Public Sector Reform - No Time To Lose
Andrew Montgomery, Head of Public Services.
Over the past months, Public Sector Reform has been a contentious issue. As a new government begins to implement change, it has yet to decide what shape or form the new public sector will take. With many government services available online, many have suggested the new sector will adopt a fluid and responsive structure adapting to the Irish public’s ever-changing needs.
Public Sector Reform is not a new item on the agenda. The incoming Government must now deliver in all the areas where the previous administration was unable to, despite the ever increasing evidence that a major intervention was required.
Previous arguments for stalling reform often made reference to how favourably the relative size of the Irish public service compares to that of other developed countries. Others have argued in favour of Public Sector Reform models and approaches that have been adopted in other jurisdictions, presenting a simplistic view that their replication in Ireland will provide all of the answers.
While solutions from other countries should be considered, ultimately (in this case) we need an Irish solution to an Irish problem. A public service that is aligned with the needs of Irish citizens and businesses in the 21st century and not with historic and outdated internal structures. A public service that has the flexibility to quickly match supply of services with demand and changes in Irish demographic, socio-economic and fiscal circumstances. A public service that gives its employees the opportunity to acquire and utilise new skills, innovate, drive and sustain change and be rewarded for the quality and quantity of their output. And ultimately a public service which Ireland can afford.
With the exception of the regular creation of new agencies and some changes in Departmental names, the fundamental structure of the public service, the way it has done its business, set policy, delivered services and rewarded its employees has remained unchanged since the foundation of the State. Public service delivery is bound by laws and regulations which take time to change, however it is critical that it evolves and adjusts to the changing needs and increasing sophistication of its customers over time, just like any other industry sector.
It is this historic structure that offers significant opportunities to review and remove areas where there are duplication of functions, and any related inefficiencies. It will also offer the opportunity to ensure that Departments and Agencies can increase collaboration with one another for the common good of Irish citizens and businesses. Perception of poor service has created undoubted negativities, frustrations and a lack of confidence in the services for which we all pay. However, it is no less frustrating or damaging to the morale of the majority of public servants who want to be able provide high quality healthcare, education, social and policing services, for example, directly to their customers.
The stated objective of the new Government is that the number of public service employees will have fallen by at least 22,000 by 2015. However, the public service is, and will remain, a relatively highly labour intensive sector. Frontline services will always require a large number of highly motivated and skilled public servants working in specialist citizen-facing service delivery organisations. There are however a significant number of public servants who never have the opportunity to interact or directly serve the public, but instead provide back-office services to internal customers within their own Department or Agency.
The sharing and rationalisation of these non-core functions and the merging of public service organisations currently providing similar services will provide savings and efficiencies. This will allow an overall redeployment of resources to understaffed frontline service areas. In addition, opportunities will arise for public servants to acquire new specialist skills in areas such as customer service management, project, change and risk management – competencies which will be vital to drive and sustain high performance.
Technology and automation will underpin many of the structural and operational reform initiatives that are being proposed by the Government. Unfortunately the spectre of expensive technology project failures such as PPARS and Electronic Voting still hangs over the public service. Although there are plenty of private sector organisations, also owned by taxpayers, who have suffered similar project failures but who are not subject to the same public scrutiny.
A balanced view is required here and it is important to recognise the success of the many modernisation initiatives that the public service has delivered. In areas such as Education, Social Protection, Agriculture, Foreign Affairs, Finance, Justice, Revenue and Policing, for example, major business and technology solutions have been successfully delivered in recent years which have resulted in real efficiencies and service improvement. These include:
Online communication of school, teacher and student data from all schools in the country.
The revenue online service.
The modernisation of social welfare and farmer payments systems.
The sharing of back office systems and functions in the civil service for finance and human resources.
The Government’s virtual private network infrastructure.
State of the art digital fingerprint identification systems for the Gardaí.
One of the world’s most modern and secure passports.
In addition Ireland ranks as a leader in eGovernment and the level of online services provided.
There is significant scope to leverage and build on these investments and successes to support some of the key public sector reform initiatives which are now being proposed. In addition, while new service delivery units and supporting technology will be required in certain areas, in others the focus will be a rationalisation and reduction of duplicate functions and systems in favour of shared and central solutions which support a number of Departments, Agencies or an individual sector, and reduce the cost of ownership.
The immediate challenge for the new Government will be to create the environment and governance structure within which this change can occur and set out its roadmap of prioritised initiatives. Public servants themselves will play a key role in the successful delivery of this change. Freed from working within narrow or inward looking historic Departmental or Agency structures, highly engaged in the reform process and confident that their output and performance will be appropriately rewarded, they will lead and drive change, mobilising teams of internal and external resources to deliver for the greater good.
There isn’t a moment to be lost.
Andrew Montgomery is Head of Public Services at international Management and Technology consulting firm BearingPoint which employs almost 200 people in Dublin. He may be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org. For further information go to www.bearingpoint.com