with Covid-19. When operations resume at Level 4, all applications received via Passport Online will be processed. The Passport Service is confident, taking into account measures to ensure a safe workplace, that any Passport Online backlog can be cleared in six to eight weeks."

With talk of international travel more or less non-existent for most people for over a year now, the workings of the passport office are a distant memory for the vast majority of the population. But the closure has led to many applicants having important documentation - GNIB cards, for example - held onto for months on end, which the Department of Foreign Affairs says is being made a priority.

Public sector challenges

It is a reminder that while the rest of society is closed and adapting to challenges, so too is the public sector.

While questions have been raised about the status of staff, the Passport Office says that they have been busy handling queries from the public and assisting in consular cases.

Junior Minister at the Department of Agriculture Martin Heydon recently told the Dáil that there is 92,000 outstanding applications in the system, but said that the system was well placed to handle it.

"While this might seem like a large number, in the context of the passport service, it is quite small. 

"In the same period in 2019, approximately 420,000 applications were received, and in 2020 approximately 260,000 applications were received. 

Two thirds of applications are for renewals of passports. 

That is important because once services are resumed fully, these can be processed quite quickly because of the technological advancements in the passport service over the past four years."

However, Leader of Seanad Éireann Regina Doherty has said that paused public services such as passport applications must be resumed.

The Passport Office is just one example of where services have been curtailed or paused.

Driving tests on hold

There is now an average 25-week waiting list for a driving test. 

More than 100,000 learner drivers are waiting for their tests, including a combined 10,000 in the four Cork test centres.

New figures released to Cork TD Sean Sherlock show Tallaght is the worst hit centre in the country, with 10,449 waiting for a test appointment.

Two test centres in Dublin top the list, with 7,427 people waiting for a test appointment in Finglas.

Wilton, in Cork, completes the top three, with 5,845 people in the queue, with a further 2,020 waiting for a slot at Mallow, 1,026 in Ballincollig, and 1,104 in Skibbereen.

Junior Minister for Transport Hildegarde Naughton has said temporary testers will be used to tackle the backlog.
Junior Minister for Transport Hildegarde Naughton has said temporary testers will be used to tackle the backlog.

Another 80,000 people are waiting on a driver theory test. While the Road Safety Authority (RSA) is examining ways to do 50,000 tests a month, it is also looking at making these tests available online.

Junior Minister for Transport Hildegarde Naughton said 76 temporary testers will be used to tackle the backlog.

Everyday services have also been impacted. In Cork City Council, for example, walk-ins to City Hall are not allowed and many services are operating on an appointment basis only. This means that planning or other services have had to be redesigned or changed.

The council says, however, that it would prefer business be done virtually.

"The planning system is open to members of the public by appointment only. in accordance with public health guidelines and in the interest of the safety of both visitors and staff, the Development Management section will continue to encourage transactions to be carried out through email, telephone and video conferencing."

Cork City Council affected

Cork City Council did not respond to questions about the overall impact of the pandemic on services, but other councils laid out the significant changes they have made.

In Cork County, a web portal launched in 2017 has seen a 102% growth in demand, a spokesperson said, saying that 111 new services were added "For much of the last year, various levels of Covid restrictions have meant in-person services moved online, or were catered for by phone, email or by appointment. Local authorities will continue to keep

Access to Cork City Council services has needed to move online. 
Access to Cork City Council services has needed to move online. 

service provision under review in line with Government guidance.

"Cork County Council's YourCouncil.ie online service portal was introduced at the beginning of 2017 and has shown a marked increase in usage since its inception, with over 250 services developed since the portal was launched.

"In 2020, 111 new online services were added to the portal, which saw service requests increase by 102% from the previous year with 58,932 requests received."

In Galway City, a spokesperson said that a number of functions had moved online, including:

  •  Job interviews 
  •  Formal consulation processes in planning and transport 
  •  Libraries and cultural services 
  •  Council meetings 

This is almost uniformly seen across local authorities, with roads, maintenance and housing services all continuing where possible.

Services continued where possible

Galway City Council said that many of its core services had been deemed essential under Level 5 and that they had continued where possible.

"All local authority services, subject to a few exceptions predominantly in the cultural and leisure area, have been deemed essential during the current Level 5 restrictions. Sections are therefore expected to provide a full range of services in line with prevailing government and public health advice and guidelines and continue with ‘business as normal’, in so far as practicable."

In Limerick City and County, the council says the enforced move online has come as part of a broader move to offer services online.

"Limerick City and County Council has a broader policy of developing our online services where possible. However many services such as Housing Maintenance, Cemeteries remain the same, albeit with restrictions due to health and government guidance."

In Dublin, the city council says that its public counters are open only by appointment, with "all new services such as Restart Grant, Covid mobility measures...provided online".

A spokesperson for Dun Laoghaire Rathdown Council said that "while there has been a drop off in the number of visits to public buildings and branch libraries due to public health restrictions, demand for and provision of online services by the Council have increased significantly".

But while the change in how services are delivered has meant a change in how staff work, it has not majorly impacted staffing levels across the public sector.

No staff furloughs in public service

Across government departments and the largest local authorities, no staff have been furloughed at any time during the pandemic, the Irish Examiner was told. Few have been redeployed within their departments and the numbers seconded to social welfare or testing and tracing efforts are minimal.

Across the board, however, mammoth tasks of giving access to remote work for entire departments in a matter of days were undertaken last March as the pandemic took hold.

Remote working has been introduced widely across the Civil Service in response to the pandemic. 
Remote working has been introduced widely across the Civil Service in response to the pandemic. 

The Department of Health said that as the primary department for dealing with the pandemic, it has had to be dynamic in reworking how it operates, particularly remotely.

In the Department of Education, the links with the Department of Health have been closer than most as they worked to reopen schools. This has meant staff being assigned to work with the HSE on the HSE Enhanced School support Teams to support the operation of schools. In total, the Department said, around 100 people had been assigned, with 30 more being identified.

"Approximately 27 whole-time equivalent staff (i.e. 54 staff on a half-time basis) from the Department of Education have been assigned to this work within the HSE teams since last November. Demand on the service has since grown and in response an additional 9 staff from the Department of Education were assigned to the service on 20 March, with a further 6 Department staff added on Sunday, 21 March.

"In late March, 24 of the department staff were assigned on a full time capacity to the HSE teams to service the number of queries and index cases being referred to regional HSE teams particularly in the HSE East Region, HSE Midlands region and HSE North East region.

"In addition, the department has been working to identify and assign up to 30 additional whole-time equivalent staff from the Department and its agencies to the HSE service with further to follow if needed, to ensure a stable and sustainable response."

In contact tracing, despite that system never having reached the 1,000 employee figure often mooted, a number of departments report either not having been asked to supply staff or staff not being required. The Department of Transport, for example, redeployed one staff member to tracing.

Transfer reduced and departments reconfigured

Likewise, for some departments, the number of transfers either internally or externally has been at a minimum. The Department of Children, for example said that six of its staff transferred internally, with three going to another department.

The Department of Foreign Affairs, however, said that a major process of reconfiguring its staff was needed throughout the pandemic, with staff - including the aforementioned Passport Office workers - put to work all across the public sector.

These staff have helped to bring nearly 7,000 people home from across the globe, including the complex retrieval of 131 Irish citizens from Peru last May.

A spokesperson for the department told the Irish Examiner that the pandemic had required a mass redeployment of staff at a time when only the most essential were working from the office.

"Since March 2020, 569 employees have been redeployed both internally and externally. Those redeployed internally assisted with the Department’s work to repatriate thousands of Irish citizens as well as assisting those citizens and long-term residents affected by the GB travel ban over Christmas and the New Year holiday period in 2020.

External redeployments, primarily undertaken by Passport Service staff, included 50 employees to assist the HSE with contact tracing, 30 staff to assist the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection with call handling and the processing of PUP payments while a small number of employees have been redeployed to the Public Appointments Service.

In the Department of Social Protection, the surge in demand for payments - the PUP, TWSS and Covid Illness Benefit, has meant that 1,000 staff were redeployed to deal with what the department called an "emergency".

However, the notion that there are civil servants available for work who are not working is not correct. Across the Government departments, just one - the Department of Agriculture - said that it had staff in this position and this was just 0.4% of its overall staff - 12 people.

A statement said that at any one time, the department can have half of its staff working in the field, but a small number did not have adequate broadband to work from home.

Councils, for whom the delivery of many services is statutory, redeployment is not an option, though most larger councils reported some internal reconfiguration to deal with additional stress on phone lines and Limerick City and County Council said it had sent 14 staff to the HSE temporarily.

Backlogs to be tackled

Within these limited examples, it is clear that the public sector has required a major realignment in the last year, which has led to some services being backlogged, meaning that increased staffing or extra resources will be required when life returns to some level or normality.

Across councils and departments, that return will be dictated by public health guidance and last week's suggestion that office workers may not be back at their permanent desks until September at the earliest is the wide consensus.

And when that return comes, there will come with it extra work that every line minister and department has said they are confident will be cleared.

The RSA, for example, says that if it gets the extra testers it has been promised, driving test wait times will be down to 10 weeks next spring.

The Authority's CEO Sam Waide told the Oireachtas Transport Committee in March that the wait time is currently two and a half times that, with anecdotal suggestions of longer waits in some cases.

Regional services need revamp

But beyond pure service provision, the pandemic has forced us to look at how the public sector is constituted. The impact of working from home has necessitated a number of things, including a revamp of many regional towns and villages.

To this end, the Government last month announced its ambitious 'Our Rural Future' plan. The scheme will see some public sector workers offered incentives to move to rural towns, with the de-centralisation of more than 68,000 public workers (20% of the total workforce) from main offices on a permanent basis by the end of the year.

General Secretary of Fórsa, the public sector union, Kevin Callinan has said that the overall experience of remote working has been positive, but the union is seeking negotiations with the Government to bring about an agreed remote working strategy.

“The rapid expansion of home working during the Covid-19 pandemic has heralded a permanent shift towards significant levels of remote working in sectors across the economy. 

The experience of remote working in the public service has been innovative, and largely positive with regard to outputs, productivity, service delivery and quality.

"Fórsa shares the Government’s ambition to build on this achievement to position the public service as a driver of enhanced and improved home working in ways that deliver for society, service-users, employers and employees.” 

Funding schemes target rural renewal

The plan includes a major focus on attracting remote workers to rural communities by revitalising town centres, creating rural jobs and committing €74 million to the revitalisation of key buildings in town centres.

Under this scheme, for example, €4m has been allocated to turn a derelict building at the heart of Youghal's into a library, remote learning hub, and community space.

The Government's hope is that this kind of investment will make towns more attractive to live in and will aid the economic recovery outside cities.

But the questions that will arise from the plan for the public will be about service provision, particularly for the services usually offered on an in-person or walk-in basis. If staff are being moved from central offices, will those offices be as accessible in the future or even viable long-term?

It is clear that the pandemic has had a huge effect on how the country's 300,000 public sector workers operate, but with full normality a way off and a massive government plan to decentralise a fifth of the workforce, those changes have just begun.

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