I want to thank the MacGill Summer School and Arts Week and Joe Mulholland for the invitation to speak here today on the topic of Transforming the Public Sector – How and When?
Some people in the private sector believe that our public service is an inefficient bureaucracy with too many time wasters and they need a bit of private sector economic harsh realities to sort them out. I do not subscribe to that view. Nor do I subscribe to the view of some people in the public service who believe because of the reduced numbers having to achieve more with less that it is not necessary to waste time on the idea of Public Sector Reform. Both approaches are wrong. What is needed is a focus on our citizens for whom the public service is there to provide a consumer friendly efficient service.
The first progress report on the Croke Park Agreement has been published and has received reasonable commentary. Further reports will be examined with far greater rigour and will be required to produce much more specifics to back up their conclusions regarding savings and reform.
In 2009 and 2010 the public sector employment fell by 15,000 people. It is planned that this will reduce by up to another 25,000 by 2015. The new Government is committed to continuing this process. This will give the total reduction in employment in the public service of up to 40,000 from a figure of originally over 300,000 people. This will be approximately a staff reduction of 13% over this period.
Much public discussion confuses public sector reform with public sector modernisation. Reform is about ethos, culture and putting the citizen first. Modernisation is about efficiency, achieving more with less, staffing issues and sharing and integrating services.
Real public sector reform is about providing citizens with policy making and service delivery in a citizen focused manner. It should not start with the preoccupations and concerns of people who provide the service. Reform should have three central elements:
1. It should be citizen focused
2. Equality must be at the core
3. Access must be guaranteed
Public Sector Reform should be about providing a consumer friendly interaction with Government without creating an excessive burden on the citizen or public bodies.
The first example I wish to give relates to the standardisation of means testing. Many individuals face separate means test from separate Government offices when they are dealing with social welfare entitlements, housing applications, medical card applications, education grants, to name just a few. It is an unnecessary frustration on the individual who has to perhaps deal with up to 5 agencies and represents a tremendous waste of public resources also.
I say citizen focus has to be the primary issue because in every public body and every public organisation in the country the primary focus today is to protect the organisation and its staff.
A second example I wish to give is based on my work as a member of the Public Accounts Committee.
Last year we asked the then Chief Executive of the Health Service Executive how many children died while in the care of the HSE. Neither he nor anyone around him knew the answer to the question. It took them a month to find out the answer. It was also established that no report had ever been published by the HSE up to that time in relation to any child who had died in their care. The sole reason for this was the HSE felt the publication of such a report could have legal implications for the HSE and its staff. Their approach was to ensure that no report would ever be published in relation to children who died in their care.
I can think of no more grotesque an approach by a public body. In fact the HSE approach was amoral and not befitting any organisation with the responsibility for dealing with children. In that regard I welcome the establishment of the new Department of Children to take this issue away from the HSE from now on.
When dealing with citizens the question of the State’s finances comes into play. We need a clear definition based on citizens’ rights regarding funding that should be available for the demand led services versus other services which are provided based on budgets.
The third example I give is the Department of Social Protection where most schemes are demand led. As people need to claim social welfare payments or entitlements, they will be paid within a reasonable period of time and if additional funding is required at the end of the year there will be a supplementary estimate approved by the Oireachtas. On the other hand if a person in serious pain and urgently needs a hip operation they will be just put on a waiting list. The service will not be provided and there will be no supplementary estimate and the people will just have to wait, often to the detriment of their health. Public Sector Reform must deal with issues of providing health care services for people when they need them and not just when a budget says so.
The ethos of the public service is living proof how a country is run. Most public servants pride themselves in carrying out a good job to the best of their ability in the public interest without fear or favour. There are some differences and divisions between the public and private sectors.
This division is not good and I believe there should be far more movement of staff on a transfer basis between the public and private sectors. This would bring a better understanding for both the public sector and the private sector to all concerned and would help eliminate some of these divisions.
It is important that there is a sufficient staff development programme in the public service so that people are fulfilled and enjoy their jobs while delivering a good service.
Leadership is needed especially at senior levels in the public service. Many senior managers in the public service admit that they have never received any management or leadership training and have been effectively working as administrators all their career to date.
We must also ensure that public sector reform is carried out in a manner consistent with E.U. partners as there is a greater interchange of information both from Revenue, Department of Social Protection, Police, Agriculture and Food, Health and Safety issues and in a variety of other areas.
The OECD also has a role in monitoring improvements in public sector reform on a much wider international basis.
Dealing with the modernisation of the Public Service, the issue of efficiency and accountability immediately spring to mind.
A key element is to ensure that there are adequate entry opportunities for people from outside the public service at all grades. Promotion must be open to people within an outside system.
In future all positions of Secretary General grades and Chief Executives of State organisations be subject to international competition and at least one person from outside the country should be on the interview panel.
Shared services especially human resources, simplifying procedures, information technology and finance have been mentioned time and time again and the experience in other countries shows that there can be substantial savings without any loss of service within the public service when this approach is adopted.
The big question in this area is the issue of separating the issue of policy from implementation. Some argue that they should be kept separate as it makes the implementation more straight forward. However, in a country of 4.5 million people we have seen a vast increase in the number of quangos, to deal with implementation of specific issues, many of which are now so independent that there is very little public accountability anymore. The case is now well accepted that far too many quangos were established over the years. Many of these should now be brought back under their parent Government Department.
The issue of sharing information between Government Departments involves significant changes to the Data Protection Legislation and this will have to be dealt with to improve efficiencies. I believe the public will accept it that when they give their information to a Government body, that the information should be shared for other legitimate public purposes and thereby not requiring them to fill out separate forms for each individual contact they have with government.
Recently we have seen an example of public accountability where individual public servants were made account for their actions. This sent shock waves through the public service. It was actually an excellent lesson.
The case I refer to is where a most senior official in Wicklow County Council was arrested by the Garda Siochana in relation to health and safety regulations after two retained fire officers died while carrying out their duties on a fire in Bray some time ago. I am not sure if this has progressed to court but the principle of ensuring people are accountable especially for the health and safety of their staff is a very welcome development.
Consistency is a key issue that the public require when dealing with public departments. For example the Department of Agriculture are rightly ruthlessly consistent in their approach to approving payments under the various schemes funded by the E.U. This is because they are subject to random E.U. audits.
We all can categorically state that there is no such consistency between decisions regarding eligibility for a variety of other services and payments and entitlements by other Government bodies both nationally and locally. This is not treating all of our citizens equally. If all bodies knew that they were subject to a random audit I think we would achieve a far more consistent interpretation of rules right across the board.
Approximately 50% of appeals to both An Board Pleanala and to the Social Welfare Appeals Office result in a change to the original decision.
This demonstrates that there must be some level of inconsistency in relation to how the original decisions are made.
In recent years we have introduced a number of Regulators to deal with various aspects of commercial and other activity. They have been given a level of independence that is again substantially removing their decision making process from outside the area of public accountability. The question that regularly gets asked is: Who regulates the regulators? The answer in Ireland is nobody. Public sector reform must deal with this issue.
Everybody in Ireland recognises the difficult financial situation we are all facing. People also accept that changes need to be made in relation to the provision of all services in the country both in the private and public sectors. Now is the time to make these changes. The time for transforming the public sector is now.