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Public sector: Revolution without end… December 13, 2013

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Economy, Irish Politics.
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Eddie Molloy wends his indefatigable way through the SBP this last weekend, with a plea for ‘real reform, please’ of the public sector.

You see, it’s not enough, nowhere near enough, that which has already been ‘achieved’.

The Haddington Road Agreement required, in essence, acceptance of longer working hours for lower pay. Added to earlier pay cuts, roster changes and a pension levy this was a bitter pill for public servants to swallow, so public expenditure minister Brendan Howlin, conscious of having gone to the well again, sought to allay people’s fears at the time saying: “This will be the last ask, we will not be coming back to you for more.’’
But he added, crucially, that while this would be the “last ask’’ for pay cuts, further necessary savings would come from “widespread workpractice reforms’’.
In fact, there are several very demanding additional “asks’’ in prospect for public servants.

These are, in succession, Fundament re-configuration – that being re-designing of ‘inherited service models’ and ‘disruptive innovation’. This last called disruptive by him ‘because it typically entails changes in inherited demarcations, power structures, work practices, funding arrangements or the place where the work is done’.

I was amused by his use of the term which is usually applied in the context of new technologies such as tablets or such like and the manner in which they disrupt markets due to their innovative qualities, or change markets entirely (usually by bringing them into being as with the iPad). But whether it can be applied in quite the way he suggests as regards “typically entailing…changes in inherited demarcations…” etc is an open question. My understanding of its usage is that it very specific, and that his use of it is – frankly – a reworking by himself in order to apply it outside of that usage and specifically the public sector.

A moment’s thought suggests this application of it is inapposite in the extreme. There are no ‘new’ services as such to be delivered by the state and the area it operates within, at least that outlined by Molloy, is one which is not a ‘market’. Perhaps, though, it sounds good. Like so much jargon used in these instances (and there was merriment and scepticism on the US based This Week in Technology podcast a couple of weeks ago over this very issue of a misunderstanding and misapplication of the term ‘disruptive innovation’).

He’s keen too on personal accountability amongst the public service. Okay up to a point, but problems arise, not least that political accountability seems to be oddly missing from his schema.

Then there’s ‘deep cultural reform’, which seems to involve crafting a mission statement. Again okay as far as it goes, but hardly earth shattering.

That hardy perennial ‘Competition’. ‘Monopolies, public or private do not serve the public interest, so constraints on outsourcing must be re-visited. It will not be sufficient, however, simply to open up more public services to competition.
We have seen, for example, that privatising childcare and nursing homes must be underpinned by effective regulation. It is the structure of the market and the quality of regulation that matters – as is the case in Denmark which provides unrivalled public services from cradle to grave, but without the state being the major provider.’.

Whether there is added benefit from yet further ‘competition’ in regard to public services is a very open question and a political one too. Again it’s a bit like disruptive innovation – sure, it sounds different, but it appears inapposite. I’ve already noted this week the absurdities that privatisation visited upon us across the decades earlier in this week, and my latest experience of same, the arrival of Greyhound yesterday to collect the bins fourteen hours after they should. Say what one will about the Council service it was efficient and on time – predictable as…well clockwork). With a worldview that the state as a provider is anathema there are obviously problems from the off, and no end of wishful thinking and undue optimism.

And, finally, there’s ‘targeted redundancies’.

He argues:

Targeted redundancies It was revealed during August that the numerous mistakes in this year’s Leaving Cert papers were attributed to the loss of senior staff due to incentivised early retirement programmes. Similar collateral damage has occurred right across the public service, with the exodus of experienced gardaн, nurses, teachers, keepers in our libraries and museums, and so on. What makes this situation particularly galling is not so much that a recruitment embargo blocks the hiring of replacements – even if such precious expertise could be found in the marketplace – but that while this haemorrhaging of some of the best and most needed staff continues apace while incompetent and underemployed staff remain secure in their jobs.

But wait, that revelation in August, and the idea that mistakes were due to the loss of senior skilled staff leaving just the chaff… can he be right? This report in the Irish Times from August puts it in a rather different context.

It was, it would appear, indeed due to cuts, but also due to a rather different reason than the one he suggests:

The report described the complex nature of the commission’s role in compiling second-level examinations, saying more than 23,000 people had a direct role in accomplishing this every year. Paper-preparation took up to 18 months and involved a number of steps to reduce the possibility of errors.
While the goal was to preside over an examination system that was “completely error-free”, the reality was that “this will always be an aspiration rather than a completely achievable goal.

But:

The report added, however, that the commission had undergone “significant and unplanned rapid change” caused by the “crisis in the public finances”. This included the departure of more than 40 per cent of the assessment division of the commission.

There’s no way of reading that without coming to the conclusion that the problem was that there were too few staff to do the job, not that the quality of those remaining was insufficiently good. Moreover it notes that:

The report also cited the impact on the Junior and Leaving Cert curriculums caused by the “substantial change under the Government’s Project Maths initiative”. Its introduction required a “very large increase” in the number of papers to be produced during the transition to Project Maths.

An increased number of papers too? Surely that would require additional resources to deal with them.

If his understanding of that is so skewed why should we find credible his thoughts in regards to ‘incompetent and underemployed’ staff?

Wait, I said finally above. But I was wrong. There is no finally in this. It’s perpetual revolution…

In addition to Croke Park, Haddington Road and the above six big ‘asks’, there are 14 less well-known but major change programmes being rolled out by a team of internal and newly recruited external specialists in the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform. They include the rationalisation of property, streamlining procurement, shared services and process re-engineering. Then there is the national pensions crisis which can’t possibly be resolved without impacting on the pockets of public servants. Imposing pay cuts and longer working hours, though very painful, present a relatively straightforward administrative process.

In other words there’s no end in sight (note by the way that he mentions pensions originally but can’t leave them alone). I can’t help but wonder what public servants feel when faced with this sort of a list. I also can’t help but wonder what the point of the exercise actually is. Or rather I can, it’s ideology dressed up in supposedly pragmatic and utilitarian garb, as so much of the responses to a crisis uniquely generated by the market actually is. But given that the one piece of easily referenced anecdote that he offers is so clearly incorrect I’d wonder just what basis for proceeding along the lines he proposes there actually can be.

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Comments»

1. CL - December 13, 2013

‘Monopolies, public or private do not serve the public interest,’-an obviously silly statement; there are many public monopolies which serve the public interest, -water, sewers, subways etc, etc.

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2. CMK - December 13, 2013

Eddie is actually doing us a service by making it clear that further and continued attacks on the public sector are on the plans and sooner rather than later. On of the many opportunities I’ve had in 2013 for a cynical, hollow, laugh was on hearing one of the main trade union players in the whole Croke Park II/Haddington Road process insist that public service members of that union ‘have given everything they’re going to give’. HRA has bedded down nicely, the PS workforce have been nicely cowed and are, poor things, reassured by the promises and noises they hear from the unions and government politicians that the public sector workforce have made its final contribution with HRA and that no more will be asked of PS workers. Only a fool would believe that.

We’re celebrating the ‘end’ of the bailout while knowing that the Troika, in another guise, will be supervising budgets until 2034 – a sociological generation – and that’s without the fiscal treaty. Noonan is talking about income tax cuts, which means lifting the taxation burden on the well paid and transferring the resulting shortfall somewhere else. Where?

Well, expenditure on welfare, health, education (creating pressure for private provision, all going to plan); also, reductions in the public sector pay bill the easiest of which will be reducing pension provision even further for public sector workers and squeezing new entrants even harder.

The unions will get on board with this and will urge members to ‘face reality’ and accept the cuts in exchange for keeping what’s left of their jobs.

There are three final points I’d make.

First, the current confidence to have another crack at the public sector, which Eddie embodies, is a result of the absolute refusal of the trade union movement collectively to confront the government since 2008. While there is a price to paid for struggle, often not struggling levies an even heavier price in the long term. The truth of that perspective will be apparent for many in the public sector over the coming decades.

Second, any public sector worker currently employed, even in relatively well paid positions, permanent and secure, who doesn’t have additional private wealth, isn’t making AVCs or hasn’t got a separate private pension, is going to have an impoverished retirement. Frugal, pinched and miserable will probably be the best o it.

Finally, the current generation of trade union leaders – ‘pragmatists’ all – have pushed and bullied their members into an utter deadend from which there is no escape without industrial conflict on the scale of the 1984/5 UK Miners Strike, or even greater than that. The reward for public sector workers for their forebearance over the past few years will ceaseless attacks as the financial crisis worsens for the State, which will refuse to pass any of the financial burdens of running this society onto the wealthy or business.

There are grim times ahead, comrades.

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3. 6to5against - December 13, 2013

+1

And on another aspect of this, who the hell is Eddie Molloy anyway. He is endlessly trotted out for some sport of ‘expert’ analysis, but from his webiste, all I can see is that he’s some sort of corporate management consultant. he claims to have expertise in managing ‘change’, but I can’t find any substantiation to this, and not even a suggestion that he has some expertise in managing public services.

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fergal - December 13, 2013

6 to 5 well that’s just pure fuckacting- Eddie is change, he changes his socks everyday, he changes his underpants every day too; He changes his clothes everyday; He changes TV channel all the time? He is change. So what if you can-t find any of this on his website….that’s because he changes it every 60 seconds. It was Eddie who came up with Obama’s slogan; “change you can believe in”, so there. If you doubt Eddie’s credentials then you’ll just have to ..change

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4. TopCat - December 13, 2013

Eddie – like many of these right-wing labour experts XXXXXXX edited by WBS

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Bruno - December 13, 2013

the last comment by Topcat is disgracefully scurrilous and should be disavowed if this website has any pretense to reasoned commentary. And while I don’t agree with Eddie Molloy’s analysis which is rather scattergun and superficial, I find it difficult to believe that people consider public services aren’t in further need of reform. What about teaching where the PISA results show that we are only regaining the lost ground of the early 2000s; what about eldercare where we are addicted to an archaic model of institutionalised care, to give but two examples? The issue of reform turns not on the issue of whether public services should obtain more extensive funding but how these resources should be deployed and how they shape services. This is not, I repeat, a matter of setting up some sort of public/private dichotomy but it does seem to call for a rational response from the left which, on the basis of this post, seems to be sadly lacking.

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WorldbyStorm - December 14, 2013

Somehow I think the site will stagger on whatever we do about Top Cat, it’s legitimacy or otherwise drawn from other sources, but I hadn’t read it until now and I’ve removed it.

Re the rest. Well, I don’t know. I’ve worked in the private sector since 1990 and been on contract to the public sector for some years now and I’ve got to be honest, my experience of the latter makes me think the case for reform is more a media construct than a reality. And by the way, if you actually read any of my posts or comments you’d find that while I am agin attacks on the PS, I reserve the bulk of my sympathy for un-unionised private sector workers because they’re the one’s who are truly getting it in the neck day in day out. That said, the idea that it isn’t an issue of funding seems way off the mark. The school where my daughter goes to school has seen SNA’s cut. It’s Deis 2. That’s clearly an issue of funding, not about deployment so I find it hard to understand how you can say it is otherwise.

And PISA? Read this for a contrary view… http://www.tui.ie/press-releases/pisa-findings-endorse-high-levels-of-quality-in-irish-education-tui.4968.html

As to taking one post on one blog as evidence or otherwise of a ‘rational response from the left’. Hard not to think that you’re deliberately setting up people in such a way as to fail to meet your expectations if that’s the case.

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CL - December 14, 2013

Here’s a different view on the importance of the PISA tests from Diane Ravitch. O.K she did work for Bush, but more recently she has been ‘the leading figure in the movement against corporate-influenced school reform’. And she’s on de Blasio’s transition team.
She agrees with this statement: “standings in the league tables of international tests are worthless.”
http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/answer-sheet/wp/2013/12/03/four-lessons-on-new-pisa-scores-ravitch/

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WorldbyStorm - December 14, 2013

Thanks CL, a timely link.

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Ed - December 14, 2013

“This is not, I repeat, a matter of setting up some sort of public/private dichotomy but it does seem to call for a rational response from the left which, on the basis of this post, seems to be sadly lacking.”

It may not be for you, but it certainly is for Eddie Molloy. It’s a simple formula ‘private good, public bad, public service needs to be more like private sector, cue inappropriate suggestion that takes no account of the way things are, rinse, repeat, ad infinitum’. And since Eddie, despite or rather because of the fact that his analysis is ‘scattergun and superficial’ (a tactful way of putting it) is given a regular platform in the broadsheets to promote this agenda, it needs to be challenged. If there’s a sophisticated, thoughtful critique of the way public services are provided, it’ll invite a sophisticated, thoughtful response.

But there’s nothing thoughtful or sophisticated about 90%, no 99%, of the discussion in the Irish media. WBS cited another article from the SBP (I think) lately that demanded to know why the Irish state couldn’t be run in exactly the same way as Walmart, with a couple of half-baked suggestions for putting libraries in schools and letting adults use school gyms. Actually they weren’t half-baked, they weren’t baked at all, they were just some moldy dough that the author had got sick into. That’s the usual standard.

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WorldbyStorm - December 14, 2013

Yes, that was from the SBP that piece. I think you’re right, it may not be for Bruno but it is for Molloy. And functionally I ask again, as one whose feet are planted firmly in the private sector, what exactly is the rationale for ‘reform’, particularly after six years of – often useful changes in some areas, not so useful changes in others? It suggests an adherence to the term ‘reform’ not for its reality but in a rhetorical fashion.

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5. 6to5against - December 14, 2013

I suspect that, lurking somewhere in the background, is this logic: endless calls for reform slowly create the impression that public services are broken and can’t be reformed. The only solution at that stage will be to privatise.

On the left, I feel that we sometimes feed into this by our own knocking of public services. As we constantly bemoan an underperforming health system, for example, the fact that most of us believe it could work fine with better resources is lost. To an uninterested public, it sounds like further validation of the fact that public ervices simply cannoth be delivered.

Perhaps we should focus more on the parts that work, even if that entials given some credit to government anf the HSE, to make the argument that an efficient and viable health service is an achieve able aim.

Cancer services, for example, in this country are good.

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6. CL - December 14, 2013

Finally some good news. The U.S is turning socialist says Murdoch’s NY Post.

“Bill de Blasio took his leftist agenda to DC Friday and emerged from the White House proclaiming that his brand of socialist politics is sweeping the nation.”

http://nypost.com/2013/12/14/de-blasio-repeats-tale-of-2-cities-to-obama-in-sit-down/

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