I thank the Acting Chairman. At the outset, I wish to recognise the important contribution public servants have made to restoring the nation’s finances in recent years and in particular with regard to the most recent Haddington Road agreement. I compliment the Minister on his work in that area of reform. I am surprised this Bill has not attracted more attention as it concerns an issue that attracts much criticism and sparks much debate, namely, the issue of Civil Service staffing. Perhaps the lack of attention is due to the considerable support evident across the House for this measure. However, support should not act as an impediment to debate.
It would be impossible to keep track of all the criticisms levelled at the Civil Service. Some of the criticism is justified but much is not. The enduring image of the Civil Service is of a conservative, change-averse, old-fashioned hierarchal institution and the very term “service” brings organisational comparisons with military service, which is a fair comparison when one considers the hierarchical structure and the obsession with rank and title. Anyone who ever has worked in a Department, a local authority or public organisation, will concur with that view.
To an extent, the bureaucracy and the structure are necessary as how would the State otherwise be able to provide the services and schemes it delivers to millions of citizens each week? How else would we guarantee fairness and equality of access in a country of this size?
The primary legislation governing the management of personnel and human resources dates back to 1956. To say the world in which organisations operate has changed would be an understatement, yet the legislation remains the original source upon which other Acts are based. We must ask if our Civil Service is fit for purpose, if it is capable of responding to the needs of our country today and if it is capable of delivering the various programmes and measures pledged by the democratically elected Government.
If the recent economic crisis has taught us anything it is that our Civil Service, and the sections concerned in this instance, was unprepared and seemingly unaware of the impending trouble. Similarly, the reform of the Civil Service should not have been dependent on the financial crisis. Any civil service operating at its best should be more flexible and responsive and less averse to change and properly considered and implemented reform.
Another issue that merits serious attention is the balance between specialists and general staff. Often the Civil Service is criticised for being full of generalists without specialist qualifications. Specialists are important. They bring a knowledge, expertise and experience to a task or challenge that generalists lack. That knowledge can be exceptionally significant, particularly when it concerns complex matters that have far-reaching consequences elsewhere. However, specialists can sometimes be too focused and too engrossed in an issue, and lack an ability to view matters in the wider context or from a different point of view. This is where a generalist is more useful. To arrive at the best possible solution or to design and implement the most effective programme or scheme, a good mix of specialists and generalists is required.
Unfortunately, our Civil Service grapples with achieving this balance, often without success. We often hear how a person’s skills and qualifications are overlooked and ignored – for example, those with qualifications in international relations being sent to the Department of Social Protection rather than the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, those with experience in agriculture being deployed to the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht and those with a background in law being sent to the Department of Health.
Notwithstanding this, in the last three years there have been a number of very welcome developments, guided by the public service reform plan and led by the new reform and delivery office. The creation of the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform is proof of the new approach and the importance attached to the modernisation of the Civil Service by the Government. Thousands of members of staff have been successfully redeployed across the Civil Service and the country. However, redeployment is only one component. The fact remains that reform will be hampered unless the thorny issue of performance management is tackled. It is grossly unfair and inequitable to maintain a system in which staff members who perform the bare minimum, often grudgingly, are rewarded to the same extent as, or in some cases more so than, staff who approach their jobs with vigour and dedication.
There are few things more demoralising than to see colleagues who do not make the effort and who contribute little but complain loudly receive the same or a higher level of reward. A job well done must be rewarded. What is required is a serious debate and review of performance management in the public sector.
This Bill is very welcome on account of the move towards greater flexibility, mobility and responsiveness in the Civil Service. It is an important step and I look forward to the deliberations and discussions on the Civil Service that it will generate in the Oireachtas and, I hope, beyond.