Why We Must Restore Accountability to the Public Service

Vulnerable children were murdered, drowned, and allowed to die of drug abuse, and an elite that did not really care – the report of the Independent Child Death Review Group.

The examination of this shameful scandal, led by Geoffrey Shannon and Norah Gibbon, “lays bare an appalling catalogue of incompetence, dereliction, lack of professionalism and failure in duty” observed former editor of the Irish Times Conor Brady in that paper on July 5, 2012. There is no arguing with the conclusions, but what if the underlying problem is not to be found in the detail of this latest failure in the Irish system of public administration?

Ireland appears condemned to an endless catalogue of such system failures. The beef inquiry, two blood transfusion inquiries, the Ryan (child abuse) report, the Abbeylara (garda) inquiry, the Morris report (gardai in Donegal), the Mahon (planning corruption) tribunal, the Laffoy commission (child abuse again), all examined in considerable detail the minutiae of who did what, why and when. And we may be certain that before the year is out another inquiry will be in train, and another report will be issued, with most of its recommendations left to gather dust.

Are we not looking in the wrong place for the explanation? What if instead of a series of system failures – each blamed on specific internal flaws painstakingly exposed- we are looking at one overarching common factor – the failure of the Irish public service to reform itself to provide proper governance in the 21st century?

There is considerable evidence to support this view. The failure of the Departments of Finance and the Central Bank to manage the economy and police the banking sector in the opening decade of this century is just the most obvious one. The failure of the Departments of Health and Education to exercise oversight over the religious orders running children’s homes, the failure to introduce modern management practices into An Garda Siochana (we still do not have a fast-track graduate intake to provide skilled leadership), and the failure of the Institute of Public Administration to give a lead in adapting our civil service to an acceptable paradigm of governance. Every citizen can add to this list.

What would a public service capable of responding to the complex needs of today’s fast-changing society look like?
A core part of the answer is so simple it beggars belief – accountability.

In our public service the only person who can be held fully accountable-fired -is the head of each department, the “Accounting Officer” . That does not happen. At best in very isolated cases the individual is “pensioned off”, with all rights and entitlements preserved.

This creates an endemic, systematic culture (the “parallel universe” that those who deal with it experience) of complete non-accountability, and eventually almost total irresponsibility, that of necessity corrupts everyone working in it. Turning up for work is enough. Although many do, there is no responsibility to do a good day’s work, or to be successful or responsible in one’s endeavours. In those circumstances you are a fool to be committed and hard-working, while promotion and advancement is rarely performance-based.

Such an outcome is inevitable when people can be hired but never fired. In any community or workplace you know of people who have been removed from their jobs for non-performance. But in Ireland this does not happen in three workplaces, the public service, schools and police stations.

Factor in the Irish victim mentality, and you have a public service which can almost do what it wants, irrespective of the needs of the state’s citizens. It has succeeded in getting its average pay, conditions and allowances almost 50% higher than those with normal employment rights in the non-banking, private sector, and has pension entitlements that no one else can afford. This underpins the Croke Park Agreement where social welfare and similar payments have to be reduced and taxes increased to maintain a relatively privileged position, while proper accountability and serious reform is ignored.

If our public service can get away with this, why should banking, the private sector, and the average citizen not do the same? Surely being accountable, thinking of the greater good, assuming the law applies to me, just means I am a mug? “They” have got away with it for decades, are well paid, and have unfunded pensions which are an unfair burden or tax on unborn generations. Why not me, and let our children look out for themselves?

Simply, but fundamentally, accountability is what we have lost – the notion that we answer for our actions whoever we are. If we were rigorous in holding everyone accountable the endemic level of systematic failure in our public service would decline dramatically, and failed bankers and politicians of all stripes would have no alternative but resignation. All our shabby little muddles and ongoing system failures are merely symptoms of a very much great malaise – the notion that we can somehow muddle through without any moral compass or accountability.

The American political scientist Fukuyama believes that three elements are essential for liberal democracy to thrive – accountability of the government to the people, the rule of law, and an orderly and efficient state. (The Origins of Political Order, Francis Fukuyama, Profile Books, 2011). We need a significant change in direction as we are performing poorly on all three.

The place to start is the public service. All citizens have a direct interest in public service reform giving a 21st-century culture that recognises responsibility and rewards achievement. And it all starts with one simple clear principle – accountability. We could even get our self-respect back.

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