Accountability is required

The ‘exiting’ of top civil servants must stop, writes Political Reporter Juno McEnroe

PARACHUTING senior civil servants damaged by controversies into alternative lucrative jobs is not unprecedented in recent times. Those at the top say their hands are tied as stricter laws for the public sector, as opposed to the private, prevent them from sacking civil servants.

However, rewarding mistakes with plump salaries makes a mockery of this Coalition’s pledge in the programme for government that a ‘democratic revolution’ is under way.

The moving aside this week of Department of Justice secretary general Brian Purcell to another role where he keeps his €200,000 salary will sicken many. The top mandarin in Justice for three years oversaw a department riddled with secrecy and with “ineffective management structures”, a review found.

There is a history of senior civil servants ‘exiting’ to other top posts.

Department of Health secretary general Michael Kelly was moved on to a €166,000 job under a Fianna Fáil-led government in 2005.

Following the publication of a critical report on illegal nursing home charges, Mr Kelly was later appointed chairman of the Higher Education Authority. Criticism at the time was that “the Government needed a space to put Mr Kelly into”.

In 2011, Kevin Cardiff, head of the Department of Finance, was appointed to the European Court of Auditors with an annual package worth about €276,000. His transfer came amid criticism over his role in a €3.6bn accounting ‘error’, as well as in earlier events leading up to the collapse of the banking sector.

Mr Purcell’s move raises questions as to why senior mandarins cannot simply be sacked if and when serious failings are found, as happens in the private sector.

At the MacGill Summer School last week, the secretary general of the Department of Public Expenditure, Robert, Watt, addressed this matter.

“We know in the private sector, particularly when it comes to senior leaders when there are issues around performance, that people are exited out and that usually comes in the form of a payment or a package,” said Mr Watt. “So that’s done in a way which respects confidentiality so people don’t know exactly why somebody left or the conditions of their departure.”

Debate around pay-offs for those in the public sector is needed, he said, adding that managers in departments should be given “tools to fire workers if they underperform.

“I think the challenge is to ensure that HR managers and managers have effective tools to ensure that people who aren’t performing are subject to those procedures,” he said.

Evidently, though, the focus on performance in the civil service is not helped by recent reviews or figures.

A report in 2013 for the Department of Public Expenditure found that fewer than 1% of workers received a negative review. It ranked a majority of civil servants as “exceeding the required standard”.

The payment of increments, while delayed for some, has also been criticised by economists. Figures for last year alone show that 11,280 civil servants, including 1,300 earning €65,000-plus, received increments totalling €16.5m.

Furthermore, we now know there is minimal scrutiny of how a secretary general does his or her job.

A recent independent review of accountability in the civil service found there is no performance-management system for secretaries general and that there is a need for one.

The review, led by author Kevin Rafter, recommended that a special accountability board for the civil service could oversee such a system which could be in place by early 2015.

Public Expenditure Minister Brendan Howlin has pledged to move on some of the review’s recommendations by September. He has also promised to finalise a “civil service renewal plan” over the coming weeks.

Nonetheless, it remains to be seen whether these actions will address the view that little has changed under this administration in how senior civil servants are monitored, sanctioned, or even sacked.


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