Public service reform more urgent than ever

An Cailín Rua

An Cailín Rua
Anne-Marie Flynn

With the fallout from the attempted secondment of Dr Tony Holohan to Trinity College, the handling of the pandemic, and at a more local level with the Outdoor Recreation Infrastructure Scheme audit in Mayo, there has been a lot of chatter about transparency within the public service.
It’s a conversation that is overdue, because it appears that only now is it dawning on many of us that neither the political parties elected to power in Ireland nor their appointed ministers are the ones making all the decisions. The so-called ‘permanent government’ consists of senior civil service departmental employees that remain in place throughout and keep these departments running – a solemn and onerous responsibility, that is likely not undertaken lightly.
One thing you could certainly never accuse many senior departmental civil servants of is glory-hunting, and with the exceptions of Ireland’s highest-paid public servant, Robert Watt (Secretary General of the Department of Health) and Martin Fraser (Secretary General of the Department of the Taoiseach), most of us would be hard pressed to name many of them. Should we not know more about the people who are essentially making the big decisions that affect our quality of life?
Last July, Michael Ring TD delivered a powerful speech in the Dáil Chamber in which he lambasted the ‘public service dictatorship’ that exists in this country. He had a point; it is not just within government departments in Dublin that huge decisions that affect communities are being taken, with very little visibility.
This is not to demonise people working in the public service nor in local authorities; many of whom are fine, conscientious people working – often with insufficient resources – within a rigid institutional framework that can stifle creativity and innovation in favour of bureaucracy and conservatism. Local authority staff at all levels are responsible for a massive volume of work, much of it unseen, that literally keeps the country functioning and they deserve credit for what they do. But even at a local authority level there is no denying that there could be more transparency around how decisions are made, and a much better way of engaging with the public and with communities than currently exists.
The Public Service Reform Plan (2014-2016) set lofty ambitions for transparency, maintaining that ‘robust and effective accountability systems are an essential characteristic of high-performing and high-reputation organisations’.  Has much changed in our government departments and local authorities since then?
A significant amount of government funding is now channelled through local authorities. Who in county councils decides what projects are put forward for funding – or not – and why?
The most common gripe I hear in my day job is the frustration communities experience when trying to engage with the local authority. Frequently, they don’t know where or how to direct their query or who to target, something fundamental that could easily be solved by making a staff directory for each district, with responsibilities, available online. I hear it suggested – not unfairly – that sometimes senior officials are not engaged on the ground with the communities in which they are working, which in turn can mean opportunities are missed.
This might be perceived as an unfair, and it is nigh impossible to get out onto the ground and still get the work done, but it could still be addressed.
On Wednesday last, An Garda Síochána, the IFA and the National Rural Safety Forum held a National Community Engagement Day. Eight hundred communities met with local Gardaí and community representatives to discuss matters of importance to them such as rural safety, crime prevention and security. Wouldn’t it be great if local authorities followed suit, with an open session once a year where people could meet council officials and learn about their areas of responsibility? Such an exercise would not only serve to eliminate frustrations, it would also help educate the public, offer an excellent PR opportunity and help deliver on the ambitions of 2014.
Live streaming of county council and municipal council meetings could be prioritised (Ireland is appallingly poor at this, with some exceptions, though in Mayo people can request to dial in) and a comprehensive up-to-date online record of all meeting minutes, including SPC meetings, the latter of which are not currently available in Mayo.
Ultimately, especially in rural Ireland, it should not be a case of ‘them and us’. Openness, transparency and a willingness to unite and work together could result in better, more productive outcomes for all.