As debate intensifies over the future of public spending and services, Peter McLoone puts forward his views on reform, proposing integrated services and devolved responsibility to a local level, rather than top-down cuts.
Public service reform has been held back by the failure of public service leaders to put themselves in the citizens’ shoes. This has had the inevitable result that it has become virtually impossible to convince people of our desire and ability to improve services.
Now the imperative for reform has changed utterly because of the sudden and deep recession, and its impact in the form of plummeting exchequer funding and soaring demand for services. But the problem with the approach set out in the McCarthy report on public service cuts is that it doesn’t take account of local needs on the ground.
In many parts of the private sector, we are seeing downsizing on foot of a collapse in demand. What we face in the public service is massive downsizing, in expenditure and numbers employed, accompanied by a huge increase in demand.
This hasn’t happened because we have a “bloated”, overstaffed, inefficient or overpaid public service. A little over a year ago the OECD, which is representative of national governments and favours ‘market’ solutions to public service delivery, found the opposite to be the case. Its report, which was welcomed by government, opposition, newspaper
editorials and most commentators, concluded that Irish public servants were delivering high quality services with fewer resources than comparable countries.
Public sector downsizing is happening because of the collapse in public revenues – the result of misguided taxation policy and unacceptable practice in parts of the private sector, most obviously in banking, finance, property and construction. These policies and practices were, by and large, enthusiastically cheered on by those who are now most critical of the public service.
But the fact remains that if those of us who believe in quality public services fail to take the initiative on reform it will pass to others who would happily see them destroyed.
To put it starkly, our initial challenge is to maintain services at existing levels whilst reducing costs. Next, it requires us to improve and expand services, whilst continuing to cut costs. Then, it demands that we better integrate services, again with fewer resources.
In this context, thoughtful citizens and policy-makers must be very wary of the concerted vilification of those who work to deliver public services, and the systematic attempt by some managers and politicians to sideline their unions.
For those of us who champion genuine public service reform – rather than cuts and privatisation – these are extremely dangerous developments, not least because unions must have a key role in delivering the message of transformation – and finding the solutions on the ground – if a co-operative rather than a confrontational approach to this major challenge is to be found.
Unions know that the collapse in government revenues is real and that, as a result, radical transformation is required to protect and enhance our education, health, local services, public administration and the many other services that we all depend on. But it’s impossible to deliver that transformation in the context of plans, or threats, to impose compulsory redundancies and further cut pay and pensions.
Public servants are not the greedy, lazy, overpaid fat cats of newspaper myth. I have received scores of emails from women in the public service, earning just €30,000 or €40,000 a year, whose husbands have lost jobs in construction or elsewhere, and whose take home pay has fallen by €50 or €100 a week because of the so-called pension levy and other new taxes and levies.
To argue that these people should have a further assault on their purses and pockets, and that they will then cheerfully and effectively contribute to the necessary transformation in our public services, simply demonstrates a fundamental inability to understand human nature.
It’s an understatement to say that the challenge we face is this is high-risk territory, which demands a major change in the mindsets of politicians, management, unions and staff. We all run the risk of disappearing in a ‘Bermuda triangle’ with three axes:
Axis 1: The Government needs to reduce spending by x (where x is as much as €4-5 billion). That can’t be done without huge cuts in payroll spending;
Axis 2: Public servants won’t accept further cuts in their core pay or pensions, and they will oppose compulsory redundancies. Aside from the question of morale, any attempt to impose further cuts in these areas will inevitably lead to industrial action, which will disrupt services in the short term and – as we know from our experience of the 1980s and 1990s – make any real reform utterly impossible;
Axis 3: The public wants and expects improved services even – or especially – if demand increases and budgets reduce.
Colm McCarthy’s report must be assessed in this context, as one among many aids, and much advice, available to the Government as it chooses and tries to implement the policies that will determine how our society will develop in the coming months and years.
In common with most public service management strategies of the last decade, McCarthy’s recommendations for ‘reform’ are essentially a generalised wish-list, disconnected from staff and the services to which they relate. Talk of ‘redeployment’, ‘flexibility’, ‘extended working days’, ‘outsourcing’, ‘shared services’, ‘centralised procurement’ and a myriad of other measures is so ill-defined as to be meaningless in terms of real service delivery on the ground.
Reform or transformation only becomes really meaningful, both in terms of why it’s needed and what it means for staff and service users, when changes are applied to the working arrangements of individuals and groups of staff in a local authority, hospital, school or other service-delivery organisation.
This dilemma can be resolved by devolving the detail of change and transformation.
Give the available budget to those who have operational responsibility for managing and delivering services, and let the people who know the services – and know the communities they serve – agree the changes and staff flexibility needed to ensure the best possible range and quality of services within government-set financial constraints, and within frameworks that protect services and the staff who provide them.
It is at this, local, level that redeployment, flexibility, shared services and so on can really be translated into changes in working arrangements and work practices for individual members of staff, which relate to operational realities and service needs, while delivering the basic guarantees – on jobs, pay and pensions – that unions have sought.
There is another course of action being advocated, which has nothing to do with reform or transformation. It is simply to cut. Cut services or, better still, cut the pay of public servants again. I have been clear that public servants and their unions are up for a rapid transformation in our public services through co-operation and agreement. This is a harder way than the alternative, but it is a better way.
I have been equally clear that, if the Government attempts to go down the alternative road of imposed cuts in pay and pensions, there will be a reaction which will include sustained, widespread and painful industrial action. I don’t believe there will be many, if any, winners if this choice is taken, least of all among the people who, more than ever, depend on our public services.