This is an expanded version of a column published in the Irish Examiner on 14 December 2013. A couple of news items this week caught my eye. One was that we seem to have an excellent civil service; only 99% 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, not) draft report of the troika as they head out the door ; a lot done, more to do as Digout Bertie told us. But will what is needed get done? Or will we the people get done?
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. Speaking on Prime Time this week Megan Greene noted that from her outsider perspective she found it hard to point to any significant reforms.
Cutting spending is not reform. It might lead to reform or it might lead to retrenchment and resentment. Reform is changing how we do things as well as the things we do. 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? The government will say that there must be no going back to the way things were. Government say lots of things, usually failing to implement them. The history of Irish governance is weighed down with reports, memoranda, agendae for change that remain unimplemented. Think of the crying need for electorate of the Seanad- it has taken decades for that to become a real political issue, decades since the people voted for reform, and there is still no certainty that we will have a reformed electorate for the 2016 election.
Insanity, they say, is doing the same thing again and again expecting a different result. Perhaps doing things in the same way again and again is also insanity. We have not fundamentally reformed how we as a state manage.
Take the 99% 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 embargos on recruitment have resulted in people topping out at the top of a scale, there is neither sanction nor reward from the outcome of the evaluations. The system is meaningless, serving only to consume paper and excrete facile headlines. It is therefore treated with the contempt that it deserves. The reality is that until we provide public sector managers with both the power and the responsibility to run their organizations such meaningless paperwork will proliferate. Power would imply the ability to reward and sanction ; responsibility would imply that at a senior level your on a contract and subject to defined output and quality standards, persistent failure to meet which 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 micromanagerial mandarins of Merrion street, clustered in the two halves of the department of finance. We may talk about the power of the lawyers lobby but these grey men, let us not forget, showed how powerful they were when they simply refused to allow themselves to be part of the first round of pay cuts, way back when. They rule – not the passing parade of ministers and advisors. They rule but do not manage. We see time and again how ministers enter into office with ideas and ideals, to run into the sands of Sir Humpheryism. Ground down by the endless machinations they eventually get housetrained and become agents of inertia. Mandarins decide in the long term what gets done. Ministers tweak and mouth these decisions. The days of a minister being brave enough to do a Donagh O’Malley and go right against advice to do what they genuinely think is right and proper are long gone.
The simplest, but least effective, way to reduce government spending is how the mandarins have elected to do it – to introduce blanket cuts and blanket embargos. It is much easier to say “everybody (apart from us) down 10%, do the same” than it is to manage. Management means measurement and it means decision-making. Mandarining by contrast means blanket cuts and avoiding the hard, grinding, 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 what we seem to have had, mandarins molding ministers to malleable 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 amongst these are the power of the medical and legal professions that remain essentially unreformed. Cui bono is clear – cui plagais is also clear, the taxpayer and the citizen. Meaningful reform of these areas would cost little in terms of either political or financial cost but would and has run into the sands of mates rates and the complex toxic network of micropolitics. Even the Financial Times, which has generally cheered on this government, has looked askance at this lack of reform, blaming it simply on
It is not just in these areas that we have failed to reform. We suffer daily from a profound lack of joined up thinking. We have vastly overcomplicated delivery of emergency services; we have a patchwork of state, voluntary and charitable health services where people die in the cracks; 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 on how to deal with the banks beyond hoping that they will go away; we have not learned the lessons of our fixation with credit led real property with this government increasingly seeming to pin its hopes for the future on another boom therein; we have a capital city where quite literally the trams dont join up and so on . The troika could not reform us ; it is beyond credibility that we will reform ourselves.