In praise of being unable to pronounce Aer Rianta

Writing about the shortcomings in the Gardaí’s treatment of whistleblowers, yesterday’s Irish edition of The Times commented:

The problem with the organisation as it is currently configured is that all senior posts are filled by members who have spent their entire careers in the force. Under that system, there is very little opportunity for critical self-examination. It is about time this changed.

In fact, this same ‘closedness’ is widespread throughout the Irish public sector – in the civil service, the semi-states, the regulatory agencies and so forth. While these bodies may not be quite as sealed as the Gardaí are, true outsiders are rarely found.

One result is what Dan O’Brien calls the ‘decent skin’ problem – excess sympathy for under-performers. A given manager/CEO is acknowledged to do their job poorly, but as they are a decent skin on a human level, there is reluctance to judge them too harshly.

A second result is ‘capture’, in its many manifestations. Concerning the regulatory aspect, recruiting a proportion of high-quality foreign staff is a substantial barrier to capture generally as well as, in my experience at least, adding to what The Times called a culture of ‘critical self-examination’ in an agency. Even if the persons concerned struggle to pronounce some phrases (e.g. Aer Rianta, An Bórd Pleanála).

A tiny society, where practically everyone is someone’s cousin, on a tiny island, where practically everyone is someone’s neighbour, is at risk of a culture where the indigenous flinch from holding failures to account.

One way to compensate for the costs of smallness, capable of reasonably rapid application, would be to aim to have a minimum proportion of senior managers in key organisations recruited from abroad. Outside the central bank it is hard to think of examples where this has happened.

Author: Cathal Guiomard

Cathal Guiomard is a Lecturer in Aviation Management in DCU. Between 2006 and 2014, he was Ireland's Commissioner for Aviation.

27 thoughts on “In praise of being unable to pronounce Aer Rianta”

  1. Someone I know interviewed for a senior role in Finance (I think). An MBA was a requirement. His was from insead. The interviewers had never heard of the place and asked why he hadn’t gone somewhere like Trinity or ucd. Need I say more about whether he got the role?

        1. Someone is. It’s like going for a post requiring a engineering degree, with one from MIT and being asked ‘where’
          It’s not credible, on face.

          1. I think we’ll just leave that one there.

            I don’t have any polite response and in respect to the rules of the blog I’m not going to write my impolite response.

  2. Net pay at higher levels in the Irish public service is generally not attractive enough to tempt qualified candidates from abroad. This is largely a result of the heavy increase in direct taxation at the higher end as well as reductions in public service pay in the 2009-13 period. Even the Central Bank – which pays extremely well by public service standards – does not retain its foreign recruits for very long.

    I know of one high-profile international public service recruitment that fell through at late notice. The candidate discovered something called the pension levy which would have left him a net €10k worse off a year than someone on the same gross in the private sector!

    Another issue is that a standard feature of cross-border executive recruitment is the payment of relocation expenses. No such payments exist – or will even be countenanced – in the Irish public service. The appointee is expected to carry the cost of moving an entire household out of net income.

    Until these issues are addressed you will simply not get significant numbers of applications from candidates outside Ireland.

    1. True. Plus posts that are opened up to outsiders are sometimes for a fixed duration. Which is fine, but they are paid at the exact same rate as a permanent civil servant (for whom permanency is a huge benefit). I too know someone who came into but then left the public service over pension levy deductions. In general, it would make sense to offer short term contracts for all senior posts, at salary levels above current rates, but with no guarantee you would stay at that rate ever more.

  3. “Until these issues are addressed you will simply not get significant numbers of applications from candidates outside Ireland.”

    Really? All you need is one – minimally qualified (local) candidate who is willing and able to accept the post – and the pay-scale. Simple? Not really. Its not like there is a dearth of suitable locals. I’d guess there are quite a few. Its more likely that there are some mighty tricky bureaucratic speed-bumps, chicanes and artfully disguised regulatory potholes for any prospective applicant to navigate. Existing ‘insiders’ face no such hurdles; they breeze it. Simple really.

    One possible (but unacceptable) solution would be to make all full-time PS appointments above a specific grade time-limited to three years. After that one either resigns/retires or returns back to the grade-level from which they were appointed. In respect of the GS I believe a much more fundamental re-structuring of the Inspector (and above) ranks is sorely needed. These officers should be recruited and trained separately from the ‘other ranks’. And appointments should only be made by external interview boards (again, likelihood of this happening is zero). Something about rocking boats or upsetting applecarts – or some such.

    1. @Brian Woods Snr
      Well said. My reaction to the piece was, in disagreeing with the main thesis, was to marvel at the ability of the insiders in such a small society to hold onto their “good skin” back slapping mediocrity.

      Ireland has an emigration problem. Not, of course from the insider crowd, but from the others. The educated leave to gain experience abroad, but few return and fewer still return to jobs that would use that international experience. Some of the talented ones find opportunities abroad, eventually divine the toxic insider-ism that controls the place and wash their hands of the whole country. Others realize the problems, but miss the place anyway and return, resigning themselves to middle level jobs with little or no influence on the grander scheme of things because, well “you are nearer your own”.

      I am not trying to judge any individual, because we all have to “hoe our own row” as they say. The point is, the small minded gombeen-ism is well entrenched and will remain that way for a long long time.

  4. Wouldn’t that involve doing away with policies like making an additional 5% of a candidate’s final interview score available if he or she can demonstrate fluency in the Irish Language?

    With all applications for positions and interviews there is an unspoken element of “How likely to fit in, with us”. Its not too far from there to a subliminal “How ‘Irish’ is this person?

    When everyone knows everyone, or knows someone who knows someone who knows them, people in the know like it that way.

  5. There is no simple solution here. Management research suggests that successful private sector organisations generally thrive on the kind of continuity that insiders provide. It typically takes years to learn how to operate effectively within an organisation of any size: to build the internal and external relationships that are critical to getting policy/strategy changed; and to understand how to get those changes to actually happen. There are numerous depressing examples of outsiders causing significant damage to organisations through failure to understtand them and their purpose and ‘markets’ adequately. It has to be acknowledged that there are plenty of examples of the opposite too. In short: used judiciously, outsiders can refresh an organisation effectively, but they are not a general-purpose solution. Each organisation requires a solution that is appropriate to its needs and circumstances at the time.

    That said, based on the other comments here, it sounds like we’re well past the point where subtle, organisation-by-organisation solutions offer the best, lowest-risk approach. It sounds like the entire system needs a thorough refresh (to put it in diplomatiic language).

    1. Some years ago, the second Benchmarking report (the one chaired by the late Brendan Walsh, and which did not function like an ATM) had a reference to research on the Public Sector pay premium. The percentage premium was relatively high for low-paid, low skilled people, but diminished drastically as one went up the income scale, to the point where it was negative for the highest decile. This was pre-2008, so I suppose an even stronger conclusion would hold to-day.

      If we are talking about attracting outsiders, then for senior people (the ones who matter here), the basic pay structure is stacked against and real change, even for locally-based candidates, never mind foreigners. Even within Ireland, more effective competition for highly talented individuals would probably require increased pay and conditions for the relatively well-off. Such is the obsession with income inequality that I doubt that we will see any real change. The best one can hope for is more rapid promotion of high-performing junior staff and less time-serving as a way of getting to the top. In this way one can increase lifetime earnings without increasing the maximum. This already happens in some areas, albeit to a limited extent.

  6. This is the stupidest post I’ve ever seen on Irisheconomy.ie. I assume the author got his dates mixed up. Its 1st March, not 1st April. The proposal is fundamentally racist. Any job advertised in the public service, it should go to the one most qualified, regardless of where that person comes from. But, this is Ireland so in some cases (not all) ‘most qualified’ may contain ‘some knowledge of Irish’ or ‘knowledge of Irish circumstances’ within its meaning. The performance of the public (or private) sector should certainly be analysed critically. But, the analysis should be based on hard statistics, not infantile comments about ‘cousins’ and ‘neighbours’. The author presents not a single statistic to back up his arguments.

    Take the current case of the Gardai, for instance. OK, so we consider hiring someone from a police force outside Ireland to clean things up. Fine, but when doing so let’s first study the statistics for the performance of the police in the country the person is coming from. What is the crime rate there?, the detection rate there?, how many people did the police there kill?, etc etc. The Gardai are unarmed, unlike the vast majority of police forces elsewhere. How can someone with experience running an armed police force be the best person to be involved in running an unarmed police force? The circumstances and culture are entirely different. When Pat Hickey was arrested, social media was full of people wanting someone from the Brazilian police to be appointed to run the Gardai. I googled and it appears the Brazilian police shoot dead 5,000 people every year. Is that what we want here? And given the horrifying nightly news, would it really be an improvement to bring in someone from the Chicago police, the Paris police, or the Malmo police? All cities where law and order have completely broken down,

  7. It would be good to test the effectiveness of this proposal. And where better to test it than to consider how its application might have impacted on the grubby, but cunning and complex, deal orchestrated by then ministers Hogan and Rabbitte that has given us the shambles of Irish Water and water charging – and which contains to generate political theatre?

    This grubby deal had numerous moving parts and involved co-operation and co-ordination among the ministers, their senior officials, the MoF and senior DoF officials, the local authorities, Bord Gáis, the CSO, the CER, the EPA, trades unions in the local authorities and Bord Gáis and selected privileged “service-providers” in the sheltered private sector. The basic deal was to square the Troika’s demands for water charging and some privatisation of state-owned assets by establishing and locating Irish Water in Bord Gáis (creating Ervia) thereby compensating Bord Gáis for the sale of its non-network activities. A 12-year service level agreement was concluded to square the local authority unions. The charging calculations were performed to minimise the cost per household, but also included an effort to pull the wool over the eyes of Eurostat so that it would deem any borrowings by Irish Water to be “off the government’s books”. Lucrative consulting and service contracts were awarded to the selected privileged “service-providers” in the sheltered private sector. The CER was wheeled in to convey the optical illusion that all of these calculations were performed “totally independently”.

    Enough ordinary voters caught a glimpse of these self-serving antics at their expense – even if very few grasped all of the minutiae – and decided enough was enough. And the then government panicked. The left-wing headbangers sought to deflect public attention from the mainly public sector/local authority/semi-state stitch-up that this was by shouting about privatisation and a water tax. Paul Murphy winning the Dublin SW by-election in 2014 kicked off a chain reaction that spooked SF and then FF. And so we are where we are.

    I have a feeling if any of these up-standing foreigners were involved in this complex rip-off and tried to make a stand they would be crushed.

  8. The Garda achilles heel would seem to be bigger than the pay rate or the pronunciation of Bored Gosh. I think the problem is deep in the culture. Tom Clonan had an article about the Irish attitude to whistleblowers on thejournal.ie recently but it seems to have been taken down. Whistleblowers in Ireland tend to be vilified. The private sector is just as bad. Irish Nationwide. Politics too, eg Bertie Ahern advising critics to commit suicide. There are big problems with groupthink. Groupthink essentially destroyed the domestic financial sector.

    Irish Life is a really good example. There was something in the code. The company was created from the ruins of a number of insurance companies that failed in the deflation of the 1930s. It was privatised in 1991 and collapsed again 20 years later, shortly after facilitating Anglo Irish with the Green jersey deal.

    It seems to be hard to get senior people to think in terms of the long term well being of the organisations they work for. The Garda and the catholic church obviously suffer from this problem. AIB collapses regularly. Maybe it’s a post colonial thing. Perhaps someone could start a business school management module based on gleanings from the play “the Field” .

  9. I work in the public sector and I don’t believe that a comparison between the actual duties of a senior post in the public sector versus what job (and salary) in the private sector it supposedly should be compared to would show up a pay differential. If anything, I believe that public sector jobs would be shown to be overpaid by the actual level of responsibility. What I mean is that as you can’t ‘hire and fire’ in the public sector and can’t take major policy initiatives on your own and there’s no real consequence for any bad decision then it is very difficult to make a real comparison with the private sector. Nominally, the job may have all sorts of high falutin’ duties and responsibilities but the reality is very different.

    Take a hospital manager for example. There’s no real comparison between the actual duties, responsibility and accountability of the manager of any major private sector hospital in Ireland versus, say, the manager of a public hospital. The public hospital manager is generally a ‘lifer’ who can’t hire and fire, can’t be fired or disciplined himself/herself, and no matter how poorly the hospital is performing is still going to get paid. And their pension and lump sum is guaranteed. Their leave entitlements and expenses are also much more generous than the private sector. The public hospital manager cannot tell the consultants what to do, cannot tell the nursing staff what to do and generally cannot make any unilateral decisions. HR policies, Finance, Maintenance, Estates and other departmental policies are all set outside of their control. If the hospital is fined for poor performance it is the taxpayer who pays the fine and the patients who suffer. The public hospital manager cannot decided to shut down services or upscale other services as there is still political control. I could go on and on.

    1. Except one thing. The public sector hospital manager has a duty to manage for all and sundry who present, to deliver as parents what is actually by world standards a hugely good public health system, to operate within asset of national legal and other guidelines, and so on.
      His private sector counterparts. They have a duty to the shareholders.
      See the difference?
      I’d love to see a proper casemix complexity analysis of private vs public. When the mater private or black rock private open their minor injuries, sorry ‘A and E’ clinics 24/7, then I’ll see a equivalence.

      1. You really think the staff of private hospitals are more focused on profits instead of the well-being of patients? I don’t think so.
        Irish people are ‘voting with their trolleys’ and are happy to use private hospitals at every available opportunity. But that myth is abroad that a nurse, for example, treating a patient in a private hospital somehow doesn’t have the same ethos as a nurse working in a similar post in the public sector. I have worked in the private and the public sector and you owe your employer (public or private) the duty of doing the best job you can whether you are answering the phone in a call centre, treating a patient, or lecturing to students.

        But this is not about public vs. private and nothing to do about casemix which is an entirely different argument. But it is a clever piece of debating by you to try to move the discussion to something you are more comfortable with. Of course, the public hospitals get the more complicated cases and, for example, have highly staffed ICU’s, neo-natal units and other similar facilities that the private sector could not profitably provide. The private hospitals fulfil a valuable niche and allow those of us with private health insurance skip the queues as you will do if any of your family need grommets, speech and language services, dental services or any of the other services for which there are large public waiting lists. We had no problem bringing our son to a private dentist for orthodontics when there was an 8-year waiting list in the public sector. At no stage did we think the private, profit-seeking dentist would give a poorer service to our son than if he had been treated in the public clinic.

        This is about the actual level of responsibility that a public sector hospital manager has. I worked for many years in a public hospital and the question is: what day-to-day to day REAL responsibility does a public sector manager have compared to a private sector manager? The public hospital manager has 30 days leave, an army of layers of managers reporting to him/her but can’t unilaterally decide to open unused beds, close beds, change admission policies, sack or discipline underperforming staff, give a pay rise to a high-performing staff member, do his/her own recruitment, nor does he/she have any discretion over spending the hospital budget. You need to have a study done of the day-to-day DECISIONS taken by a public sector hospital manager. In my view, having worked for many years now in the public sector there is no real management as it would be defined in the business literature. Ninety per cent of the work of public sector managers is ‘administration’.

  10. >>>> You really think the staff of private hospitals are more focused on profits instead of the well-being of patients? I don’t think so.

    I hope the managers are. They have a fiduciary duty to maximise profit.

    >>>> Irish people are ‘voting with their trolleys’ and are happy to use private hospitals at every available opportunity.

    Happy? Perhaps. Resigned to having to? Perhaps also

    But that myth is abroad that a nurse, for example, treating a patient in a private hospital somehow doesn’t have the same ethos as a nurse working in a similar post in the public sector.

    good swerve. But we are talking about managers. Not the nurses.

    >>> I have worked in the private and the public sector and you owe your employer (public or private) the duty of doing the best job you can whether you are answering the phone in a call centre, treating a patient, or lecturing to students.

    Indeed. But, the managers…

    >>> But this is not about public vs. private and nothing to do about casemix which is an entirely different argument.

    Sorry its all about casemix. Thats like saying its irrelevant if a airport takes only private small jets vs one that takes only large cargo vs one that is mixed.

    >>> But it is a clever piece of debating by you to try to move the discussion to something you are more comfortable with.

    Thanks Elia for telling me what I am and am not comfortable with.

    >>> Of course, the public hospitals get the more complicated cases and, for example, have highly staffed ICU’s, neo-natal units and other similar facilities that the private sector could not profitably provide. The private hospitals fulfil a valuable niche and allow those of us with private health insurance skip the queues as you will do if any of your family need grommets, speech and language services, dental services or any of the other services for which there are large public waiting lists. We had no problem bringing our son to a private dentist for orthodontics when there was an 8-year waiting list in the public sector. At no stage did we think the private, profit-seeking dentist would give a poorer service to our son than if he had been treated in the public clinic.

    Again, its not about the dentist. Which isnt really covered under public for some reason. Its that a private dentistry practice can take whatever patient mix it wants. A public one, cant.

    >>>> This is about the actual level of responsibility that a public sector hospital manager has. I worked for many years in a public hospital and the question is: what day-to-day to day REAL responsibility does a public sector manager have compared to a private sector manager? The public hospital manager has 30 days leave, an army of layers of managers reporting to him/her but can’t unilaterally decide to open unused beds, close beds, change admission policies, sack or discipline underperforming staff, give a pay rise to a high-performing staff member, do his/her own recruitment, nor does he/she have any discretion over spending the hospital budget. You need to have a study done of the day-to-day DECISIONS taken by a public sector hospital manager.

    So its not the managers but the strictures the politicians place on them that is the problem?

    >>> In my view, having worked for many years now in the public sector there is no real management as it would be defined in the business literature. Ninety per cent of the work of public sector managers is ‘administration’.

    I have worked for 25y in a business school. There is no such beast as real management. There are only management tasks. Of which administration is one. I think maybe are you thinking about strategy, which is not done by middle or upper middle managers?

    1. I’m enjoying this debate and I know the point you are making regarding the strictures placed on managers in the public sector.

      The point I am making is that in my view, if all the shackles were suddenly taken off public hospital managers in the morning and they were allowed hire and fire, close beds, open new beds, hire new consultants, decide only to specialise in certain medical or surgical areas and spend their budget as they saw fit they simply would not have the management ability to carry out these tasks as they would never have had to do them before and they got where they are by knowing how to play the game. But that is my view and others might believe that we would have a world-class health service if only the shackles were taken off the existing HSE managers.

      Regarding the topic of this post regarding the possible underpayment of senior public sector managers I hold the view that the jobs are not comparable to the private sector. It is my view that, for example, no HR Director in the HSE would get inside the door of an interview being held for any large private commercial company e.g. The Kerry Group, Microsoft or Wyeth. Of course they would move easily among other public sector, semi-State and NGO organisations and might possibly be recruited by some rent-seeking company looking to do consultancy for the Government but if Google, for example, was having difficulty retaining staff does anyone think they’d say: ‘I know, let’s hire a HSE HR Director, or the Head of HR in the Department of Justice’? But the senior public sector managers want to be compared and remunerated at the level of those large commercial companies.

        1. You found one example from the University sector. Wait until it becomes a flood from the general public sector. I’m not aware of any HSE manager who has been recruited/headhunted by a commercial, private company based on his/her expertise but I’m sure you know someone. I do know some people who retired from the HSE and were immediately taken back on for consultancy. Of course companies like Ryanair have recruited an ex-senior public service manager for their contacts in Government and the EU. Such people are vital for lobbying. If the private sector was so attractive and the public sector was so unattractive wouldn’t there be a problem getting people to apply for managerial jobs in the public sector? Anyone know of any vacancies for managerial posts that can’t be filled?

  11. Sweden where there is a high degree of unionisation and transparency, has typically been in the vanguard, of ending inequality between the rights of public and private sector workers in the 1990s by introducing a system where there are no guarantees of employment nor huge imbalances in occupational pension coverage.

    In the public sector there is a high degree of decentralisation, and individualisation has been more pronounced among white collars and high skilled workers.

    In effect, pay for senior posts can differ depending on the CV and a proven record that is seen as necessary for a particular position.

    The performance evaluation of each public sector employee in Sweden is done on an individual basis at least once a year when employees can be promoted, demoted or even dismissed.

    Public employees have the “the right to inform outsiders of the operations of agencies, as long as it does not concern information designated as confidential. This also entails the right to submit information to the mass media. This is known as the freedom to publish for civil servants and others.”

  12. This scandal has been mismanaged from the get go. Alan Shatter had to resign over it and now the Taoiseach is involved.
    You can really take your pick of dysfunction at institutional level in Ireland. When the country was in serious trouble in 2010/11 the Irish Times did look at some issues. Much of the stuff is the finest Whiskey Tango Foxtrot

    “There was some praise from the OECD for the Government’s jobs initiative yesterday, with Mr Lenain describing efforts to regain control of the public finances as “remarkable”. However, he was critical of State training programmes, saying bluntly that the Government should stop spending money on training people for the construction sector

    “Labour also promises to introduce cost-benefit analyses for “major capital projects “”

    ” The Society of Chartered Surveyors has been calling for the establishment of a public database to maintain and publish relevant details of all property transactions including sales, lettings and rent reviews along with details of all incentives and side agreements which would address the issues raised.”

    ” Ireland already has one of the worst records in the developed world for access to education generally, coming third from bottom among 31 OECD countries in a recent German study. The Hunt report itself puts third-level participation from the top socio-economic group at almost four times that of the bottom group.”

    “Health services everywhere spend a great deal on medicines, but work hard to contain costs (there are many ways to do so). Here, public spending on pharmaceuticals rose from €565 million to €1,901 in the eight years to 2008. Health ministers did almost nothing to contain it. Big pharma is never slow to spot a sucker.”

    “How drugs are procured is mirrored in how the State purchases legal services. They are not subject to competitive tendering. This allows lawyers to dictate prices, at massive cost to taxpayers. Astonishingly, this is still the case despite the enormity of the crisis.”
    “Inaction is also to be seen in the administration of justice. Tribunals have failed by every measure, yet they have been allowed to grind on and successive justice ministers have put forward no alternatives – such as the creation of the role of investigating magistrate, as exists in other jurisdictions”

    I wonder how much has been addressed in the intervening years.

    As J. K. Galbraith said , :“The conventional wisdom” gives way not so much to new ideas as to “the massive onslaught of circumstances with which it cannot contend”.

    Brexit might be the tipping point.

  13. I remember being at a management training session years ago and the trainer asking each of us (privately) “If you invested your life savings in your own new commercial business, how many of your colleagues would you employ”? It is possible that my experience of public sector managers is not universal. I can only judge on the standards I have witnessed. Many of the managers I worked with were very active outside of work and chaired local sports committees, got involved in politics or had various interesting pursuits. But they seemed to forget to check in their brains when they got to work.

    Perhaps I have also been too influenced also by an example given to me by a well-known private hospital operator who, when establishing a new large private clinic some years ago recruited, among others, a Nurse Manager to run a new specialist unit in the clinic and a Maintenance/Facilities Manager for the entire site. Both were recruited from the public sector and were very eager to make the move but neither could adjust to the responsibility and decision making required in the new clinic. The Nurse Manager took a lower level post and the Maintenance/Facilities Manager left. In the case of the Nurse Manager she could not adjust to having to hire her own staff, agree contracts including the relevant point on the salary scale and being able to write her own policies and procedures for the unit. All these things are taken care of by others in the public sector. The Maintenance/Facilities Manager could not adjust to being able to write his own specs for service and maintenance agreements, decide what companies to employ (without the strictures of public procurement rules), how to spend his budget and who to recruit.

    I think that the principle of lifetime employment in the public sector should be abolished. Apparently it is a legacy from the 19th Century. The prospect of having to keep upskilled and be ready to change jobs/careers would certainly concentrate the mind. Also, I believe there should be compulsory job rotation in the public sector unless there are extraordinary circumstances requiring otherwise.

Comments are closed.