Overpriced, but falling apart – utility is letting us all down

In a fairly recent Dáil speech, veteran Fine Gael TD Michael Ring was his usual self, but he made a statement that, quite frankly, was hard to refute.

He said we have a dictatorship in this country. It is not a political dictatorship but a civil service dictatorship and it has come to such a stage now that they think they are more powerful than the minister.

Local authorities no longer care about the housing minister, they are out of control, he fumed.

“If the minister, the Taoiseach, the Tánaiste and the government don’t hit the civil service, I don’t know where this country will be. It is time for some power to return to the elected,” he added.

Amid laughter and verbal sparring, Ring went on to say that he had been in the Dáil for 26 years.

“I have a question for the Ceann Comhairle and the minister. Have they ever seen a civil servant fired or disciplined? Do they know what we do with them? They are rewarded and given a bigger office just to get rid of them if they cause trouble.

“There must be accountability. If these people worked for the private sector, they would be accountable. There is no accountability in public service,” he said.

Usually, when such comments are made, the person making them is dismissed as an oddball and given the impression that they are not taken seriously.

“Ah, it’s just Ringer,” was the refrain.

Additionally, some present at the Dáil that evening attacked his remarks, describing them as a “shameful insult” against officials.

It was no such thing.

The truth is that Ring is absolutely perfect in terms of the accountability deficit that is endemic within the public service.

It is a curse that has plagued the country’s management for decades.

It was telling that not a single person was sacked from the Ministry of Finance, the Central Bank or the financial regulator following the financial crash despite the collective failure to prevent it from happening.

Worse still, many of those at the helm were retired at full or increased rates, to the tune of millions of euros.

Legacy of the crash

The legacy of the crash and political upheaval caused by the 2011 general election, which reduced Fianna Fáil to a minority force in Irish politics, is that a major imbalance has arisen between the political class and the upper echelons of the public service.

The gross waste of 450 million euros in PPE and ventilators during Covid-19 without any consequence, Champagne-gate, Robert Watt’s salary case and the botched secondment of Dr Tony Holohan to Trinity College Dublin were stark illustrations of the imbalance of this relationship now. is.

Because of this imbalance, the political establishment is petrified for some reason to decry the poor performance of its officials, even though they are the ones who end up bearing the blame for their mistakes.

This week’s fury by Fine Gael TDs including Ring, Paul Kehoe, Bernard Durkan and Emer Higgins over delays in processing passport applications is the latest example of the system failing.

But once again, it seems that the bureaucracy is dictating the pace to the politicians rather than the political masters who take on the problem and drive the change.

We elect politicians not civil servants to run the country and too often we hear our ministers act more as commentators rather than drivers of change, as if they were helpless passengers forced to bend the knee to the standing government, who is unelected and unaccountable.

When accountability is sought, leading Dáil committees such as the Public Accounts Committee, we regularly see senior officials thumbing their noses at politicians seeking answers on behalf of the public.

We also saw the official system, using the verdict of Angela Kerins (who concluded that the PAC at the time violated her rights by the way they treated her), stifle the power of the PAC to make it a soft-touch anemic body, unable to deliver accountability as before.

The PAC has, in truth, been strangled and senior officials, backed by the judgment of Kerins, are able to obfuscate and avoid accountability.

This imbalance must change.

The result of this accountability deficit is increasingly poor service delivery, despite the creation of the Public Expenditure and Reform Department in 2011. There has been far too much spending and far too little reform.

However, we have seen in recent weeks calls from public sector unions to double-digit salary increases.

Public Spending and Reform Minister Michael McGrath has a golden opportunity to enact the kind of reform that so many in this country would simply like to see. Photo: Damien Storan

Michael McGrath has a golden opportunity to enact the kind of reform that so many people in this country would simply like to see.

I would argue that in return for a one-time inflation-fighting pay rise, McGrath insists on inserting new rules that can allow underperforming staff to be disciplined and fired if necessary.

Not in theory, but in practice.

In theory, people can be fired and disciplined, but in reality this rarely happens.

I would also say that, as with the private sector, if real penalties and responsibilities were imposed on the public service, some form of bonus system might be tolerable.

That his department seriously address the scourge of incompetence and instill real accountability within the system.

It is the job of unions to protect their members, but it is not the job of unions to become an obstacle to enterprise and delivery.

In its present form, the public service, because of its middle-of-the-road and risk-averse attitude, can never or will never be revolutionary or truly innovative.

But due to the failure of the political system to stand up and demand accountability, even basic functions like obtaining a passport, driver’s license or medical card have become nearly impossible.

Ireland is roughly in the top third of countries for the highest rate of tax that can be charged (including social insurance), ranking 13th out of 37 countries with a top rate of 52 % on income over €70,044 (i.e. income tax at 40%, USC at 8% and PRSI at 4%).

The truth is that we get terrible value for money for this level of taxation.

Our cities are dirty, Dublin in particular.

Our health service has been in constant crisis for decades with systemic blockages for our elderly, our disabled, our most needy.

Our transportation system is laughable, especially to those in rural areas.

We consistently breach our EU climate change and environmental standards.

McGrath has a golden opportunity to cement his legacy before he becomes finance minister in December and failing to tackle this problem now will only pile up bigger problems for the future.

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