Within the Houses of the Oireachtas Service, the Corporate and Members’ Services Division undertakes work across a broad remit to ensure the smooth operation of Ireland’s bicameral legislature. Michael Errity, the Assistant Secretary who leads this division, speaks with Ciarán Galway about his current priorities, challenges and vision.
Parliamentary administration in Leinster House is delivered by the Houses of the Oireachtas Service, governed by the Houses of the Oireachtas Commission. Staffed by almost 600 civil servants, the Service provides advice and support services to the Houses of the Oireachtas Commission; the Houses of the Oireachtas (Dáil and Seanad) and their committees; and members (deputies and senators) of the Houses of the Oireachtas.
Within the Houses of the Oireachtas Service, at assistant secretary level, Michael Errity leads the Corporate and Members’ Services Division. Under his remit, there are seven principal officer areas. “Those units report to me on a regular basis. They’re pretty extensive, with well in excess of 200 staff and certainly not lacking in variety,” he quips.
Errity is conscious that the disruption to the Oireachtas by Covid-19 is unprecedented in the history of the State. “Sporting moments are often referred to as ‘once in a generation’ moments, whereas this pandemic is a once in a lifetime event. The resilience of our structures and the robustness of our contingency plans have and will continue to be tested,” he acknowledges.
Consequently, as has happened across the State, the Service has adhered fully to government advice, ensuring that as many staff as possible could work from home. At the same time as announcing lockdown measures, the Government announced a requirement for emergency legislation and a Covid-19 Parliamentary Committee was established.
“The Oireachtas, therefore, had to be ready to facilitate all of these requirements in addition to being ready to support the election of a new Taoiseach. All of this had to be done while respecting the new demands including social distancing et cetera,” explains Errity, adding: “For the senior management, those were the two core objectives. To protect everyone in the parliamentary community and also to facilitate the needs of the wider population by ensuring the uninterrupted operation of Parliament.”
To allow business to proceed, urgent solutions were required and these included, for example, relocating the Dáil and Seanad to the Convention Centre when full attendance was required.
For Errity’s division, the advice to ‘stay at home’ was not an endpoint, rather it was the beginning of a challenge for organisations such as the broader Oireachtas Service to establish a strategy for remote working.
“Our ICT Operations team swung into action to provide safe and secure connections. We built on the ground work already completed as part of our long-term contingency planning. This ensured compliance with our data security requirements, as well as the rapid setup of the connectivity and equipment required to facilitate working from home.
“We reached out to our colleagues to provide stability for their working connection and also to assure them that we were still here as employers, that all our services were still available and to ensure that everyone was in good health,” he outlines.
Post-General Election 2020
Since mid-March, Covid-19 has absorbed most of the State’s attention. February’s General Election has faded in the public consciousness. Within the Corporate and Members’ Services Division, however, prudent planning for the next general election begins in the immediate aftermath of its predecessor.
“The life of a parliament is something of an unknown quantity. As we witnessed in the 1980s, the lifespan of a parliament can be very short and sometimes it can be much less than one might have expected. It’s one of those unpredictable scenarios of life.
“It would be foolish for an organisation like ours to rest between elections. It’s a process of continuous planning and improvement. This requires an acknowledgement of the things that worked well and a frank and honest review of areas that require improvement,” Errity details.
Therefore, during the early stage in the life of a parliament, an election planning group is established. Working for up to five years, the maximum lifespan of a parliament, this group ensures that the Oireachtas Service is in a constant state of readiness; prepared if and when an election is called.
“The election planning group undertakes work that we in the Oireachtas Service recognise as being required, based on the learning gleaned from informal discussions with members and colleagues. We are providing a customer service and as such, we need to know what we do well, what could be improved and what could be introduced. We also appoint member liaison officers for new members and collate feedback from them as well,” the Assistant Secretary says.
When the date of an election is set, a date for the new Dáil to meet is simultaneously timetabled and the first sitting occurs relatively soon after the final votes have been counted. Subsequently, Errity’s Division, through the Superintendent’s Section, Oireachtas Ushers Service and the Facilities Management Unit, support its Parliamentary Services counterpart in facilitating the election of the Ceann Comhairle. The ushers, through the Superintendent and the Captain of the Guard, are at the forefront of assisting with this.
Meanwhile, whether they secured a quota on the first count, or waited through several days of counts and recounts, each Oireachtas member will have had a different election experience. Allied to this are the fortunes of political parties, creating a potent mix of joy and disappointment in Leinster House.
“While it can be a great occasion for a new member to be elected to the Oireachtas and have an opportunity to bring their family and supporters up to Dublin for the day, there is also a counterpoint.
“Those who lose their seats, unlike in most normal circumstances, depart from employment in a sudden manner. It can come as a shock. These people may not have expected to be unseated and must return to clear out their offices in Leinster House,” Errity stresses.
Every office allocated to a new member is likely to have been vacated by an outgoing member. It must be approached tactfully. There is, therefore, a turnover period.
“The first thing we look at is the outcome for parties. If the proportion of members to parties is broadly similar to the pre-election scenario, then the parties can remain in situ. We work alongside party whips and party administrators to manage the individual room allocation. For independent members, we try to organise this subdivision in a fair way,” he says.
Overall, it requires some time to reconcile numbers and complete this process. If a party is unfortunate enough to lose a significant number of seats, it cannot expect to hold onto its apportioned block of accommodation.
“That’s a message that we have to deliver over the course of a few days to allow the absorption of the shock factor. There are people involved and so we approach it as a people issue first, address the sensitives and then follow through with the accommodation adjustments which is under the remit of our Facilities Management Unit, working in collaboration with colleagues in the Office of Public Works [OPW].”
Within the Leinster House facilities, the Oireachtas Service is a tenant. In common with much of the State’s property portfolio, its landlord is the OPW. In 2019, the restoration of historic Leinster House was completed without the Oireachtas ever having to vacate the premises. It was the first time in 200 years that a thorough restoration of this historic building had taken place.
“I would like that to be the start of a programme of work to restore the entire premises. The portion of Leinster House that was restored is the oldest part of the building, dating from the mid-18th century: the façade facing onto Kildare Street. Much of the rest of the building is not as historic but is ageing nonetheless and requires investment.
“I acknowledge completely the fact that, in the current context, resources will be very scarce. One would be foolish to underestimate the impact of the pandemic on the economy and consequently, on Parliament. However, it is not well known that the House receives an average of 100,000 visitors to the Leinster House complex per annum. There is huge demand for visits,” emphasises Errity.
For members, there have been several significant changes over the years, not least a process of digital transformation. While a decade ago, operations in the Oireachtas were heavily paper based, the IT systems today are much more advanced. Help desks were also introduced throughout Leinster House to assist members or the political staff with problems they may have.
“Simply, we tried to reflect the expectations of a new employee within an external organisation. Connectivity, for example, is now one of the first things expected and required in the modern workplace. Within the Oireachtas particularly, where long working days are common, it can even be as simple as locating access to food, coffee and WiFi.
“Many of our members travel long distances to be here, whether from the far reaches of Donegal or from west Cork. It’s useful to remind ourselves that while many of the people in the Oireachtas Service may live in or close to Dublin, most of our members do not. We try to facilitate them as best we can,” Errity stresses.
The ‘One Stop Shop’, operated by the Members’ Services Unit, is of particular importance to those entering a new role as a deputy or as a senator. As well as payroll induction, members are informed of their entitlements with regard to IT equipment and provided with a template HR contract for use when employing staff. Each new member receives a handbook and is allocated a member liaison officer.
“The historic nature of the Leinster House complex makes it very labyrinthine. To mitigate this, we established a single location for members to go for these types of services: The One Stop Shop. The staff who operate it are tasked with assisting members to the best of their ability or, at the very least, may refer members in the right direction. In bringing our experience to bear, we learn from problems which have arisen in the past and do our best to assist,” Errity emphasises.
A ubiquitous challenge facing the Oireachtas Service is continuous improvement within the context of political, social, economic and technological changes in order to deliver effective parliamentary services.
Similar to every public service organisation and most private service organisations, the Houses of the Oireachtas Service has a three-year strategy statement. The Strategic Plan 2019-2021 envisages a ‘Parliament which Works for the People’. It contains four strategic outcomes.
1. An effective parliament.
2. An open and engaged parliament.
3. A digital parliament.
4. A well supported parliamentary community.
Errity’s remit falls primarily within the latter two outcomes.
“Across Europe, there are attempts underway to introduce a remote element to the running of parliaments. Fundamentally, technology is vital in the Houses of the Oireachtas. Those entering the Oireachtas as members and as political staff now come from digitally enabled environments and are themselves highly digitally literate. We have to facilitate and build on this.
“Through the Digital Transformation Programme, the Oireachtas Service has continued its investment in digital technology. We are gradually working through a programme which will allow us to transition from being a largely paper-based organisation to one that is primarily digital,” he says.
Principally, this aim provides both members and the public with greater transparency and more real time access. While technology is being utilised to build capacity across the Oireachtas Service, it is also opening channels of communication and engagement for members, staff and the public.
“There is no point in styling the Oireachtas as a parliament for the people if citizens cannot easily access and observe its day-to-day workings. I don’t mean only what some commentators do in terms of consulting the Official Report of the Oireachtas debates as published by the parliamentary reporters and editors. I mean real-time accessibility whether in the Dáil or Seanad chambers or in the committees. For instance, while our two chambers and our four committee rooms can be viewed online, we want to develop this further.”
Looking ahead, Errity’s mission is to ensure that the Corporate and Members’ Services Division is adaptable, resilient and flexible enough to absorb potential future shocks, whether they be an unexpected election or a pandemic, and continue to deliver its core services.
“At the same time, we want to ensure that the Oireachtas is a positive working environment for both staff and members. We have good industrial relations with our staff, but each year we try to enhance this through the adoption of new initiatives,” he asserts.
For instance, sign language has been made available and sign language teachers introduced. Similarly, an Oireachtas Work and Learning programme (OWL) has been established in collaboration with Walk and Care, to assist those who have encountered challenges in gaining employment.
“We also succeeded in ensuring that the entire parliamentary community adopted and operate an agreed Dignity and Respect policy while on working in the Oireachtas. Considering the range and diversity of people within the community here, that is an important achievement.
“I aim to continue to develop the staff, while mitigating the pandemic, and that we continue to undertake new initiatives which enhance the parliamentary community. To use another cliché, when appropriate, I want to leave the Division in as good a condition as I inherited it, if not better,” Errity concludes.