Civil Service shake-up
THE CIVIL SERVANT has traditionally been a butt for humorists. It was easy to satirise the seemingly obsessive caution and avoidance of personal responsibility which the popular mind attributed to the civil servant, whose prime skills were represented as being a perverse pleasure in preventing members of the public from getting satisfaction and manipulation of files to keep the buck moving-together, of course, with an insatiable thirst for tea. The late Myles na gCopaleen immortalised one stereotype of the bicycle-clipped civil servant, who, through some unfortunate mischance in early life, had, to the disadvantage both of the public and himself, wandered from certain humble agricultural pursuits which were his true vocation.
In recent years talk about the civil service has become more than a joke. There has been an increasing conviction both inside and outside Government that the traditional civil service organisation is for one reason or another not capable of carrying out the many complex tasks for which modern government. is responsible. One important indicator of this has been the large number of semi-state bodies and agencies set up by the Government outside the framework of the civil service to do jobs which Government felt the civil service itself could not do. There are now over eighty of these ranging from C.LE. and the E.S.B. employing between them some 30,000 to the Dublin Rheumatism Clinic Association (15) or the Dental Board (1). This profusion of new bodies seemed to be growing in some areas into a duplicate civil service whose relation to the civil service proper and to the Oireachtas is obscure and to many people unsatisfactory.
The Government, too, is showing some concern about this situation. In a famous speech Sean Lemass stated his desire to see all Government Departments transformed into development corporations.This had little practical impact at the time-it is easy to see from the Devlin Report why. Then in 1966 the Government appointed a committee under Mr. Liam St. John Devlin, "having regard to the growing responsibilities of government, to examine and report on the organisation of the Departments of State at the higher levels, including the appropriate distribution of functions as between both Departments themselves, and Departments and other bodies." This decision followed shortly after the appointment of the Fulton Commission in Britain to do the same job. The Devlin Committee has now published its report.
A hangover from colonial period
The Report gives a fascinating insight into the reasons why the present civil servant structure is not delivering the results which modern government requires and sketches out a comprehensive and radical scheme for its reconstruction. The greatness of this Report is its absolute fearlessness in exposing astonishing wealmesses in existing arrangements and recommending radical solutions for them-its ultimate weakness as a practical programme may be an under-estimate of the fierce defence of the status quo likely to be mounted by what has been described as the country's stringent professional vested interest.
In analysing the problem, the Report shows that in 1922 the new Government hammered together in a fairly rough and ready way a medley of official organisations which had grown up in Dublin over a long period of " colonial" rule. Except for the largely abortive Brennan Commission in the 1930s, no attempt has since been made to take an overall view of the kind of public service structure most suitable for Irish conditions. In recent years this makeshift has gradually been bogging down.
Among the prime reasons for this, the Commission identifies the traditional concept of the Minister as. "Corporation sole," that is, as the individual personally responsible in law for every act, however trivial, performed by a civil s~rvant of his Department. Today the.'sheer size of a Government Department tpakes it absolutely imp os:' sible for a Minister even to know about much that is done in his name. However, because of his personal responsibility, the whole way in which the Department works is organised around elaborate safeguards to ensure that nothing is done which may embarrass him. One consequence is that even highly-paid senior officials often have little or no opportunity to use their own discretion or common sense in their work. They are surrounded by rigid rules. Every detail of what thcy do must be kept carefully recorded in the file so that, if anyone should query their action subsequently, it can be shown that they have acted completely within thc rules. Over a period of years many or most civil servants become more concerned with keeping within the rules than with any positive initiative. Indeed it is often argued that the key to personal success for a civil servant is keeping out of trouble and that means avoiding difficult or controversial work. The Devlin Report tends to support this, since it shows that seniority is a major factor in promotion-you are more likely to lose a promotion for having done something wrong than to win one for brilliance.
Personnel standards falling
The Report analyses the weaknesses of the present civil service structure and operation under four main headings: organisation; personnel policy; planning and finance. On organisation, the Committee remarks that their first impression was that there is not one civil service, but sixteen; that each Department has its own service. It concludes that executive practice over the whole public service needs to be rationalised immediately. Civil servants themselves are classified into about a thousand different grades. The position is so confused that the Committee admits to difficulty in determining exactly what constitutes a grade. There is a further complication in that various groups of grades are regarded as "classes." This is to some extent a carry-over from the old concept of social class dating to the time when educational opportunity was related to social class. On the consequence of this, the Report says" the long hierarchical ladders that exist in all civil service organisations are a further impediment to the efficient discharge of business." Every officer must work under an officer immediately above him in the grading hierarchy. This means that where, for example, the work calls for one very senior man and a number of juniors, the senior man cannot have the juniors without having the appropriate number of in-between people as well.
Comments on personnel policy are equally revealing. Apparently it is becoming harder and harder to recruit first-class people for the higher civil service, so that the top posts have to be filled by promotions from lower grades. This means that top positions will increasingly be held by people who have plodded their way upwards through a stultifying atmosphere calculated to knock all initiative and originality out of any but the most exceptional person-and those who enter the lower ranks initially are unlikely to be that. At a time when educational standards in the community generally are rising, those in the higher civil service are falling. The Committee actually suggests a bias in some Departments against higher education. New recruitment policies, the Committee says, are necessary.
Incidentally, it remarks that" the use of the civil service alone as a means of promoting the Irish language diverts the service from its other tasks. A
realistic language policy should be nation-wide in its application and if the civil service alone is required to make a knowledge of Irish a requirement on recruitment, it will be restricted in competition with other employcrs."
Once recruited, pay increases and promotion follow for the civil servant fairly automatically, the speed of the latter depending more on what vacancies are available above him than on his own merit.The Committee is sceptical about arrangements for assessing personnel and performance and doubts whether the best people available are always promoted. Nor is there any proper system of manpower planning-foreseeing where particular kinds of people are going to be needed and providing for it well in advance. Most astonishing of all perhaps is the statement that when vacancies are being filled in Departments" there is no attempt to link qualifications to requirements and we found no evidence that in assigning new entrants, departments try to fit aptitudes and qualifications to the job. . . For the average officer . . . personnel development is a matter of chance.'~ The silly requirement that women should retire from the service on marriage is also condemned.
At a time when economic planning has for some years been official Government policy, it is remarkable to be told that although" a number of Departments are conscious of the need for planning. . . they are neither adequately equipped, nor are they organised on any common basis for this purpose. It is hardly an exaggeration to say that this Report makes it clear that no national economic plan could succeed without a drastic overhaul of the public service. It is no credit to anybody that although the first national plan was launched more than ten years ago, we are still blundering along without the organisation machinery essential for such planning to be successful. Anyone who wants to know why the Second Programme collapsed and the Third is in jeopardy will find the answer here.
Control of details-neglect of overall efficiency
The Report's comments on financial control and management practices in the public service are devastating. "The system. . . was originally designed for the exercise of control by Parliament over expenditure by the King. It has not been adapted to provide an accounting service for a modern state." The whole system seems designed for rigid control of details-salaries, travelling, telephones and telegrams-while being uninterested in overall efficiency. As long as the sum of money spent for a particular item corresponds exactly with the amount authorised, then it is nobody's business to enquire any further. To put all the emphasis on controlling detail while not being concerned with general efficiency is an outstanding case of penny wise and pound foolish. Frequently this detailed control costs far more than it saves and meanwhile absolutely wrong attitudes to the proper use of public funds are imposed right through the service. It is significant in this connection that the Report says there is no overall plan for the development of automatic data processing in the service. The intelligent application of these techniques throughout the service would undoubtedly eliminate the need for a great deal of obsolete control of detail while providing safeguards against genuine misappropriation or dishonesty. Again, the Report says that the management accounting techniques developed in the business world have been given little place in the public service where the main direction of the present system of Government accounting is towards accounting to the Oireachtas in detail for each item of expenditureout of voted monies. This is another way of saying that as long as the file is kept right, nobody need bother about ultimate efficiency or results.
In other comments on public service, organisation and management, the Committee talks about poor communications within the public service and with the public. Much of the traditional secrecy, it says, is unnecessary. Many civil servants have to work very hard and for longer than official hours, but much of this overwork is unnecessary and due to bad organisation.
New policy-making body
What is the answer? As already mentioned, the Report identifies as the prime cause of the problem the doctrine of" ministerial responsibility" and, in effect, it proposes to abolish this for a large part of the work of the public servicc. It suggests that the work of each Department be clearly divided into two functions-policymaking and overall supervision on the one hand and execution on the other. Policy-making responsibility would be given to the Minister and a group of top officials, to be known as an Aireacht. from the Irish word Aire-Minister. The Secretary of each Department would have reporting directly to him four staff groups concerned respectively with finance, planning, organisation and personnel. Also in the Aireacht would be Assistant Secretaries, each responsible for a particular functional area and having under them Executive Offices or Executive Agencies headed by Directors. These Executive Offices would have much the same kind of freedom as is now enjoyed by the semi-state bodies. In this way, much of the time-consuming detail which now occupies top officials would be dealt with at lower levels. The Committee describes this solution as combining the best features of the traditional civil service and the semi-state bodies. An important point here is that the existing semi-state bodies would come under more effective control of their respective Departments in regard to policy and overall performance. One of thc weaknesses of the present semi-state body system is that, once these bodies are launched, Departments seem to have very limited control over their policies and Parliament been even less. To alter the doctrine of ministerial responsibility in this way, changes in the present law would, of course, be necessary.
It should be noted that while the officials in the Aireacht would maintain the traditional civil service anonymity, those in the executive offices would not. They would deal with the public in their own right under their own names in the same way as officials of semi-state bodies now do.
In its sketch of the Aireacht, the Committee does not, I feel, emphasise enough the need for Ministers to have considerable personal discretion in selecting their top policy advisers. In this we have perhaps something to learn from the American system. While invariably the basic element in the Aireacht will be top civil servants, the system ought to be flexible enough to allow a Minister to draw into it, on a more or less temporary basis, outside advisers and experts whom he feels have a particular contribution to make. Ideally too, the Aireacht should dissolve automatically when a new Minister is appointed so as to leave him free to select his own advisers. Departmental Secretaries might retire automatically with their Minister (without loss of pay and remaining eligible for reappointment).
At levels other than the Aireacht, too, one cannot help feeling that much more flexible arrangements need to be introduced for bringing people into the public servicc at various levels from other occupations-and at the same time making it easier for public servants to spend part of their careers in outside employment.This would give the public service a badly-needed leavening of people with practical experience of what goes on on the other side of the fence. Devlin doesI suggest changes in the pension system to make it easier for civil servants to go out, but doesn't give much attention to how to bring others in.
While the public service relationship to the Oireachtas was outside the Committee's terms of reference, it is very relevant to this discussion. The case for Oireachtas Committees on various topics is very strong, since it has now become impossible for Parliament to deal effectively with much of its business in the traditional general-type discussions. If this reform takes place, then the relationship between the Oireachtas Committee and the appropriate Aireacht should be very close, witb, for example, officials of the Aireacht being available to the Oireachtas Committee to discuss policy areas with which they were concerned.It is extremely important that as the Devlin recommendations are implemented, a parallel development of Oireachtas institutions also takes place, so that public representatives continue to participate effectively in policy development. While the Report very rightly condemns some of the present forms of parliamentary control as being obsolete and ineffective, these must be replaced by an effective relationship between Parliament and the public service if the democratic principle is to be protected.
New Public Service Department
How does the Devlin Committee suggest that the serious organisation and management defects of the public service be cured? The key proposal is the setting up of a new Public Service Department with its own secretary reporting directly to the Minister for Finance. This new Department would be responsible for introducing modern management systems throughout the public service. It would build up a group of managemcnt specialists and work through the assistant secretary for organisation in each departmental Aireacht. It would organise proper training for civil servants (said to be virtually nonexistent at present). It would generally have responsibility for implementing the Devlin Committee's recommendations.
The Report says the present system of financial control should be scrapped over a period and instead the public service should go over to a " planning, programming, budgeting" system. The concept calls for the change from the system of appropriations by items of expenditure to appropriations by programmes, with a sophisticated evaluation of alternatives by cost effectiveness and cost utility measurement techniques. In other words, budgets for apparently desirable projects or prog:ammes would be prepared by Government departments. These would go to the Department of Finance which would be responsible for national planning and would assess each department's proposals in the light of overall national objectives. Once a departmental programme had been approved and the appropriate budget allocated to it the Department concerned would itself be responsible for detailed control. The Department of Finance would no longer be responsible for checking the" housekeeping" accounts, but would be concerned with how well progress was being made towards. the stated goals and the overall efficiency of the Department's performance. In each departmental Aireacht a planning group working with the Secretary would be developing future plans. On the personnel side, the Committee recommends major simplification of grades and classes and the basis of merit alone-such posts to be open to properly qualified officials in any part of the public service, not just those in the same Dcpartment. Here again I think at least some of these posts should be open to people from outside the service. It is clear that the building up of a really strong Public Service Department would be essential if these new systems are to be implemented.
An important suggestion regarding the semi-state bodies and state companies is that in future the commercial ones should 0PFrate on a normal commercial basis, i.e., make a profit. Where the Government expects these bodies to fulfil loss-making" social" functions, the cost of these social services should be charged separately to the Government and presumably (although the report does not say this) voted as a subsidy by the Oireachtas. This would be a valuable advance on the present position when nobody knows in many cases exactly what the losses of state companies are being incurred on and whether or not the expenditure is worth while. If each loss-making item had to be justified to the Oireachtas, it would impose a valuable discipline and many wasteful activities would be eliminated.
Local Government and decentralisation
I have not so far said anything about Local Government. Strictly speaking, this is outside the Committee's terms of reference. They say, however, that they had to consider the relationship between Government departments and local bodies. What they recommend, in brief, is that local bodies should enjoy much greater autonomy within their delegated area of responsibility. This would relieve them of a great deal of detailed and irritating interference and control from the central government and restore the opportunity for local initiative which has been very seriously eroded in recent times. The Committee's Report also implies support for progressive regionalisation of public services. It slyly condemns the proposed moving of Government departments to Athlone and Castle bar in this summary of its attitude to decentralisation which makes admirable sense. "There are three recognised methods of decentralisation.
1. The dispersal of centralised units of government as in the proposed transfers of Departments of Land and Education.
2. De-concentration, which involves a delegation of executive functions to a number of departmental centres throughout the country as in the recent suggestion by the l\1inister for Agriculture that there should be a mini-Department in each county.
3. Devolution which involves a transfer of departmental functions to regional or kcal bodies.
The first of these does not involve the decentralisation of authority to take dccisions. The other two do. For effective decentralisation, the natural sequences is in the first instance the decentralisation of decision-making followed by the relocation of people." The point is strongly made that the top advisers in a department must be in the capital near Parliament and their minister. If on the other hand, responsibility for routine decisions and executive work is delegated to lower levels in the public service, as the Report recommends, then there would be numerous opportunities for establishing local branches of Departments in various parts of the country. The Report looks to the ultimate coordination of all public services in regions with presumably a unified administrative centre for each region. In a signed addendum to the Report Mr. T. J. Barrington, Director of the Institute of Public Administration, discusses a number of valuable ideas for de-concentration and decentralisation.
Haughey's problem now
This is an exciting Report, of fundamental importance for our national future. The question now is what will be done with it. The Committee itself calculates that it would take at leave five years to implement its proposals-starting now. It could very likely take ten or more. Will anybody be prepared to take on this tremendous challenge? All eyes are now on the Minister for Finance. It is under him that the new Public Service Department would be formed. It is, perhaps, a fortunate coincidence that the present holder of the office, Mr. Haughey, is widely recognised as having the personal qualities-the exceptional ability and deep determination-which would be essential for the task Devlin outlines.Mr. Haughey now has an opportunity of a kind that even outstanding politicians rarely get: to associate his name with the construction of a new Irish public service which could serve as a model, not only to Europe, but to the world. The smallness of the Irish community makes such a task feasible here, where it would be unmanagcable in larger societies. By devoting himself to this project for the next five years Mr. Haughey would be taking the most effective steps possible to promote national development because one of the facts which comes through again and again from Devlin is that without effective organisation and management in the public service a great deal of Government policy and planning must be abortive.
One must not under-estimate the very real difficulties which Mr. Haughey would face. One of these is already apparent in the cagey, lukewarm response of the Government to the Report's publication. Fianna Fail have just had a convincing win at the polls which can legitimately be taken by the Government as an endorsement of the status quo in this, as in many other fields. Ministers who have been working for years with particular departments in a particular way will be slow to embark on a radical programme of this kind which might upset their civil servants and would certainly interfere with traditional forms of political patronage and influence, e.g. the Post Office. Furthermore, the system of appeals to independent tribunals for citizens feeling aggrieved by departmental decisions may be seen by some Ministers as involving important loss of control. Despite this absurdity of the doctrine of "ministerial responsibility" in modern conditions, some Ministers like being a "corporation sole" and wouldn't relish the thought of having their area of direct responsibility reduced to the Aireacht enclave. Some people in fact would argue for a very much more radical approach to public accountability than Devlin proposes - something similar to the Swedish system where every citizen has free access to any public service file or an Institute of Criticism existing purely to correct defects in the public service from the citizens' point of view. Caution is necessary in transferring such ideas to Ireland, where they could have an opposite effect to that desired. One of the criticisms of the present system which Devlin stresses is the obsession with detailed accountability-keeping the file fully prepared against any conceivable query. Our present need is to moderate this so as to encourage more initiative and personal responsibility. To expose the public servant to even greater detailed accountability in the future would not help. I feel that if the system of administrative tribunals headed by a Commissioner for Administrative Justice is implemented, it will go a long way to safeguarding the citizen's rights.
Opposition to Report
Another major problem in implementation will be to preserve the unity of the Devlin Committee's conception. Already Government departments and semi-state bodies are getting ready to fight detailed recommendations about themselves which they don't like. Obviously, the Government's first step has been to call for memoranda from each department on the Report. This is the traditional start to the smothering process. If the result of such activity were a kind of half-implementation of Devlin, then our last state might be worse than our first. Again, if Mr. Haughey does wholeheartedly take up the challenge, who will he find as Secretary for the new Department of the Public Service? Most senior civil servants have been so moulded by traditional attitudes and tactics as to be overwhelmed by 15 Government departments and an assortment of state agencies arguing vigorously to preserve a particular part of the status quo which they believe important to them. An appointment from outside the public service altogether may be necessary. Perhaps what is needed is a prestigious manager, possibly from abroad. In this article I have deliberately avoided discussing the detailed recommendations made in the Report for each Department.
Certain of these I did not agree with. However, these detailed recommendations must be regarded as "for examples."If the fundamental recommendations are accepted, then there will be no problem in adjusting these details in line with what are very clearly stated principles. \Vhat must be avoided at all costs is the obscuring of the basic recommendations by argument about peripheral details. This is a classic way of gutting uncomfortable proposals. The Devlin Committee firmly rejects resort to easier short-term palliatives which, it says, will provide no long-term solution. "The structures and systems we propose are part of an interlocking and unitary concept and, unless the whole concept is put into effect through carefully programmed stages, the results we envisage will not be obtained." The decision which the Government faces is whether to accept that statement and implement the Report or muddle on, putting off the evil hour in the hope that what has done them well enough for more than thirty years can be made to do for a few years yet.