BRIAN LUCEY: Ministers must force mandarins to manage

A couple of news items this week caught my eye.

One was that we seem to have an excellent civil service; only 1% of those evaluated by their managers were deemed to be performing at the lowest level: Unsatisfactory.

The second was the leaked (gosh, what a surprise that is now) draft report of the troika as they head out the door; a lot done, more to do as Digout Bertie told us.

Together, these spell problems. We have, despite the significant reforms and changes, and despite the bringing of the state finances into broad structural balance, failed to use this crisis for significant reform of how we run the country. As a country, we are a serial economic delinquent, so why would we imagine that an essentially-unreformed governance structure would result in us avoiding another mess in a decade or so?

Insanity, they say, is doing the same thing again and again, expecting a different result.

Take the 1% issue. This arises from a creature called the performance management development system, where people are evaluated for their work. There are massive problems with this. First and foremost, it is pointless in the present system. Designed to allow managers to determine who should or should not get promotion or increments, it is a creature of a radically different economic era. Where there are no promotions, and where the crude embargoes on recruitment have resulted in people topping out at the top of a scale, there is neither sanction nor reward in the evaluations. The reality is that until we provide public sector managers with both the power and the responsibility to run their organisations, such meaningless paperwork will proliferate.

Power would imply the ability to reward and punish; responsibility would imply that at a senior level you’re on a contract and subject to defined output and quality standards. Persistent failure to meet these will, if it is your fault, result in removal.

To do this would, however, be anathema to powerful players. The most powerful players who would object to this may not be the public sector unions. They would be the loudest, but their teeth are mostly drawn. When looking at changing something in the public sector, we need to ask not cui bono but cui plagalis — not who gains, but who loses. Who loses when power is delegated? The central civil service, the micro-managerial mandarins of Merrion Street, clustered in the two halves of the department of finance.

The simplest, but least effective, way to reduce government spending is how they have elected to do it — to introduce blanket cuts and blanket embargoes. It is much easier to say “everybody down 10%, do the same” than it is to manage.

Management means measurement and decision-making. Acting as mandarins, by contrast, means blanket cuts and avoiding the hard, intellectually-challenging issues of devising with staff the appropriate metrics of performance, while at the same time keeping things going. We need ministers who will force mandarins to manage, rather than mandarins moulding ministers to mediocrities.

This plays to the second issue: The draft troika report. Throughout their hegemony they have stated time and again that a number of key areas remain untackled. Chief among these is the power of the medical and legal professions. Cui bono is clear — cui plagalis is also clear: The taxpayer and the citizen. Meaningful reform of these areas would cost little financially, but would involve the toxic network of micro-politics.

It is not just these areas that we have failed to reform. We have vastly overcomplicated delivery of emergency services; we have no clarity as to where the third-level system is going; we have no evidence of joined-up thinking regarding our dearth of language skills; we have decided to run a national water authority alongside existing patchwork county-based delivery for 12 years rather than 12 months; we have no clear view dealing with the banks beyond hoping that they will go away; we have not learned the lessons of our fixation with credit-led real property, and so on. The troika could not reform us; it is beyond credibility we will reform ourselves.

Brian Lucey is professor of finance at Trinity College Dublin


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