In my statement to Dáil Éireann on the Government’s spending priorities in Budget 2015, I said that we had reached the end of the era of budgetary austerity. We have come a long way since we took office in 2011. We have made many difficult choices and all of us have made sacrifices to get to this point. Now, our efforts are beginning to pay off.
We’ve had the first non-austerity Budget in seven years and seen the creation of 76,600 new jobs since the peak of the economic crisis. Tourism has increased by 8 per cent with every 1,000 additional tourists supporting 15 jobs in that sector. The seasonally adjusted live register has decreased for 28 months in a row and unemployment is at a five-year low.
From the outset, we knew that a strategic response to the economic and fiscal situation we inherited, was needed. We grasped that nettle. We also realised that sustainable and far reaching reform of the Public Service was, and still is, essential to maintaining vital services.
This Government is delivering on reform and reform is delivering for Ireland. Significant progress has been made since we published our first Public Service Reform Plan in 2011. Reform has been delivered in respect of:
• reducing costs;
• improving productivity;
• more online delivery of services;
• development of shared services; and
• putting in place the structures to reform public procurement and property asset management, to name just some areas.
We have now embarked on a new phase of reform, as set out in the Government’s Public Service Reform Plan 2014-2016, published in January. This plan puts a strong focus on service improvement and better outcomes, while maintaining a tight control on expenditure, by concentrating on the key priorities of:
• using alternative models to deliver better outcomes for users of public services;
• maximising the use of digitalisation and open data to deliver services and information in innovative ways;
• reinvesting the savings earned from reform (the reform dividend) into new and improved services;
• being more open and accountable to our citizens; and
• improving leadership, capacity and renewal across the Public Service.
You can view the full details of the reform plan and the progress we have made at reformplan.per.gov.ie
We have been implementing these reforms at a time of increased demands on public services, particularly across the social protection, education and health sectors. Notwithstanding these increased demands, we have largely maintained service provision, while reducing Public Service staff numbers by 10 per cent and the Public Service pay bill by 22 per cent since 2008. This would not have been possible without the comprehensive suite of reforms we have introduced, supported by the stable industrial relations environment facilitated by the Croke Park and Haddington Road agreements. The commitment and support of public servants themselves to reform should also be recognised.
We are also rebuilding public trust in the State through our programme of political and legislative reform in areas including lobbying, whistleblowing, freedom of information, extending the powers of the Ombudsman and reform of local government.
Progress has been hard-won and is paying off. In Budget 2015, I announced an overall net increase in expenditure of €639 million, targeted at critical areas in social protection, health, education, justice and housing. Recruitment of essential frontline staff, including new teachers and gardaí, has been made possible next year through our utilisation of the reform dividend.
The Civil Service operates at the centre of government and plays a key role in the economic and social well-being of the country. We must, therefore, have a Civil Service that is effective, efficient and ready to meet current and future challenges.
On 30 October, as part of the Government’s reform agenda, the Taoiseach and I launched the Civil Service Renewal Plan. The plan is focused on driving practical change and action in four key areas to create a more unified, professional, responsive and open Civil Service. It contains 25 actions and a commitment to complete all actions within three years.
The plan also contains significant high-level structural actions. An accountability board will be established to strengthen accountability and performance across the Civil Service.
A Civil Service management board has been established to provide collective leadership and management for the Civil Service. It is chaired by the Secretary to the Government and is comprised of departmental secretaries general and certain heads of State offices.
Additionally, the Secretary General of the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform has become the spokesperson for the Civil Service to communicate the role of the Civil Service and improve internal and external engagement in its work.
Implementation will commence immediately with the establishment of a central Programme Management Office (PMO). From the establishment of the PMO, the following actions will be taken within the first 200 days:
• establishing the Civil Service accountability board, chaired by the Taoiseach;
• the first performance review process for secretaries general;
• an end-to-end review of the disciplinary code;
• several open recruitment competitions in key areas;
• the first Civil Service-wide staff engagement survey; and
• the first implementation town hall with staff.
The first meeting of the Civil Service management board took place on 7 November, initiating an intensive planning phase for the implementation of this programme of change. I have full details of the plan and supporting documents on my department’s website: www.per.gov.ie/civil-service-renewal
Of course, the Civil Service is just one sector of the Public Service that is undergoing unprecedented change. Radical reforms are also under way across the health, education, justice, defence, state agency and local government sectors.
Examples include the implementation of the reform of the Health Service, the integration of the further education and training sectors, the development of an integrated justice system, and the reorganisation of local government under the Putting People First plan. These and more are delivering real change and better outcomes for the public, for business and for public servants.
We would not be where we are today if the reform agenda was not delivering real results. However, we cannot afford to be complacent.
Reform is not just a once-off. How we do things and how we deliver services should be the subject of constant review and consideration. As the fiscal position improves, we need to strive for continued productivity. We must continue to be innovative and to learn from our experiences and from best practice elsewhere.
These actions are essential if our public services are to remain sustainable and meet the challenges of an ageing population and other demographic pressures. I am confident that we will meet the demands of the future as we continue to develop an improved and sustainable Public Service.