Required Reading for Government?

May 16, 2011

This is the first day of a journey to a better future. That future will be achievable when Ireland can again take charge of its own destiny, when by the centenary of the 1916 Rising we can prove to be the best small country in the world in which to do business, to raise a family and to grow old with dignity and respect.
(An Taoiseach Enda Kenny TD, 9 March 2011)

In a well developed piece of research# the Institute of Public Administration has published what it sees as the critical challenges confronting the Irish public service over the coming years. It has to be considered as compulsory reading for anyone interested in where the future of the Irish public service should be. Unlike much of the commentary we see on an almost daily basis, the research paper, written in clear and simple English, provides the reader with an evidence based analysis of the challenges confronting the public service in Ireland. It explores the opportunities that could facilitate a renewed public service, one which would compare favourably with the best public services in the world.

The Institute highlights a series of key areas which will require a focus on institutional reform and a general re-orientation of the public service.

These include consideration of:

  • The nature of the challenges confronting public administration in Ireland
  • The drivers which would underpin successful public service reform
  • The capacity required to implementation of public service reform
  • The need to engage the citizen in public service policy development
  • The challenge of securing effective political accountability
  • Generating the evidence to support public service reform.

A particularly useful aspect of the research paper is that it provides the Government and those overseeing public service reform with a menu of pragmatic actions which would go some way to achieving the Taoiseach’s vision, as outlined above. These include: the reform of local government within an overall public service reform process. Such reform which would seek to bring decision-making back to the closest appropriate point serving the citizen. The research highlights the creation of an integrated senior public management environment. Such an environment would be one that recognises that the capacity to lead change does not stop with the civil service but in fact that there are resources beyond central administration, including experience and knowledge, in the wider public service and the private sector. The challenge is one of getting the public services to recognise they operate within an ever changing operational environment. This is an environment which increasingly requires shared resourcing and multi-agency actions, something which requires corporate thinking which extends beyond the immediate mandate of individual organisations.

A feature of the need for enhanced performance is the obligation on central administration and the national political process to put in place, as is the case in most advanced economies, outcome based performance appraisal. Currently, the Irish system is unusual in that it has relatively centralised policy systems which allow considerable interpretation of policy at the citizen/customer level. It is not unusual to find local managements often having to interpret policy priorities in the absence of resources and specific obligations to deliver outputs. This results in services which can range from being very good to being inadequate.

In an effort to address this lack of consistency the Department of Public Expenditure and Public Service Reform has moved to address this shortfall in the national policy system. It has introduced a pilot outcome based policy process in the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food which, if successful, could become the template through which policy outcome appraisal might become the norm across the public service.
The IPA research is a valuable contribution to what could be a radical shift in how the public service will re-structure over the coming five years. It is to be hoped that its thinking, and that of others, will be clearly embedded into the public service reform process now envisaged. The good news is that the Department’s initiative to introduce the pilot outcomes process suggests a willingness to apply the type of thinking which is found throughout the IPA’s analysis.

A considerable challenge but who knows maybe we will get to move towards that vision so succinctly set out by An Taoiseach on his attaining office.
#Research Paper No. 4 Fit for Purpose? Challenges for Irish Public Administration and Priorities for Public Service Reform. Richard Boyle and Muiris MacCartaigh, Institute of Public Administration, Dublin 2011.