Following Our Servant’s Lead

Up until about a month ago, I was a serving Civil Servant. As such, as I sometimes alluded to here on, I officially had no political point of view. I was a neutral and impartial implementer of government policy.

In truth, government policy in its day to day sense was no more determining my behaviour than I could determine how my liver functioned. Most of the actions of the state are reflexive or involuntary, involving hundreds of people and millions of euro being brought together to genuinely attempt to make life better for the citizens of our small republic. Most.

Most decisions the state makes have no more to do with the minister in whose name they are made than they do with you. Do you remember pre-election debates about the introduction of a recognised quality mark for the public service? Or the best method of making sure that an ethos of delivering quality public services is diffused to all parts of the service, and what practical methods should be used to measure the degree of improvement? Or what’s the most cost effective and useful way of listing the state services in the phone book? Do you recall the battles over the idea of introducing the Official Languages Act, obliging the state to take seriously its constitutional obligation to the Irish language when publishing anything?

Or the congratulations heaped on the Minister who came up with the idea of computerising the Registry of Births, Deaths and Marriages? Or letting you apply for a passport by post?

Or the revolution wrought by the painful introduction of formal annual business planning methods to the affairs of state?

No? These great debates of the age passed you by somehow, you say? What about the great on-going form redesign programme, aiming to revise and simplify every official form generated in the Department of Social and Community Affairs? Remember the politician who had the foresight to demand that 15-year effort to make life easier for some of those least able to wade through needlessly complicated and outdated paperwork?

I’m sure his name will come back to us shortly. Let’s go back to that little Most in the second paragraph (or Paragraph 1.2 as we’d be calling it in the Service).

The Civil Service, in many ways is a very literal minded organization. The basic unit in the Service is, predictably enough, called the Unit. Depending on how far back you stand this will be headed by an Executive Officer or a Higher Executive Officer or an Assistant Principle or even a Principle Officer. Let’s take a medium view, and decide that our units consist of one Assistant Principle (AP), one or two Higher Executive Officers (HEO), at least two Executive Officers (EO) and an uncountable number of Clerical Staff. That unit will have to come up with its part in the greater scheme of the department, and then will have to give a report on how their work has progressed at the end of the year.

So far so dull, you might think. But here’s the difficulty. If a minister can make their civil servants profess their official support for programmes and decisions that they have no interest in seeing implemented, the same kind of bind can work in reverse.

That means that if you start up a unit and agreeing that it should examine, for example, the introduction of voting by electronic touchscreens and then wander off, it has enough people and talent gathered together to ensure that the plan will go on long after you’ve forgotten about it. You can be certain that when you get back from your spiritual retreat, or constituency clinic, not only will that plan have been examined but that they won’t have stopped there. If the internal examination seemed to come out positive, they’ll have ordered trials of various machines. Then they’ll have picked the best one. Then they’ll have run actual sample elections using them. Then they’ll have spent €50 million of the euros you’ve been telling your constituents that wasn’t available to fix up their local primary school buying enough machines for the whole country. And then they’ll hand you a sheet of paper summarizing the reasons they did all these things, for you to read to a puzzled public on the news when people start to complain that they rather liked the way voting worked up until now anyway. And who want to know what’s behind the rush to bring this in, anyway? And if you’re a normal minister, you’ll walk out and repeat the assertions you’ve been given because the alternative is to admit you weren’t paying much attention to what your department was doing.

We’ll come back to the abnormal ministers shortly.

There was no sense of anything being a rush, of course, for our Service unit. They’d been looking at the matter for years, preparing tenders, assessing information from pilot schemes and receiving pitches from various salesmen describing the relative benefits of their systems. That AP may even have moved on in their career to be replaced by one who arrived to find a well-established unit engaged on substantive work, and eager to make their contribution.

What will never have happened is anyone stopping to ask if it was a good idea in the first place. That’s because of the effect of that involuntary action I mentioned earlier. The minister of the time decided that he’d like to explore the idea of electronic voting. Then he was reshuffled, but once the decision had been made it would take the new minister to stop the momentum. And frankly, he neither knew nor cared too much about it. Until he found himself denounced as incompetent and arrogant from the front page of the Irish Times. By which time, it was too late for him to do anything but stand by his plan.

None of this is inevitable. You can imagine the Civil Service as a kind of zombie, shambling ahead with plans and schemes long after they’ve lost any meaning, because it doesn’t have the wit to realize it’s dead. But that is only a fraction of the story.

When the system is functioning properly, the ministers manage to do both the jobs they are elected to fill. They should be the primary engines of policy- individually in their departments and collectively in cabinet. The service should then be used to find the way to make those policies concrete reality.

But the minister also needs to be ready to play the part of the brake, to be the outside voice of reason who can say stop when the Service loses sight of the bigger picture. Ministers who do that are abnormal. And the longer that a government stays in power the less likely it is that any of its ministers will hold to their twin jobs. It is much easier to just become the figurehead for plans that have been drawn up inside your department than to keep having to come up with them yourself. And if you don’t think of policy yourself, you aren’t going to start calling a halt to what little action your fiefdom is taking for fear of appearing not to do anything.

In his book Snakes and Ladders, Fergus Finlay described the process of negotiating a programme for government with Fianna Fail. Fianna Fail ministers would sit in silence while Labour representatives outlined their positions. Then the next day there would be reams of rebuttals, counter-claims and responses to be handed around by the Fianna Failers. Finlay says that they gradually realized that they were negotiating with the Civil Service.

This is why Fianna Fail has been so sterile and lost on the rare occasions that they are thrust onto the opposition benches. The decades long identification of the party with the nation has given way to a reliance on being one of the organs of government. Without their Civil Service, they are lost. The nagging fear for the current government is that while they are nothing without their officials to advise and guide them, the dependency isn’t mutual. The Service will go on, no matter which parties win elections, making most ministers minds up for them and mostly making things better, if in a very cautious way.

But it would beeven better for everyone if Fianna Fail were given an extended opportunity to learn how to think for themselves again, and for the Civil Service to learn that meaning well doesn’t always mean that they have the right answer.

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