Thousands of public jobs to go in reform plan

Todays Irish Times reports in detail, the Governments plan to cut public service staff. Thousands of public sector jobs are to be cut between this year and 2015 under a massive public sector reform programme unveiled by the Government yesterday.

In addition to 23,500 jobs being culled, the controversial decentralisation programme, on which millions had already been spent, is being scrapped.

Under the plan presented by Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform Brendan Howlin, the Government is to slim down staffing levels in the public service to 282,500 within four years in a move which it maintained would generate gross savings of €2.5 billion on its pay bill. There will be no compulsory redundancies.
There are currently just under 300,000 people working in the public service.

Reducing staffing levels to the extent planned could cost the Government up to €300 million in additional pension costs every year, a spokesman for the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform said.

The overall amount to be saved by the public service reform measures announced yesterday, which include merging quangos and reforming leave entitlements in the public service, has not been spelled out in the plan.

Some €44 million had been spent on acquiring sites for the planned decentralisation of public service offices and State agencies which will not now go ahead.
Drogheda in Co Louth will be one of the biggest losers from this. More than €10 million was spent by the Office of Public Works buying a site in Drogheda to provide a new headquarters for the Department of Social Protection, which will not now move to the town.

A total of 40 decentralisation projects on which work never started have been scrapped, while 30 others will remain. A further 20 will be reviewed again shortly by the Cabinet.

The Government has also announced that 48 State bodies, sometimes referred to as quangos, are to be abolished or merged next year, while a further 46 will be reviewed.

Opposition parties and health sector unions expressed concern about the effect the cuts will have on “frontline services”.

Ruthlessness is key to delivery of ambitious plan

Dan O’Brien, Economics Editor of the Irish Times reports on how the plan should be delivered.

There is a north-south division in Europe in how many things in the continent’s countries function. Few are as marked as how public sectors function. In northern Europe, states and their agencies generally work efficiently. In southern Europe, public institutions have a much greater tendency to serve themselves rather than those they exist to serve.

Is the Irish public sector more Mediterranean than Baltic, and will yesterday’s public sector reforms nudge the sector towards northern best practices?
The answer to the first question largely reflects geography – the Irish public sector is roughly half way between its northern and southern counterparts when assessed in the round. It is more northern European with regards to workers’ sense of civic duty, their work ethic and levels of corruption, but more southern when it comes to efficiency and the quality of outcomes.

Among the specific weaknesses are a lack of rigour in policy formulation and evaluation; limited joined-up thinking on issues which cut across departments; poor structures of accountability; and a very bad record of implementation (for a comparative, evidence-based assessment of the quality of Irish public sector, the two-page summary in last week’s Public Sector Trends report by the Institute of Public Administration is a must-read).

Yesterday’s plan for reform is certainly wide-ranging and ambitious, with many unambiguously good things proposed. Further decentralisation of the public sector – an act of vandalism perpetrated on the administrative system – has been definitively halted.

A good-sized step towards modernising how taxpayers’ money is spent will have been taken if all measures set out yesterday are implemented. A commitment to expanding the number of publicly available metrics by which performance in the public sector is measured can only improve matters.
There was not only no shortage of detail in the Government’s new reform plan, but it included an end-date for implementation of its hundreds of measures. This is different from the past and will help maintain reform momentum.

But the big question about yesterday’s plan is how successfully it will be implemented. Resistance to change from within the public sector is strong – Government sources privately say that departments did next to nothing in putting forward ideas on reforming themselves. That is indicative of a general (though not universal) absence of urgency among senior officials in many departments.

This hostility to change combined with Ireland’s pervasive political and administrative inertia have always hindered change.
They will continue to work against it. Considerable and continued ruthlessness will be needed to defeat them. Unfortunately, there is little sign that the new administration is more prepared to displease mandarins than was its predecessor. The manner, for instance, in which the Government has acted to support the boss of the Department of Finance, Kevin Cardiff, does not suggest that the Coalition is endowed with a new steeliness.

That said, the personalities on the side of reform give some reason for cautious optimism. Brendan Howlin has energy and wants to change things.
Brian Hayes likes to get stuck in. Their top bureaucrat, Robert Watt, is aggressively ambitious about reform. Paul Reid, the delivery czar, newly recruited from the private sector, was rated as “very good” by a knowledgeable non-civil servant close to the appointment process.

That both Taoiseach and Tánaiste launched the reform plan with the two relevant Ministers signals commitment at the very top to change.
Speaking to The Irish Times yesterday, Richard Boyle, author of the IPA report mentioned above, broadly welcomed the content of the new reform plan, but put the delivery issue front and centre. Good intentions in the past, he noted, have too often come to nothing.

He added that delivering will be even more difficult on this occasion owing to the reductions in capacity.

Eddie Molloy, the management consultant who speaks truth to power in a way few do in Ireland, believes feet will have to be held to the fire on a regular basis to ensure change happens.

He suggests quarterly reviews with secretary generals to keep up the pressure. Naming, shaming and, ultimately, firing of those who fail to deliver will be needed if real change is to come about.

Yesterday’s plan is unlikely to herald a revolution in the public sector that would bring about Nordic efficiency levels, but if those behind it spend the next four years driving change improvements are in prospect.

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