Public sector: Revolution without end… December 13, 2013Posted by WorldbyStorm in Economy, Irish Politics.
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’.
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.
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.