Eoin O’Malley 8 November 2010
Fine Gael’s new document on the reform of the public sector is released here. It’s a big document with a lot of stuff that seems more about actual policy that design of government. The main ideas is to make government smaller, and more responsive to the needs of citizens. There’s a lot in it, and as David Farrell suggested, some of it is the repackaging of existing policies. So the old populist policies such as the reduction in the number of TDs, reduced pay for senior public servants are combined with some new, good ideas, such as the requirement that 1/3 of senior appointments are from outside the public service. Other parts are aspirational – Fine Gael will save €5bn in efficiency savings (who hasn’t promised that?). The number of civil servants will fall by a third. The document talks a bit about the creation of a Cabinet Office in the Department of the Taoiseach whose primary purpose is to deliver the programme for government. In a nod to Sir Humphry, they’ll set up a new Office to ensure all this happens!
Fine Gael is addressing an important issue. The size of the civil and public service wage bill will ensure that this remains an issue for some time to come. Legally, firing civil servants is not that difficult (though much harder than it used to be) but in practice it’s difficult to see large scale redundancies without strikes. The Irish civil service is quite small, but arguably it’s bottom heavy. So there are lots of junior civil servants based in Donegal or Shannon, pushing bits of paper about the place, and are pretty well paid to do these low-skilled jobs. But a very small number of people based in policy making functions around the minister. Arguably one would only need about 150-200 senior civil servants in each department who would be highly skilled, and willing to move in, out and about the civil service as they were needed. The problem has been that that flexibility, though nodded to in management reports the civil service released, never really happened. The ability to hire from outside the civil service was severely limited in practice. Fine Gael’s document acknowledges this is a problem, and quite how they’d achieve this with Labour as their coalition partner is questionable.
The document suggests that new Fiscal Council and that external recruitment will allow high level specialist in banking, taxation and economic forecasting. These are good ideas, but we’d want to be careful that we don’t design new government structures in an attempt to solve the last crisis, rather than prevent the next one. It’s unlikely that the next crisis will be the same as the last one. So we shouldn’t over do the need for banking experts. What happens if the next major crisis is not economic?
The idea that the Department of the Taoiseach must be halved seems perverse. It is already quite small – it doubled in the 1980s under Garret FitzGerald and Charles Haughey. But at a bit over 200 people it’s not that large compared to PMs departments elsewhere. Fine Gael’s document complains that it has taken on too many additional bits. These were taken on partly because of a Taoiseach’s interests, but mainly because by bring them to the centre the department could drive forward programme for government changes that were getting stuck when divided between various departments. They should rethink this idea.