The Bloated Public Service

How the Institute of Public Administration destroyed Irish public administration

Some phrases never go out on the town alone.  A heart attack is always massive and the public service is always bloated.   Yet, when you dig a little bit beneath the surface, nobody is saying that we have too many firemen, too many nurses, or too many doctors.

People get infuriated when such obvious examples are brought up, so I thought it would be good to ask which part of the public sector they think is bloated.

Let me draw a distinction between something that is bloated and something that requires better personnel.  They are two different things, but people somehow lose sight of their rational selves when this subject comes up.  I don’t want anyone telling me that teachers are lazy or inefficient.  That’s not the point.

Here’s the question I’m asking.  Which part of the public sector is bloated?

Do we have too many teachers?  Would you prefer bigger class sizes?  Have we too many people gritting the roads in winter?  Are there too many people flying rescue helicopters?  Too many paramedics?  Too many people running the sewage works or the water treatment plants?  Too many hospital porters?

Are there too many people investigating pollution or illegal dumping?

Are there too many home helps?  Too many litter wardens?  Too many weather forecasters?    Too many farm advisers?  Too many health inspectors?

Did we have too many financial regulators when Seanie Fitz was lending out his dodgy billions?

Have we too many police on the streets?  Are we doing too much research and development in our universities?

Are there too many physiotherapists?  Too many special-needs assistants?

I think when people talk about the bloated public service, they’re not talking about firefighters or doctors.  By the same token, I don’t think they mean the low-paid clerical grades who slog away from day to day, often carrying out mind-numbingly boring tasks for no thanks.  I think they mean the middle-management who used to be called pen-pushers.

The parts of the public sector that most people see in their day-to-day lives are the health service and the local authorities.

At one time, these bodies were one and the same.  They shared staff, and had the same elected representatives.

If you were a none-too-bright youth, coming out of school with a poor-to-middling Leaving Certificate and no hope of getting into college, the local authority was the place for you.  You’d spend the next ten years processing dog licences and eventually you might end up as a reasonably-paid Grade 5, ending your days on a modest salary sufficient to keep you in pints and the occasional holiday.  You’d memorise the endless acts of parliament that rule your little domain and you might get the odd trip to some remote council to sit on an interview board.

In those days, the health boards and the councils were run by professionals who attempted to deliver a professional service, and the none-too-bright Grade 5 was there to provide administrative back-up.

Something happened in the late eighties and early nineties.  Administrative people began to question why they were paid less than doctors, architects, scientists, engineers, vets and lawyers working in the public sector.

A well-known county manager once disparagingly referred to his professional staff as specialists, comparing them unfavourably to his administrative staff, whom he described as generalists.  In that comparison, I think you’ll find the kernel of what went wrong with the Irish public service.  In his hubris and ignorance, this man had somehow come to believe that education and training limited a person and that it was better to know almost nothing than to have a deep knowledge of a subject.

Enter the Institute for Public Administration.  The IPA.

Suddenly, it became possible for even the dimmest of administrators to earn a degree in administrating, just like the doctors they used to report to.  Just like the engineers.  Just like the vets.   However, unlike the professional staff, they weren’t required to have experience of work in the real world, their results weren’t measurable, and they didn’t have to produce a tangible portfolio  of work for peer review prior to admission to a professional body.

Much like a degree in theology, the IPA qualifications were in stuff we made up.  And with the IPA degree came the delusion that people who held it were professionals.

This is where the Irish public sector fell into a hole.  The Peter Principle overtook an entire administrative structure as, everywhere, administrators came to be promoted by other administrators — via the closed interview system — beyond the level of their own incompetence.

Suddenly, magically, they were all managers.

These are the people who condemned 97 women to wait in fear for the results of their mammograms and herded them into a single health centre like cattle in order to gain an administratively convenient “cohort”.  Uneducated fools, inflated by the importance of their meaningless IPA qualifications, taking quasi-clinical decisions and usurping the function of the clinical specialists.

Professor John Crown, an eminent oncologist, trenchantly summed up the cadre that runs the HSE, and by extension, the entire Irish public service.  They have one skill, he said.  The ability to pass interviews.

You’ll find the same fools all over the country making policy decisions on the provision of public  housing despite having no expertise in spatial design and no professional qualifications whatsoever.  The same incompetents presided over the planning disaster of the last decade.  The same people are closing down hospitals, though they have never treated so much as a blister.  The same people were advising Lenihan when he issued his disastrous banking guarantee.

Here’s the real problem with the Irish public service.  It’s full of amateurs and frauds who would have been fine as office boys but who escaped and took over the functions that were rightly the domain of experienced, qualified professionals.

There’s nothing bloated about the Irish public service.  If anything, our services are far below what a citizen of any other European country might expect.

What’s wrong with our public sector, and our government, is the fact that it”s run by people who know nothing.

It’s all very well to talk about privatising the public service, but do you really want a private company deciding how many firemen are appropriate for your town?  Do you want a private investment firm deciding fiscal policy in Ireland?  Do you want a senior civil servant on a three-year contract to be afraid of giving painful advice?

Here’s the reality.  We will always have a public service, because that’s what government does.  Without a public service, there is no country — just an economy.

Of course we could do it better, and it’s time for a deep review and restructuring, but calling for the abolition of the public service is both facile and naive.

Forget the Harvard business-speak and the Belbin tests, going forward.  Put the experts back in charge.

39 thoughts on “The Bloated Public Service

  1. And, the concept for Munster, is far from ‘Clear the Way , ya Bastards or we’ll use you’r bones for road’. Is now ‘just enough’.

  2. Great post Bock. The bulk of the public service is run by glorified administrators who don’t have a fucking clue. A friend of mine worked in an office within the HSE for a period and the stories he came out with were unreal. He did a months work in a week or so and was told to slow down by both co-workers and superiors. The work ethic in that office was from another planet.

  3. So what happens to my theory that the top of the various departments are populated by those who climbed the greasy pole of political preferrment – ignore the “canvassing will disqualify” bits – during the slump years of the late ’70’s and ’80’s and who are now undislogeable (is that a word ? )

  4. Just who are the experts,Bock? And in answer to your question about firemen etc. the answer is that we dont but the PDs minority of one do and mindful of the current climate,they and their ilk(greens?) most likely do. Bottom line…….money. This is posted with sincerity but aided with a Sarurday night consumption of tasty gin and coca cola ,ergo apologies for,well,whatever,especially not making sense. As they say in Queens,youre the man Bock!

  5. Check out the public administration “degree” in U.L. About 7 hours real lecture time per week. Says it all really….

  6. Tony C — At this stage, the public service is so emasculated, I suspect we have few enough left. Perhaps there are none. But if we re4main in the hands of the IPA generalists, the country is never going to recover.

  7. Great post, Bock. It’s not just an Irish problem, though – I live in Germany where bureaucracy has been developed into a frequently Kafkaesque artform over centuries. My take on it all is that the basic rule of organised societies is; It doesn’t have to work, but it always has to be administered!

  8. Spot on BOCK, absolutely spot on.
    I’ll give you one example of where administrators made massive changes to safeguard their positions.
    Up until the late eighties, early nineties, just six civil servants managed and controlled all administrative functions for the Gardaí, the prisons, and I suspect the courts too; not certain about the courts though. It’s possible the courts may have had their own small civil servant administrator unit.
    Today the prisons have their own dedicated administrative unit (the I.P.S.) located in Longford town where there are just short of one hundred and fifty ‘administrators’ now managing even less prisons than there were before they were set up by the S.O.R.T. ‘Committee’. Their current top administrator initially served his time doling out cash in a dole office in Dublin until he was shot in the legs by the General; the infamous Dublin scumbag who, while he was alive, played the system for all it was worth.
    God only knows how many are now administrating the Gardaí but even a cursory look at the Justice, Equality and Law Reform web site gives an indicator that there is most likely here too very large administrator numbers now managing Gardaí.

  9. First the church, then the politicians, our banks and builders and now the real rulers who allow us all to live in “their” lovely little country.
    Beware Bock and remember your place.

  10. I can’t see there being a purge of these non-productive elements in the public sector any time soon. Too many cosy relationships in this small country, so few with the power to change these institutions have any vested interest in doing so. These people are also the least likely to be harmed by inefficiencies because they can call in favours to cut through red tape.

  11. Excellent points in your post, Bock. One story that’s maybe apposite here. A few years ago now, when my partner was a newly trained nurse just arrived at one of our major mid west hospitals, there came a day when the hospital was to be visited by Mary Harney. My partner worked in a ward that could have euphemistically be called ‘Beruit’, woefully resourced, with a staff constantly stretched, trying to provide even a basic level of care and dignity for patients and which was ‘run’ by a manager who was absent more often than not, on ‘sick leave’.

    In her naivete, my wet-behind-the-ears partner asked one of the more senior nurses if they shouldn’t start a bit of a clean up in preparation for the minister’s visit. ‘Don’t be daft, girl, she was told, ‘Mary Harney won’t be left within a mile of this ward’.

    And so it proved. That nurse had absolute confidence in what she said. Mary Harney was visiting, presumably to inspect the results of her hard work in the Department of Health, but she was now obviously like the queen; permanently with a smell of fresh paint in her nostrils. She saw what they wanted her to see. It struck me quite hard at the time, Mary Harney was – whatever else people said about her – obviously a very intelligent woman. Yet she didn’t ask – or was discouraged from asking – ‘What’s through that door?’ when the notion took her, like any of us would.

    I suppose it’s a simplistic point, but there are surely a thousand other stories like this and a thousand other doors that can be checked – by people who genuinely want to find out what’s behind them. It just takes a willingness, starting with our government. But there’s the rub. Show them the door, indeed.

  12. Good post Bock. I don’t take any pleasure in confirming at least 50% incompetence among 5s 6s 7s and even higher in the public service where I work. I did work in the private sector and also tried to make my own living self employed where such incompetence was at much lower levels about 30%. Incompetence is a fact of life, many in the public service are wellmeaning and try very hard. I have been wondering lately why people do not realise that it’s ok to say, “I have competence at what I do now, but not for that job with the bigger salary, I’ll continue to be competent and accept that I have reached the top of my career” Most people are challenged by their own incompetence regularly, even within their area of expertise! Funny the longer I live the less I know for certain. Oh well, Bombay Gin & tonic please nurse.

  13. Excellent post Mr. B. It’s important to make the distinction between hard-working public servants and the beneficiaries of the cult of ‘management’.

    The slash-and-burn merchants who are going to impose austerity on us (while burning billions in NAMA and Anglo-Irish and ensuring their own well-being in the private sector) are busy ensuring that when we here the word ‘public sector’, it’s one of these pretty useless individuals we have in our mind’s eye. From personal experience I’d hazard a guess that a team that manages itself, with the experts listened to, would be more efficient than one rolling it’s collective eyes at the latest idiocy from ‘de management’.

  14. Thats a bit harsh on the people who joined the public service from school at the lower levels back in the 70s and 80s. People with great ability but did not have to means to attend university. I know many of these people who worked hard (as those at the bottom generally do) educated themselves part-time and obtained business, accounting, etc degrees and progressed up the ladder purely on merit and ability. I know of one person who came from a now-troubled estate in Limerick who started as post-boy/porter and by dearth of his own endeavours to further educate himself is now the CEO of a private company having spent many years in the public service. The real rot started 10-15 years ago when management appointments were given to graduates who had all the theory but absolutely no common sense about delivering a service to the ordinary Joe Soap citizen and no clue how to deal with people or their needs. In any job, when you start at the bottom you get to see the real needs and the service that the public need. When you are ensconced in an ivory tower, graphs and statistics become far more important than peoples needs and the more bull you peddle the more is thought of you. Thats the way it has gone.

  15. From the INTO Facebook page –
    New figures published by the Department of Education and Skills today show 106,000 primary pupils are in classes of thirty or more. The INTO said the figures show the problem of over-crowded classes in primary schools, already the second highest in the EU, is getting worse.

  16. The next post on this subject will be about the impossibility of running a democracy without a public service.

    Like it or not, the public service is an unavoidable reality. The alternative is Oceania.

  17. A good reply to libertarians and neo-liberals is to ask them to look at the country where there is no government at all and the state is truly off the people’s backs. i.e. Somalia.

    Better still, persuade them to go and live there for a couple of years.

  18. why are the public sector not bench marked now to reflect the drop in wages of the private sector? surely it would go a bit of the way in reducing the wage bill?

  19. “why are the public sector not bench marked now to reflect the drop in wages of the private sector? surely it would go a bit of the way in reducing the wage bill?”
    No can do, ring fenced by the Croke Park agreement

  20. Are there figures nationally for reductions in private-sector wages? I’d be interested to see them if anyone could provide a link.

  21. The CSO provide detail. Sorry, not good on links. There is no evidence yet from the CSO figures that overall wage rates have fallen. It is argued that because it is mainly lower paid employees who have been laid off during recession the remaining average wage has actually risen since 2008!
    However the CSO data is in my view so unreliable as to be almost useless.

    Under the Payment of Wages Act it is actually illegal to reduce wages unless it has been agreed by the employee. I would be interested in hearing reports of claims taken under this Act by people who have had their wages reduced.
    However NERA (National Employment Rights Authority) are taking the view that discussion constitutes agreement. One wonders whose rights NERA are protecting. The employee or the employer or possibly their own.

  22. I do happen to know that the lovely people who work in O`Malleys Chemist ( Tim O`Malley ) in Dooradoyle have refused a number of times to even discuss a reduction in their wages. As i understand that is the norm in most jobs today. The empolyer is being told that the subject of wage reduction is not up for discussion.

  23. To answer gerryos question, I’m a public servant, and like most other public servants, I got a total increase of 10% from benchmarking spread out over a few years. In the last 12 months my income has dropped by about 14%, or about 17% if you include the reduction in expenses rates (technically not income I know but in reality it is). Plus, I wouldn’t bank on the Croke park agreement, there is a desperation clause in there I think that the government can use to cut our pay again. If not I wouldn’t be surprised if they just renege. Not bitching, just answering a straight question.

    As for the private sector, I would suspect on the basis of anecdotal evidence only, that self employed have been hit really hard, and employees have been let go, but if you still have a job you probably haven’t had a wage cut.

  24. I can second EssoDee’s post, except that I reckon public servants are down more than 14%.
    In my own case, every cent of Benchmarking has been wiped out.
    I am back to about 2002 pay rates.

  25. IBEC report
    Average wages fell by about 3% in the private sector during 2009. IBEC’s Quarterly Business Sentiment Survey shows that one in four firms implemented pay rate reductions during 2009, with the majority of firms maintaining pay freezes. Where pay rate reductions were recorded, the average cut was 12%. The survey suggests that the frequency of pay cuts has reduced in 2010 with only about one in ten firms likely to cut pay rates this year. The vast majority of firms plan to maintain pay freezes again this year. On average, private sector pay rates are set to fall by a further 1% in 2010.
    with regard to reduction of rates of pay, i think that the employee has to give his consent in written form. however a stroke of a ministers pen could quickly remove the need for consent.

  26. Gerryo,you seem to be a great man for the pay cuts and the race to the bottom. To extend your logic,maybe we should all work for 50 euro a week ,fuck it,we’ll do it for nothing, to keep the people who matter happy.

  27. In my experience, comparisons between private and public sector remuneration packages are nearly impossible. Things go on routinely in both sectors that would be mutually incomprehensible. A few examples:

    I know of a factory, where about 400 people are employed. On the management/administration side, company cars are supplied to all middle and senior managers, Peugeots for the middle, Audis for the top. Some of those guys never leave the building they work in for any work-related purpose – the cars are a perk. Next, the company does a deal with a local filling station. Ten grand’s worth of petrol vouchers for nine and a half grand. No VAT because they’re a manufacturer. Good deal on balance for the station, money up front, increased footfall in the shop, some vouchers will never show up, etc. The factory doles out the vouchers to staff with wage packets. It amounts to tax-free income – petrol is as good as cash any day.

    Next – civil engineering company, twenty five employees – fitters, genops, plant and machine drivers, office girls. Every one of them gets the same take-home pay, because the employer believes there would be trouble any other way. His accountant works out the PAYE and PRSI backwards, depending on how may dependants each worker has etc. So the guys with ten kids get the same nett pay as the singe girls. Bonkers, but it’s commonplace.

    Public sector – chap travels twenty-five miles to work – say Roscrea to Nenagh. He has to do a business run to Roscrea during the day – let’s say he’s an inspector of drains. he drives to the drain, inspects it, goes home early and cuts the lawn. He can legitimately get 50 miles travelling expenses for his journey.

    Public sector – High Court case in Dublin, eight witnesses required – say, a car crash case. They all take the early train from Charleville. The senior guys will travel first class, read the IT and talk about golf. The junior guys will travel standard class, talk about soccer and read the Independent. No question whatsoever of having a working meeting en route. Their solicitor will travel in his Merc and charge the miles. He’ll give the junior counsel a lift, ditto. They’ll book a room in the Aisling and have the meeting when they reach Dublin. The funny part is the senior guys get no extra pay, because they are on salaries. The junior guys get overtime, eating-on-site allowance and maybe a day off in lieu.

    Public Sector – a water treatment plant – commonly known as a waterworks. Caretaker goes in on St Patrick’s Day and gets a day treble-time for starters. After half an hour, he feels sick, rings his stand-in and goes home when the stand-in guy shows up. Stand-in guy gets six hours pay for the call-out, three days pay for the work and attendance on a public holiday, and a day off in lieu because he missed his day off. So one day’s work costs the employer almost eight days pay.

    And don’t even mention maternity benefits.

    Last point – we don’t have a public service. We have a public representative service. It has been totally geared to serving the ‘representations’ culture whereby all citizens access public services through their politicians, who utilise their personal contact network in disfunctional organisations in return for voter loyalty. Politicians gather home and mobile phone numbers of all useful officials, and if they get the ‘service’ they require, they mention names favourably in high places, or not as the case may be. Junior public servants get promoted by senior public servants who are influenced by “the positive feedback” they are hearing. “Contrary individuals” who upset ‘people’ or ‘aren’t helpful’ get side-lined. Senior public servants whose seniority derives from this process perpetuate it, they love the schmoozing with the mvers and shakers. A percentage of county councillors will eventually become TDs. A percentage of TDs will become Junior Ministers. They have seats on State Boards to allocate. They put in senior public servants. They go abroad on fact-finding missions. They travel to dozy meetings in remote places – Rosses Point, Rosslare Harbour, Dundalk, Baltimore. Everybody on the board gets a turn at the 500-a-day expenses trip. Remember Fas if you don’t believe me. Not a bad lifestyle if you can get away with it..

    That’s the idiot’s guide to how it works. the Honours grade is more subtle.


  28. tony c , i’m not a fan of pay cuts. the point i made,perhaps badly about the need to give consent for reduction of pay, was that its only a matter of time before the government (possibly under pressure from their friends in IBEC) look at removing that protection to workers. it was not a suggestion that they should do it.
    they have looked at the public sector, and i suspect more cuts to come, the next place to look at, to make us more cost effective and competitive is the private sector. now if they really wanted us to be a more competitive economy , i’d prefer they look at the high cost of living here.

  29. Gerryo, I never gave my consent to my pay cuts.
    Nuts, in the public service I know, travel expenses work like this –
    Home to normal work and back home has to be deducted
    For example, teacher is a shared resource teacher between three schools A, B, and C.
    School A is the teachers normal school, so he must deduct home to A to home each day from the mileage.
    If he lives 20 miles from school A, then he deducts 40 miles per day.
    School B is 5 miles from school A.
    School C is 6 miles from school A and 1 from school B.
    Home to A to B to C to home is 20 + 5 + 1 + 20 = 46 miles – 40 (home to A to home) = 6 miles that the teacher can claim, not 46.

  30. good point mairéad. guessing your a teacher from the example you give. did the unions hold a ballot to accept the pay reduction?

  31. compare; our little corner of the US.
    husband is a firefighter. Career not volunteer. FFs are paid though the town budget.. Each year the fire department puts together a budget that is debated ad naseum in the town hall. Usual suspects – the hotheaded anti-, the pro firehouse, independent reporters and groupies. Budget is then put to a vote on a separate day where the town population vote yes or no. Every year. Every year I have no idea if he’ll have another year “on the job”. Oh, and he’s union too. Isn’t it bizarre?

  32. @EashtGalwayWoman. Well done on name. Phonetics jusht right. I support the right of public sector workers to a fair level of pay and a much better degree of fixity of tenure that is accorded to your husband or indeed to a lot of private sector workers. I have plagerised the fixity of tenure from the old Land league campaign for the three f’s.

    The difficulty everywhere but especially in Ireland arises from the exhorbitant salaries and expenses paid to higher eschelons of both private and public sector workers. Yet when they really screw up, there is no sanction. In Ireland’s case as you probably know screwing up means bankrupting country.

    We absolutely need public servants particularly in the front line service areas. The other side of that equation is that we need the taxes to pay for the services. Regrettably the neo-liberal agenda of tax cuts over the last 30 years has done its damnest to destroy the tax base and social democracy with it. The divide on this issue is at its most acute in the US but even in bankrupt Ireland tax rises are still not on the agenda.
    It is difficult to be confident about the future.

  33. Dear Sir,

    It is heartening to read something like this. I wish there were more websites like this – and less derisory comment. People asking for competence and integrity and not for fast cash and trendy slogans.

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