Posted tagged ‘public service’

Solidarity, or the public sector unions vs the public?

March 26, 2010

RTE News reports that the public servants in the Passport Office who have been involved in the industrial action that has caused massive delays for those wanting to obtain or renew passports were given a standing ovation today at the conference of the Civil Public and Services Union conference in Galway. Clearly the trade unions, fearing that they have been unable to influence events over the past year and in particular to protect the pay and conditions of their public service members, are looking for ways to be more effective at this time. And it is hard to deny that the Passport Office action has been effective. What is less clear is what that effect will turn out to be. Walking past the queues at the office earlier this week I was able to hear some very colourful opinions by members of the public, and it has to be said that these were overwhelmingly negative, mostly unprintable, about the industrial action by the union. There is therefore a risk that the action will actually widen the gulf between the public service workers and other members of society, which is not good for anyone.

I am hoping that talks between the government and the unions will recommence. But I am very sceptical as to whether industrial action can advance the unions’ case right now. I fear that the opposite is happening, and that this may give further strength to the anti-public sector case, including that which has been so damaging to the universities.

Public service ethos

March 6, 2010

What do the following Irish organisations all have in common: the Border Regional Authority, An Bord Pleanála (Planning Board), the Central Fisheries Board, the Competition Authority, the Equality Authority, the Food Safety Authority if Ireland, the Health and Safety Authority, the Higher Education Authority, the National Employment Rights Authority (goodness, I had never heard of this, must check it out)? Well, yes – they are all public service organisations. What else?

I’ll give a clue, the following don’t share this characteristic with them: the National Treasure Management Agency, the Irish Blood Transfusion Service, the Housing Finance Agency, the Courts Service. And the category to which these latter bodies belong has far fewer members than the one about which I am asking.

So what am I on about? Our tendency to create public sector bodies with regulatory or supervisory powers that have a mission of bureaucratic or authoritarian control seemingly built into their names. We still have an ethos in Ireland of seeing public agencies as bodies which instruct and control, and this is often reflected in the way they deal with their clients or with the general public. We have set them up to be appear to be the masters, with their clients as the servants. This however is an upside-down view of public service, which should see state-owned agencies treating the public as people to be supported and helped rather than controlled.

Of course a name is only a name, and many of these bodies in fact adopt a hugely supportive and constructive relationship with their clients; this is certainly the case with our very own Higher Education Authority. Nevertheless, the name does signify something, and that something is an ambivalence we still have about government and its agencies. If the government can set up ‘authorities’ and ‘boards’ to rule over us, then we have a sort of implied right to practise passive resistance, and in consequence an unhealthy relationship builds up between the public and the public service.

I’m sure there are many more important things to reform in the public sector, but I would nevertheless suggest a gradual re-naming of all these bodies, replacing ‘board’ and ‘authority’ with terms like ‘agency’ and ‘service’. Some have already gone that way. Others should follow.

Higher education, and serving the public

November 9, 2009

In almost exactly one month we will all get a better idea of what our lives will be like over the coming years.  On December 9 the government will unveil its Budget and Book of Estimates for 2010, and this will tell us what money the government will spend and on what, and how funded, over the coming year. Of course as we also know, this event will be preceded by negotiations, days of action, protests, lobbying and all other methods of influencing known to humanity. But whatever may be the result of all this, we know without question that in 2010 we will have fewer resources in the public sector in Ireland, and that measures will be implemented in particular to ensure that over the years ahead the public service will shrink. And given the state of the public finances, there is no way of avoiding this.

Right now, I am for a moment less concerned about the financial implications for the university sector. I fear that we will be facing very serious resourcing problems, but difficult though it may be to believe that, our declining revenues from the taxpayer are not the most serious issue. Still far more of a problem is that the new outlook on public services threatens to impose on higher education an overall control framework that will remove institutional autonomy and seriously undermine institutional flexibility and initiative. As the government seeks to control its financial commitments, it may try to se the same mechanisms to reduce the expenditure of universities that it will use to control government departments and agencies. We already have one example of that in the form of the employment control framework, which if fully implemented imposes reduced staffing levels and case-by-case controls over staff recruitment. All this will happen at the same time as universities are encouraged or cajoled into increasing their student intake.

We cannot really argue that we should be allowed to spend more taxpayers’ money, as we know that it just isn’t there right now. But the current circumstances seriously reinforce the need to reconsider our status as (at least in part) public service institutions. Universities are not public bureaucracies, they are knowledge organisations with a mission to teach and develop and disseminate knowledge. They need to be able to operate with great flexibility and they should have a reduction (rather than increase) in controls from government in order to maximise their potential for meeting national needs. Universities need to be entrepreneurial, not to be bureaucratised. They should of course be accountable, but not controlled.

There is a major need for a wider discussion on the nature and purpose of the public service in Ireland. But separate from that, there is a need to re-design our understanding of what universities are. They are not corporate entities or private for-profit organisations; but equally they must not be seen as government agencies with the sole role of applying the latest policies under central control.  All the evidence is that the current trend is the other way, and that the imposition of tight controls is now public policy. It is a bad policy.

Transforming the public service?

November 26, 2008

The report of the Task Force on the Public Service was published and launched by the Government today. The report’s title is Transforming Public Services: Citizen Centred – Performance Focused. It is a significant report, and takes its agenda in part from the OECD review of the Irish public service issued earlier this year, and which I mentioned in a previous post in this blog.

The title is, in many ways, quite revealing: the focus is on process, such as how to manage under-performance, how to make the work of the public service more accessible to citizens, how to coordinate the civil and public service, and so forth. These are all important topics and deserve attention, but it seems to me that in many ways they are in the second row of what needs to be transformed. There is a more pressing ned to clarify what it is that we, as a society, expect of the public service, and what we want it to deliver. How it is delivered is important, but cannot properly be addressed until we know what it is that we want delivered.

I would still welcome the report, however, and hope that its implementation will proceed. But we need to have a more fundamental debate in Ireland about the mix of public and private organisational and social and cultural aims that we would like to see pursued in Ireland, and how then we can ask ourselves how the state and its agencies can achieve that for us. During the recent US election campaign President-elect Obama addressed these issues much more succinctly than we have done so far; we also need to tap into that sense of idealism to which he refers. Public service as bureaucracy – even efficient and value-for-money – is not the whole story.

In search of public service

October 8, 2008

Yesterday I had to sit for a while in a government office waiting service so that I could get a particular document. These days I would normally do such things online or over the phone or by post, but yesterday I knew I was going to be in the vicinity anyway with some time on my hands. So I walked in, took the ticket that would give me a number and my place in the queue, and sat down to wait. I thought I really had plenty of time, but after a few minutes it became clear to me that the hour or so that I had would almost certainly not be enough.

In this particular office there were eight counters, with the officials sitting behind a glass partition. Or rather, four officials were sitting there, the other counters were empty. Having not much else to do, I observed them a little, and found that two of them were going through the motions of assisting the members of the public who came up to them, but without any human interaction such as a smile or an apparently friendly word. The third did what she needed to do, but between clients would take a little break, polishing her nails or doing something similar. The fourth was visibly engaged, and she was friendly and supportive and did her job quickly, moving immediately to call the next person as soon as she was ready. And all the while other officials drifted around behind the counters, sometimes talking to the staff at the counters in what looked like social chit chat.

Meanwhile the room was full of people, and most of them probably were members of various minority groups or immigrants or from a socio-economically disadvantaged background. People like me probably do not normally attend in person. Many of those present seemed unsure of themselves in asking for the particular service we were here for.

A decade or two ago the room would have been unpleasant. In fact, the room we were in was modern and reasonably bright and comfortable. But the atmosphere was one of officialdom, and there was a clear sense of supplicants seeking a favour, rather than citizens availing of a service.

It has occurred to me for some time that the ethos of the public service needs to change. There are of course many dedicated public servants with high levels of integrity. But on the whole we obscure the purpose of their work by placing them in organisational structures to which we give names typically ending in ‘Authority’, ‘Office’ or ‘Council’. Officials thus seem to be people in positions of commanding authority, not people with a mission to support or assist or serve. It’s not their fault, this is how we do it.

I think one good way forward is to rename a lot of public sector organisations, and call them ‘Service’ or maybe ‘Agency’, thereby removing somewhat the idea that they are in charge.

I shall return to the theme of the public service in a future post.


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