GERARD HOWLIN: Law and disorder: Public service chaos is managerial and political

BRIAN Purcell has taken a bullet for the State twice in his career. Once, when he was near the bottom of the pile, as a young official in the Department of Social Welfare, he refused payment to an applicant for the dole. That claimant was the notorious Dublin gangster, The General. Purcell was kneecapped for his troubles.

On Monday evening, he took another hit, when he agreed to be reassigned from his post, as secretary general at the Department of Justice, on foot of a highly critical report of its workings.
Purcell was right on both occasions; he has done the State service and he should be thanked. But if you think the underlying issues are about either Purcell or the Department of Justice, you are deluding yourself.
Monday’s report was a small insight into systematic disorder across the public service. That disorder is a series of densely entrenched issues, the root causes of which are as much political as administrative.
This is not the first such event, and the report is not a unique insight. We have been here before, in the Attorney General’s office in 1995, after the Fr Brendan Smyth case, and in the Department of Health in 2004, after the debacle over illegal charges in nursing homes, which resulted in the Travers Report.
In all three cases, the issue was whether the administrative head communicated critically important information up to the relevant minister or attorney general. One administrative head retired and two agreed to move within the public service.
All three administrative heads had integrity. They were also lifers in their respective sections. That was their failing: They were undone by a system to which they had become culturally inured. They would have served themselves better if they had been contrarians or outsiders.
But few contrarians make it to the top of the public service.
The one outsider, at the Department of Finance, is gone. There is a lot of hard work, but too little fresh thinking at the top.
Like the culture in the gardaí and in religious orders, surviving, let alone prospering, involves a lot of going-along to get-along. Forget about whistleblowing; offering a strongly different view can be interpreted as a challenge to a leadership that values loyalty more than it does independence.
Also like the parallel cultures in the gardaí and in religious orders, it is accentuated by a cradle-to-grave system: Once you are in, it is impossible to get rid of you. But if you don’t join as a callow youth, you will never be admitted after. Modest progress — but only that — has been made in enabling movement up the ladder between departments, allowing for a limited mix of experience.
There has been no meaningful progress at all in bringing people from the outside into the civil service at senior levels, not even for fixed periods of time. That the culture becomes dangerously stale is attested to by the review group’s view that the Department of Justice is “an inward looking organisation with limited learning capacity.”
The review group added that there is a “significant disconnect between how the MAC (Management Advisory Committee) sees the department and how key external stakeholders and many staff see it”.
And, of course, the civil service is intensely hierarchical. This matrix makes for a cultural morass that is highly territorial, within and between departments, suspicious of outsiders, and intellectually resistant to new ideas. In my experience of working in government departments, for 10 years, I saw numerous exceptions to this stereotype. But I also saw the big picture and it’s a picture that, on reading this report, hasn’t changed much.
A report in 2011, from UCG’s Centre for Innovation and Structural Change, made the point that “the rigidity of the structure of the public sector and its bureaucratic form… adversely impacts leadership effectiveness”.
It continued in words that eerily anticipated this week’s report of a “need for senior management in the civil service to develop more long-term perspective rather than focusing on the short-term”.
The review group report stated that “many of the issues and challenges the department faces are also being faced elsewhere in the civil service and there are various initiatives underway, under the Public Sector Reform Programme, to address them”. The first part of that statement is true, the second part is unproven, at best.
To date, there has not been any holistic analysis, let alone prescription for public service reform, that includes our political structures and culture. The two issues are joined at the hip. Any partial analysis will lead, at best, to only a partial solution.
The go-along, get-along culture within the civil service mirrors the culture of mutual embrace between the civil service and its political masters. The knot in our system that needs to be cut with a legislative sword is the muddle of mutual unaccountability, between governments and civil servants, over who is responsible for what. Each side is deeply fearful of pushing away the other into a more clearly defined role, because of the exposure to accountability that will inevitably come as a consequence.
For a generation now, it has been clear that neither our administrative nor political systems are fit for purpose.
The promises of reform, from the opposition benches, and invariably unacted on in government, have subsided time and again into reports. These, like the promises on which they were predicated, also went unfulfilled.
The latest report, before Monday’s, was commissioned by Public Expenditure Minister Brendan Howlin; Dublin City University’s Prof Kevin Rafter; Dorothea Dowling, chairwoman of the Personal Injuries Board; and Michael Howard, former secretary general at the Department of Defence.
It was published in June and a considered response is promised from government in the coming weeks. Its recommendations include a new role for a head of the civil service, and an accountability board with oversight on performance.
These, and other measures it recommended, would be of use. Crucially, it said its recommendations should be implemented as an integrated package, not on a piecemeal basis. Let’s wait and see.
The Rafter Report did not, however, deal with the political system. So long as there is no clear requirement, or firm legal basis, for enabling independent policy advice to ministers, the administrative system remains hobbled by politics. Politics, hardwired by electoral demand to improvident promises, in turn remains unchecked by clear policy advice with intellectual integrity.
The institutionally incestuous relationship between government and civil service is but one side of a debased coin.
The other is the totally ineffective oversight of either the government or the senior civil service by the Dáil and its committees. There is little new in this week’s report.

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