Minister for Public Service Reform

In case you missed it, Ruairi Quinn called for the establishment of a Minister for Public Service Reform the other day.

I’m going to claim partial credit for that idea.  I can’t remember whether I actually said it to Ruairi himself, but I was punting the idea around the Labour Party backrooms for a couple of weeks before I left for Canada.  Here’s some of the flesh I put on the bones of the idea while talking to people about it.

From East Lothian Museum (licenced under Creative Commons)

From East Lothian Museum (licenced under Creative Commons)

Why a Minister?

So why do you need a Minister for public sector reform?  Why not a committee or a working group or even just a Junior Minister?  The reason for this is that in order for the Public Service to both respect and cooperate with the process, and for the person in question to be able to legislate (both primary & secondary) at will, a cabinet level post is required.  This also stops, or at least hinders, interference from other Ministers. 

Who that Minister should be is a different matter, but it would need to be someone with a very good idea of what they wanted, the determination (and vision) to see it through, and a strong two-way respect for/from the public service as a whole.  Preferably, it should be a TD who’s not going to run for election again – this avoids too much personal risk entering the decision-making equation.

This Department Will Self-Destruct in…

Public service reform of the type we’re envisaging here isn’t an ongoing process.  This is a once-a-generation type of change we’re looking at.  Smaller, incremental change should be ongoing, (and the bigger process must create systems that facilitate it) but this is the time – and the opportunity – for major structural change.

Because of this, it’s important to give the proposed Department of Public Service Reform a predetermined lifetime.  Five years, being the normal lifetime of a Government (all going well), would be appropriate.  It’s long enough to hopefully avoid procrastination and “waiting them out”, but short enough that there’s a visible endline at all times.

The staff (more to follow) hired for the Department should be on five year contracts or secondments.  Those not already Civil Servants should not become Civil Servants in the old sense of the term (job for life, etc), but should of course have decent terms and conditions.

Civil Servants Deciding Public Sector Reform?

As I’m sure readers are already mentally pointing out, establishing a Government Department of Public Service Reform will mean having a building full of civil servants doing the work.  The people who best understand the public sector are public servants themselves.  But they’re also an interested party – some interested in strong reform, others interested in the status quo.  Group theory would suggest that in large numbers they’ll tend towards the latter.

So yes, you need civil servants working in this hypothetical Department.  But you also need to bring in people from the wider public service and from the non-public sector.  I’d say that your ideal mix would have the analysis/decision-making units of the Department made up of civil servants, other public servants and non-public sector people (be they from academia, private sector, NGOs or elsewhere).  It would also include people from each of those sectors (civil/public/non) from other countries.  The US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand should be considered just as much as European nations.

The civil servants assigned to this Department should be hand selected from the best and brightest in the rest of the public sector.  They should be recruited by the new Department, not sent to it because they’re an inconvenience or of no use to their previous Department (as is alleged to so often happen in the Irish public service).

A mix like this would, hopefully, allow for some creative thinking while taking into account how the public service actually works in practice.

Bringing it all together

With a good Minister and the active cooperation of other Government Ministers, such a Department could be making a real difference in a realatively short time.  Its remit should be broad enough to allow for service improvements, quality control improvements and cost-beneficial additions as well as cost cutting.

But, I hear you cry, the Unions would never allow it.  Not right now they wouldn’t.  And that’s why one or more parties needs to run into the next General Election with a policy like this (in about as much detail as I’ve given) clearly laid out.

While the Unions might complain about such proposals, and some of the consequential reforms, being brought in off the cuff, it’s a different ball game altogether when there’s a clear mandate in place from the people.  One might take one’s chances on industrial action when there’s no clear mandate.  But if the people have spoken clearly, they’re not going to take withdrawl of any services well.

So, what we need is:

  • A Minister for Public Service Reform
  • A Department that only lasts 5 years
  • Lots of non-civil servants staffing that Department
  • Wide-ranging powers and terms of reference
  • An election

Shouldn’t be a problem, then.


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