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.