Public Sector Reform and Policy Reform

The proposed agreement with the public sector unions is intended to facilitate public sector reform.  In addition to reform in the delivery of public services, the reform agenda may also be interpreted as extending to reforming the role of the public sector in the process of policy development.  In this regard,  Brendan Tuohy recently contributed an interesting reflective article in the Irish Times, while there is also a critique of the Department of Finance by Eddie Molloy in today’s edition.

In thinking about how policymaking can be improved in Ireland, I invite the readership to offer their views on how policy development can be improved, especially in terms of the advisory role played by civil servants and other public sector policy officials.

30 replies on “Public Sector Reform and Policy Reform”

The Eddie Molloy piece is damning.

One specific response: personnel functions should not be in DoF. A US style Office of Personnel Management with a mandate for strategy could do a lot.

One measure that would be good to introduce would be whistleblower protection. Surely someone within the DoF realized what a mess was being made of everything and could have put up their hand earlier if incentives and protection was there? Failing ex-ante measures like that, at the very least we need an ex-post Dail Committee to lay bare what was going on in the DoF over the last 3-4 years, or longer?

Agree absolutely about whistleblower protection. I think I managed to help get whistleblower protection in the Nama legislation after lobblying FG & L several times. However, what is really needed is univeral whistleblower protections covering the entire public sector instead of the ongoing patchwork approach. I think Pat Rabittee has proposed something like this. Whistleblowers have helped expose some of the most signifcant scandals in recent years. Maybe, that’s why so many feet are being dragged.

The restructuring and re-organisation of Departments appears to be a hap-hazard activity based on political objectives rather than policy or management objectives. Restructuring and re-organisation is a valuable and worthwhile activity if done properly. Any restructuring or re-organisation of Departments should be carried out in a properly planned manner. The objective should not only be to achieve policy goals and outcomes but also to stimulate and improve the Covil Service as an organisation.

Similarly, circulating staff between sections is worthwhile if they are moving between related areas. However, rotating for no reason other than an obligation to rotate seems daft.

The Government should be entitled to appoint high level Civil Servants with real powers for the duration of the Government. They should also be entitled to make some permanent political appointments to bring in additional expertise and knowledge. These appointees should be screened by the Dail as the European Parliament screens proposed Commissioners.

The Government needs a section that is involved in “the business of business”. I would include personnel strategy but not HR functions. This section could ensure that lessons learned and experience gained in one Department are applied in other Departments.

At the moment there is no proper performance review on a departmental level. The DoF’s lack of self-loathing is a case in point. However, the cosy cartel of advisers and consultants who it is “safe” to engage is an extension of the problem. One can go beyond that and say that international bodies such as the IMF and the EU Commission have similarly succumbed to political concerns. I am not sure how we can fix this.

However the problem needs to be acknowledged and some steps must be taken. A greater variety of experts must be used and greater proof of expertise must be demanded. Outcomes must be assessed rather than outputs.

All regulatory bodies need to be fundamentally redesigned as they have failed to achieve outcomes or to provide expertise and advice.

The legislative process needs to be properly documented and all civil servants involved in implementing policy and developing legislation need to be trained in the process. The mechanisms for bringing together the different expertise and inputs from various stakeholder departments should be formalised and all departments should be accountable for their input or lack thereof. The Draftsman’s office needs a radical overhaul. There appears to be a shortage of staff ans expertise for this critical function.

Dail reform is needed to make the Dail more of a debating chamber and less of a rubber stamp. Spurious and ill-informed contributions need to be highlighted. A censure system might be of help. The clientelist election system needs to be revisited. Criminalising the lobbying of TDs for local authority or administrative matters should be considered. Lobbying by TDs on such matters should be a matter for censure save where done in the course of Dail debates.

A service should be developed whereby all policy papers and submissions on different topics are classified and posted to particular Govt message boards or mailing lists to be accesible by Universities and Industry. everything on a particular topic should be on the one web page. RSS feeds or their equivalent should be set up for different topics.

Perhaps if the press stopped trying to blame the Minister of the day for every departmental scandal there would be more support for whistleblowers!

Assuming that “policy” means something longer-term than getting through next week’s Dáil vote, I think the single most important improvement would be to ensure that policy-making is done in public, with real engagement with critics, real arguments, rather than the sham “consultation” processes so popular in recent years.


Our entire government needs drastic reform and Opus DoF needs special attention. Like AIB knowing that Haughey was living on borrowed money but never thinking of mentioning it to the public, the DoF must have known there were major problems but they kept quiet, keeping all their complaints secret. That makes them deeply culpable for our collapse. From now on the public service must serve the public. They are our employees – not the government’s (who are also our employees). We badly need comprehensive whistleblower legislation across society.

@Brian J Goggin
Fully agreed. Of all countries we are especially in need of maximum transparency.


I think a discussion on the nature of politics in Ireland would be useful. I’m probably being naive in the extreme, but part of me feels that to be a true politician, and a true patriot, one shouldn’t need to be paid. I wonder would it help our current (and future) economic situation if we had a number of critical posts that could only be filled by people who’ve already made it, as it were. People who have made their fortunes (and their childen’s fortunes) and are ready to give back. Call them ‘Patriot posts’, but these people wouldn’t need to be concerned about the next vote, or the next expense cheque, or the next pension. The kind of people who live for a challenge, live to fight the good fight, but who no longer really need the financial incentives to do what they’re patently good at.

As you can probably tell, I’m new to the site, and it’s probably been discussed and dismissed at Econ 101, but the idea interests me all the same.

@Niall Dunne

That’s a recipe for rule by oligarchy. Far better to have pay that is genuinely competitive with the private sector – which we appear to have – together with similar levels of accountability. People always bring up Singapore where senior government officers and civil servants are paid up to and over $1mm a year, but it seems to me that the culture of efficacy and leadership there (civil liberties concerns granted) makes it a bit of an anomaly.

I read this and I think of the recent attempts at decentralisation.
The greatest subversion to the proper running of the government of this state are the political forces that interact with it.
Until these factional influences and the consequences thereof, are rendered explicit, I dont think that there will be and meaningful reform.

surely a useful dail/public sector reform would be the following

in situations where a financial calamity/huge waste of money occurs by an entity under a minister and the minister relies on the defence that “i relied on the best available advice”

then in situations where the advice actually contradicts the minister then that contradictory advice should be published by the govt dept and either

i) the relevant minister should be called to account by the Public Accounts committee or

ii) by the dail itself

@Frank Galton
The DoF are also hit on the head here:
and here:

@Niall Dunne
Paul Hunt has frequently written of the need for the executive to be separated from the legislature i.e. the Dail should approve the choice of minister but the ministers themselves would be unelected experts. Therefore: 1. They would be experts in policy and/or management eg., instead of Mary Coughlan we would have an expert in educational policy.
2. They would not have the huge burden of constituency work and constituency bribery in grants, appointments and policy formation eg.,
the welfare of the constituency of the minister for tourism would not be the
focus for national tourism policy, appointments and funding.

They would have to be paid well though.

That would be the Brendan Tuohy associated with the Eircom privatisation, right?

Enough said.

Just a point on the Brendan Tuohy article.

I reread it and to the best of my knowledge, he didnt mention the word ‘union’ once.

How can one be serious about public sector reform, and not deal with this issue, whatever your perspective on unions?

The biggest reform needed in the public service is mobility between the public and private sector. Once in the public sector one is severely disincentivised from moving into the private sector. I know there is good people in the public sector some of which could be make a great contribution in the private sector. Have we ever seen apublic sector employee on dragons den? That pension gives them too much to lose.
Similarly private sector workers are excluded from applying for many jobs in the public sector. To me this should be illegal as any citizen should have the right to apply for any public service job. It is anti-competitive.
If people moved freely between both sectors then both would benefit from the experience gained.
The public sector should be an equal opportunities employer.

This would also nulify the current divisions.

It is too late to rearrange the deck chairs, the ship is sinking. There has to be three levels of government, each with taxation power. A national government, 4 provincial governments, and municipalities. The national and provincial gov’ts would levy income taxes, VAT national, sales taxes provinces, municipalities property taxes (including residential). The purpose is to spread incompetence out evenly so that all our eggs are not being crushed in the Dail. There are far too many TDs a 75% reduction is in order.
Responsibilities can be allocated to match taxing power. There are dozens of well governed countries to use as examples.

A suggestion I heard recently (at a public forum, so might have been a couple of people, I can’t remember which) suggested that a partial solution would be to make it essentially illegal for any member of the Oireachteas, or their staff, or anyone connected with them, to engage in any purely local matter. No following up on a constituent’s medical card. No messing with zoning or planning. No leaning on the county engineer. No interfering in minor Garda investigations, for instance.

The idea would be to separate local from national and force all members of the Oireachteas (TDs and Senators) to engage on national policy making, legislation, etc., rather than being super-councillors or high powered social workers.

Hopefully that would put more focus from the parliament onto policy making. It’s not a solution for any internal Civil Service issues, but at least additional parliamentary focus on policy making might help.

Such a rule would take careful drafting, but should be possible.

I’m sure that various proposals have been looked at and discussed in public before, perhaps at the TCD conference last June. Anyway, a thought.

Since we all love Brussels so much, Federalize the public service and lose duplication all over EU. Agriculture exists for farmers dole. Do away with that.

Look at NZ and shed half the public service. The we will see real deflation!

Disband the Dail etc altogether. Local councils can govern millions eg Brisbane.

Get rid of army, navy and air corpse. All useless, all on golden pensions.

In my view civil service reform is key to reform of policy making in Ireland. The old generalist recruitment model, whereby non specialists and recruited into the civil service after school or university and they move around the civil service during their careers is no longer appropriate in view of the increasingly complex nature of policy making. This is one of the key reasons for the over reliance on quangos, private sector consultants etc for policy advice. Civil service recruitment arrangements should be reformed to facilitate the recruitment of trained economists, social policy analysts etc directly to the mainstream civil service rather than to quangos. Specialists of this type could then design ongoing policy monitoring systems rather than relying solely on poor quality ex post policy and programme evaluation as is the case currently.

Get rid of army, navy and air corpse. All useless, all on golden pensions.

Not on guaranteed pensions (and not paid very well, either, at enlisted ranks).


Successful candidates will be required to enlist for service in the Defence Forces for a total period of 12 years (comprising 9 years in the Permanent Defence Force and 3 years in the Reserve Defence Force).

General Service Personnel

Army Recruits join for an initial period of 5 years and may be ‘Extended in Service’ for a period of 4 years followed by a further period of 3 years. During the first 16 weeks they undergo Recruit training. After 12 years they must fulfil certain criteria in order to be ‘Re-engaged’ for a further period of 9 years. After that they can ‘Continue in Service’ in 2 year periods to retirement age again provided they fulfil certain criteria (as listed on next page).

Civil service recruitment arrangements should be reformed to facilitate the recruitment of trained economists, social policy analysts etc directly to the mainstream civil service rather than to quangos. Specialists of this type […]

This provision already exists (specialists such as e.g. librarians are already recruited as ‘analogous grades’).

The biggest reform needed in the public service is mobility between the public and private sector. Once in the public sector one is severely disincentivised from moving into the private sector.

Surely a damning case for universal pension provision for everyone? (and not the privatisation trojan horse – which is going to end in tears – currently underway, either).

Even before I was mentioned in the dispatches I was tempted to throw in my tuppence worth here, but I find I have been excellently and comprehensively pre-empted by the revered Chinese shade, Zhou_enlai, whose extended comment addresses most of the key issues and presents appropriate and feasible recommendations. The documents, to which Philip Lane referred in the initial post, focus on organisational and precedural change. This, of course, is required, but Zhou, quite rightly imo, highlights the prior requirement for institutional change and reform of the system of democratic governance. In the absence of this change and reform, any organisational or procedural changes will take place in a vacuum and, as result, may fall prey to the law of unintended consequences or even be counter-productive.

Despite the catalogue of failings Eddie Molloy highlighted in his IT piece, it serves no useful purpose to demonise officials in the DoF – or in any other department. Despite the power and influence they exercise, senior officials in these departments are just as much trapped in a dysfunctional system as are ordinary citizens.

To Zhou’s sensible suggestions and recommendations I would add my oft-repeated call for an effective separation of the legislature and the executive and a correponding increase in the powers and resources of the legislature. The “tyranny of faction” and the power of the whips needs to be broken so that Oireachtas Committees are selected, empowered and resourced both to scrutinise and to initiate policy proposals. Obviously governments should have the primary responsibility for initiating policy proposals, but, in addition to organisational change and a greater focus on policy-related specialisms, I would suggest that certain personnel resources dealing with policy design and implementation in all government departments should be separated with some continuing to support the functions of government and others providing resources to Oireachtas Committees.

In this way, all policy proposals, whether initiated by government or by the Oireachtas would be developed with proper openness, scrutiny and transparency. Public officials, whether serving government or the Oireachtas, would have the freedom to support or contest specific policy proposals and to advise, in an open manner, government ministers or members of the Oireachtas, as the case may be.

As to the more ticklish problem of effecting a real separation of the legislature and the executive, I think there is such a deep popular affection for the current voting system of PR-STV in multi-seat constituencies and for the ability to elect directly potential ministers that any proposed solution must take these as a given. I still believe that ministers, once appointed, should relinquish their seats in the Oireachtas. To prevent initiating a rash of by-elections I think all parties should nominates alternate candidates – this would be a variation of the list system – so that, should a newly elected representative be appointed as a minister, the alternate next in line would take the vacated seat.

Of course, I am fully aware, that, in light of the unfolding of the largely self-inflicted economic and financial disasters, consideration of these matters will be considered a dispensable luxury by most people, but I remain convinced that the future viability and prosperity of the state is dependent on these matters being tackled as a matter of urgency.

Its very difficult for technical specialists to force their way any where near the top in the civil service unless they work in a support function such as Central Bank or CSO. For the fifteen government departments the AHCPS has the stranglehold and makes sure that their guys are the only ones that can apply for the vast majority of Principal Officer posts. Having said that I did hear that D/AFF have promoted their chief economist to assistant secretary but this is very unusual(and probably relates to the fact that its a TLAC appointment).


“Its very difficult for technical specialists to force their way any where near the top in the civil service ….”

This seems to me to be a massive problem. You have addressed the position of Economists but it is across the board. One would be forgiven for thinking that specialists had been wiped out in the Public Service because they get in the way of “projects” by pointing out flaws.

It also seems to be much easier to get promoted if as a generalist, one is not governed by professional standards and fundamental disciplinary laws. One will then always be seen as positive, forward looking etc. whereas those of us who must obey the laws of Physics, Economics, Psychology etc. can be a tad negative about crap projects by times.

It’s true that the machinery for making policy needs to be improved : bringing in some of the suggestions on transparency and accountability from Molloy’s article and other suggestions we’ve heard over recent months such as a proposal to radically overhaul the budgetary process to enforce transparency, independence of macroeconomic assumptions, and perhaps setting up something like Sweden’s National Financial Management Authority. But overall the main challenge is to break the clientelist nature of Irish politics and to insulate policy making from special interests. This is not really a problem with the civil service, it is more to do with political power. There has to be a change to the mandate of local and national government but also important changes such as getting rid of the nefarious political appointments system where state companies and agencies are stuffed with friends of incumbent ministers. On the positive side, much of these changes could be made in the morning – but sadly, neither the present government or the oppostion want to remove this as one of the spoils of office.

Separation is anathema in Ireland whether it be NI from the Republic, politicians from the spoils of office, Legislature from the executive, nepotism, cronyism and kickbacks from the appointments process. If you clean up the Civil Service the spoils of office move to the Public Service and if that is cleaned up it moves to the Quangos. There is no end to what the lengths the Irish politicians are capable of going. The cure is to set three competing tiers with independent revenue producing powers. Then they will squabble in public over the available revenue pie. National against Provinces against Municipalities, charges of waste, irresponsibilty, wrong doing will ensure transparency. As they say in Sicily you set a gangster to catch a gangster. You also have to ask yourself why in the eighty years after the British left that Irish voters have not seen fit to vote out shysters. My bet is it will take another three generations to implement honest and competent government.

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