Ministry Public Service reform very welcome

By Jane Suiter

I am delighted to see that in the Programme for Government it appears that there will be a full ministry for Public Sector Reform, it is long overdue. As the Programme for Government notes the public service is about serving the common good, not sectional interests. Various interest groups have dominated for far  too long, while there has been almost open warfare between various Government Departments and a myriad of cross-departmental obstacles to effective policy making. These must be addressed urgently and it is possible that the proposed Strategic Centre,   a UK-style Cabinet Office, could do much to tackle the inertia and obfuscation in some parts of the civil service.

It is also essential to ensure that those at the top are leading from the front and driving change with enthusiasm. As such it is welcome that the Top Level Appointments Commission is to be reformed and that new skills and rigour will be brought into policy-making across all Departments. It would be even more welcome if the Government were to announce that all secretary generals and assistant secretary positions were to be advertised with incumbents reapplying  for their positions.

It is essential that these new people are committed to evidence based decision making, to measuring outputs and to cutting services which no longer achieve goals rather than preserving budgets and responsibilities at all costs.  The focus in parts of the documents to measuring outcomes is very welcome but there are some questions around the focus on regulatory impact assessments with no mention of newer forms of Impact Assessments being utilised in the UK and elsewhere, which are far wider in scope.

A number o f the measures proposed here would go a long ay to transforming the public sector if implemented properly. It does of course require a commitment from the whole of government to become more transparent, accountable and efficient. However, there still appears to be a resistance to open government which is a pity. Citizens have more than a basic right to key information on the performance of key services.

In terms of the specifics it is great to see that the Department of Education’s central database of school accommodation will be “overhauled” to ensure a complete inventory of school buildings. From my experience in this area developed would be a better word but that is just a quibble. Yet again if implemented this would mean a very welcome transportation towards evidence based decision making.

It is not quite so clear where political reform will fit into the new Departmental structures. Nonetheless, there are very welcome moves to reform the committee system, introduce pre-legislative scrutiny, and allow investigations and so on. All of this will allow a much greater role for TDs and is worthy of a far longer post here. However, it is somewhat disappointing to see that Fine Gael’s Citizen Assembly has been replaced with Labour’s Constitutional Convention. Bringing in the people to build demand from the bottom up as the Fine Gael manifesto proposed would have been very powerful. On the upside the Labour proposal  is wider in scope as Fine Gael were only to consider the electoral system and women in politics. The Convention, while doing no doubt excellent work, is likely to be more of a top down elitist exercise and is one with a longer timescale and wider remit runs a greater risk of running into the sand. Its terms of reference and personnel will be absolutely essential to maximising its chances of success.

Edit: I saw Phil Hogan talking on the Week in Politics about bringing the Convention to the people with nationwide meetings. There are no specifics in the document that I can find, greater clarity here would be great.


10 thoughts on “Ministry Public Service reform very welcome

  1. “However, there still appears to be a resistance to open government which is a pity. Citizens have more than a basic right to key information on the performance of key services.”

    “Secrecy is the only power of bureaucracy ” Weber

    “Publicity is the soul of justice” Bentham

    “In 1766, when a new young radical government came to power convinced that only transparency could deal with the corruption that was looting the Swedish state and society Freedom of Information Act was passed…All documents within the public sector are in the public domain so people can actually check and hold the people in power accountable for their actions…. Freedom of Information… is still a bedrock for transparency and accountability in Swedish democracy…You don’t have to tell why they want to see a document or you don’t even have to give a name…You can even read official letters before they arrive in politicians’ intrays………Yea, Freedom of Information does mean you sacrifice some personal privacy…Of course, Freedom of Information isn’t universal in Sweden. If you really want to hide information you can. But you have to work quite hard to keep things secret. The exemptions are limited and very specific.” Dan Lucas, Swedish journalist

    for more

  2. It was inevitably going to be a cut and paste, edit and re-assemble job. And as such, it probably isn’t that bad – and full credit to the backroom staffers who I expect shouldered the burden. However, under the general ‘political refrom’ rubric, I’ve lost count of the number of constitutional amendments that will be required. Labour always wanted a big gabfest on the Constitution that would seek to slant it irreversibly in line with left-of-centre preferences and ideology. FG was never prepared to explore the full potential for useful reforms in institutions and procedures that the Dail could enact without amendment to the Constitution.

    The combination of people’s legitimate and urgent demand for good governance (initially within the existing structures), of the pressure of external events, of the instinctive political desire to kick any refrom of this nature into the long grass and of the sheer enjoyment by newly appointed ministers of the long withheld pleasure of pulling the existing existing levers of power and patronage will, I fear, lead to stasis on this front.

  3. Jane

    Great post.

    In particular:

    “Various interest groups have dominated for far too long, while there has been almost open warfare between various Government Departments and a myriad of cross-departmental obstacles to effective policy making”

  4. regulation has failed, catastrophically and publicly. watch and see how many slow learners now propose new rules and more regulation !

    the alternative to regulation is transparency. it is also much cheaper to let a swarm of journalists hunt down power hoarders, expenses fiddlers, and fingers in the till operators, than to employ siesta taking pension grabbing regulators (who are themselves civil servants).

    yes, and is the taxing master a lawyer? is that appropriate ?

  5. It all depends on who, and from which party, is appointed. If the apointee is from the Labour Party…forget real reform

  6. Am not sure I can share this enthusiasm. Many of the specific measures have a UK c.2000 air to them.

    The division of responsibilities between the 2 Ministers for Finance is a train crash waiting to happen.

    Th Convention seems to be the National Forum on Europe with a few added bells – hardly something to inspire confidence given the evidence that the Forum at best did nothing to change our fundamental approach to EU issues.

  7. It would be good if the Public Sector Reform were to focus on breaking the hold of special interest groups and on doing reckless favors for connected individuals. But what if it just results in layoffs at the middle and the bottom, upping unemployment? Would that be a good thing, or a further blow to shrink the middle class?

  8. I wouldn’t hold my breath for much reform if the Minister is from Labour – I had reason to contact a government quango and could not believe that the offices did not open until 10am, closed for lunch and then closed at 4pm! In 2011 this sort of nonsense is completely unacceptable. I really don’t see Burton capable or willing to reform those outdated practices – change the UR around to a RU (Bruton) and then we might get somewhere but I’m sure the 10am to 4pm and close for lunch nonsense is repeated all across the civil service and that’s before the business of time off for cheques and God only knows what’s been allowed go on over the last 30 years.

    There was no mention of reforming the myriad of public sector pension schemes and the mind boggles at the different perks built up that need to be rooted out.

  9. Judging by the waffle and obfuscation from Phil Hogan and Brendan Howlin on today’s News at One the prospects are not good. Politicians are archetypical leopards and it will take mare than a few spoonfuls of Vanish to get rid of their spots

  10. Fair points being made. It is true that more developed methods of impact assessment can and should be used to improve the current RIA process (drawing from various sectors where these tools have long been employed and refined – e.g. environmental, health, social, etc.). Another example is the frequent citing of other tools such as Cost-Benefit Analysis by the likes of Richard Bruton during the election campaign. However, while these tools have their place, I would caution against over-expectations based on what often turn out to be UK fads – contrary to the suggestion from the Blair government that they would act on the basis of ‘evidence-based’ policy-making, most UK research would suggest that such tools can at best help to make better ‘evidence-informed’ decisions. Tools like Impact Assessment and CBA have their limitations – they can help inform decision-making by more clearly idenitfying (and where possible) quantifying possible pros and cons, but they don’t replace the need for decision-making!

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