“Contrary to the myth, our civil servants are definitely not all ‘pale, male and stale’ lifers. We must hold them to account when they fail, but we should also recognise the daily challenges that they all face.”
It’s hard to find a silver lining in the horror story that is Brexit. One thing that is to be welcomed is the largely positive commentary on the performance of our civil servants in the negotiation process. They are grafting hard to negotiate and plan for a seismic shift in our nation’s history.
Maybe it’s the tendency to unite against a common foe that has prompted this, because we rarely celebrate the successes of our civil servants. And I believe this is to our detriment.
The public sector in general, and the civil service in particular, is under constant criticism for the failings of the state. Frustration with our public sector is compounded by a lack of consequences for individuals in senior positions. In contrast to the private sector, where heads roll for mistakes made, we too often hear of ‘systemic failure’ in the civil service but no one is held individually accountable.
But while individual failures and underperformance need to be called out and handled effectively, and while the civil service in general requires ongoing systemic reform, we must stop tarring the full complement with the same brush of ineptitude.
Having worked in senior roles in both the private and public sectors, I’ve experienced first-hand how much more challenging it can be to get things done in the public sector. And not for the reasons that many seem to think. Certainly not because the civil service is stacked full of paper-pushing, ‘stale, male and pale’ lifers, as some believe. And not because the level of bureaucracy is any worse than in a large company. It is precisely because we hold our civil servants to account in the way that we do, precisely because they are judged by a population of millions rather than a profit-motivated group of shareholders, that civil servants face such an uphill battle.
Try setting up a business with the list of compliance requirements that any state agency or government department has to contend with. The Corporate Governance Standard for the civil service lists 14 such compliance requirements but points out that this list is a sample. So the legislative, data protection, official language, and financial procedure obligations you have to meet as an organisation are only the starting point. Not one of these standards is superfluous. It is a live list. They mean that decisions are slower and that process is honoured. It’s a good way for a civil service to operate, no question. But it undeniably makes it harder to get things done.
The level of scrutiny is the first thing that hits you when you move from private to public sector, and probably most acutely in the area of finance. Spending decisions are now influenced by considerations of “how is this going to look on the front page of a newspaper?” Once again, this is a good way for civil servants to think. But as a manager, it drastically changes how you operate. We weigh up lots of factors when making topline budgetary decisions, and day-to-day spending ones. And in the public sector there’s an overarching concern about the public and media perception of any spending decision to contend with. I was never one to flaunt the corporate credit card but I felt a different level of responsibility when spending from the public purse.
Another area that the scrutiny affects is workflow. Freedom of Information, for example, is a vital mechanism in holding to account the actions of civil servants and developing a culture of openness and transparency. There is a debate to be had as to how effective it is here in Ireland, where it clashes with our tendency towards secrecy. But it absolutely transforms operations. Try imagining what it’s like when every word of every email you write in your workplace could find its way into the public domain. And then imagine how much it would change how you go about your day and how you handle your interactions with colleagues.
Similarly, the Parliamentary Question, or PQ, is a critical tool for TDs to probe any minister and her corresponding department, and it affords the opportunity for that minister and department to place on the public record important information regarding their work.
But it’s hard to appreciate just how far this probe goes. PQs often require teams and departments across the civil service to literally stop what they’re doing and gather extensive data to allow teams further up the chain to compile an appropriate response in a 48-hour period. Ministers, departments and state agencies differ in how they handle PQs. Some systems are better than others, and those who embrace openness and transparency in their operations give themselves a head start. It is unquestionably part of your role, as a civil servant, to deal with PQs. But it adds a layer of complexity to planning and workflow that shares no equivalent in the private sector, in my experience.
I had a hugely positive experience in the civil service. I met and worked with talented and committed people across departments and agencies. And I was struck by the volume and diversity of work that goes on there. Most of it is hidden from the general public, and most of it goes unthanked and unrecognised, except perhaps by a small cohort of people who are directly impacted.
This week in this paper, we see the last in a series of articles by Stephen Kinsella celebrating the good work that is executed by our state. More of this, please! Citizens who see, value and appreciate the good work that is funded by their tax euros are democratised and engaged. It doesn’t mean that we can’t push the standards of our civil service and hold it to account, but we must also remember to celebrate its successes, appreciate its challenges, and respect its staff. For morale, for talent attraction, for the continued provision of quality and essential services to the Irish public, let’s show some civility to our civil servants.
Sinéad Gibney is the general election candidate for the Social Democrats for Dún Laoghaire. This opinion piece first appeared in the Sunday Business Post on Sunday 2nd December 2018.