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.