Reversing An Ageing Civil Service

From the Sunday Tribune:

HUNDREDS of top-level civil service jobs are to be opened up to the public in an effort to bring fresh blood into what the Department of Finance admits is “an ageing civil service”.

Now, I know more than a little about this. I was a serving Executive Officer for some time and faced resistance to being promoted. Or rather I should say, I faced difficulties in being assessed for promotion. And, unusually, I managed to improve the situation.

When I joined as a Civil Servant at EO level, the recruitment literature stated that promotion on merit was embedded in the structure of the Service. Or, as they put it

“The days when promotion was mainly determined by seniority are long since past. The principle of promotion by merit is now firmly entrenched. In the general administrative grades there are service-wide promotion competitions at all levels.”

So, when the first competition for the Higher Executive Officer Grade was announced, I decided to put my name in the hat. I may not be successful this time, I thought, but it will be good preparation for next time. At that point the HEO competitions were running approximately every year, as there was a shortage of them throughout the Service.

Unfortunately the unions and the Department of Finance had other ideas.
Department of Finance Circular 2/2001 said “[Candidates must] on 1 January 2001 have not less than five years’ service in their existing grade or an aggregate of five years’ service in eligible grades or not less than seven years’ total service of which not less than two years was in an eligible grade.”

That would be me waiting seven years before I would be allowed to attempt to seek promotion. And this restriction was agreed between the PSEU, who represented my grade and the grade above me (HEOs), and the Department. I wasn’t a member of the PSEU, you won’t be surprised to hear.

I wasn’t happy at all about this. So I started complaining. I write quite good letters. That didn’t get very far. So then I started doing a bit of research.

You see, working as part of the Civil Service isn’t like working in the private sector. When it was drawing up employment legislation the State liked to exempt itself. So no going to the Employment Appeals Tribunal or any of those other bodies. If you want to challenge a decision of the Minister you don’t have any route short of a full Judicial Review to the High Court. No wonder nobody had ever pushed hard enough against this rule to break it.

Except… one of the pieces of legislation that the State couldn’t politically exempt itself from were the Employment Equality Acts. And as far as I could make out, if you make a rule that tends to discriminate against one group of persons as defined in the Act more than others, even if that discrimination was not the primary purpose of the rule, then the burden of proof shifts to rulemaker to justify that discrimination.

I’ll quote a bit now from the Report of the Equality Tribunal for the resulting case in which, to save some money, I represented myself.

The complainant said he had been provided with figures which confirmed that the bar to promotion to Higher Executive Officer until five years’ service had been achieved resulted in age discrimination. The figures showed that 65% of candidates for the grade of Executive Officer were under 30 years of age, and 63.21% of those who qualified from the first round of the assessment process were also under 30 years of age. No figures were available for the second round of the assessment process, but the complainant suggested that it could safely be presumed they were in line with the foregoing.

2.3 By contrast, the complainant said that 8% of Higher Executive Officer candidates and just 2.48% of serving Higher Executive Officers were aged less than 30 years. He said it was clear from those figures that the five-year service requirement resulted in a significant under-representation of candidates under the age of 30 years, and consequently an under-representation of serving Higher Executive Officers under that age. He referred to the definition of indirect discrimination in section 31 of the 1998 Act, and said the five-year service requirement had a more negative impact on persons under the age of 30 years than on persons over that age. He said that the respondent therefore had to show that the requirement was justified in all the circumstances of the case.

And, furthermore:

The complainant also pointed out that the question of staff retention and staff turnover had received much attention. A Staff Retention Survey commissioned from Goldman Fitzgerald had stated that career progression was “the most frequently quoted reason as a trigger for departures”. The complainant said this showed the inefficiency of the disputed bar to promotion. He said it resulted in a loss of ambitious and energetic people from the Civil Service, and also that it had a demoralising and demotivating effect on those who chose to stay. He said the bar diminished the Civil Service’s ability to function effectively by artificially limiting the number of people who could apply for the posts.

Suffice to say the Department of Finance failed to persuade the Equality Tribunal that there was any justification and I was given a moderate sum in compensation.

It wasn’t the money that was important here though. The bigger questions revolve around the way the Civil Service recruits in a hierarchical fashion.

I see no reason why, when recruitment is by way of comprehensive competency based assessment, that all levels of post should not be open to all levels of Civil Servant to apply for. For example if, let us stretch our imaginations for a moment, Michael O’Leary joins the Service as a Clerical Officer (an entry grade position) and a competition is held for the senior post of Principle Officer, why should he not be allowed to demonstrate his management skills to the assessment board and be appointed to the job?

If the Department of Finance wishes to do something about an aging Civil Service, by all means hold open competitions. But it also should look to the skills and abilities of the people already employed within its ranks- before they decide to leave and take up work somewhere that won’t insist that they mark time for years before they’re even allowed to show what they can do.

And if the Department can’t get agreement from the Unions, because of the disruptive threat to their membership- which is greatly skewed in favour of the longserving members who don’t want to face unwanted competition for places at this late point in their careers- it should realise that exactly the same argument which was successful in my case will ensure that the first person to legally challenge this fake hierarchy will succeed.

The end of Buggins’ Turn is only a matter of time if younger, able civil servants start to push at it just a little bit. The system of agreeing the rules of promotion between the Department of Finance and Unions is a house of cards ready to fall. And the sooner it happens the better it will be for both the Civil Service and the country as a whole .


  • Dick OBrien says:

    Snap. I did a year as an EO. The restriction on applying for promotion was one of the reasons why I left.

  • copernicus says:

    Snap. I was allowed to sit for interview after 3 years but told that the intakes before me had to get the promotions, despite the fact that I’d “impressed the board” and “will be promoted at the next round”. I’ve been there five years now and no one above me is showing any signs of going anywhere, especially as most are only barely 40.

    No wonder I’ve grown my hair long and embarked on a process of career change.

  • copernicus says:

    Edit – it’s very dispiriting to see people who don’t put the same level of skill or care into their work getting promoted ahead of you as if 3 years can only be regarded as a probationary period. Meanwhile, one’s private sector mates are moving onward and upward every 18 months or something.

    I can guarantee that the way the CS works, people from outside will have to be seen to get a certain number of available positions under the openess dispensation, thereby leading to greater frustrations than ever, especially in light of certain restrictions on lateral movement in the service.

  • Simon McGarr says:

    I didn’t address the decentralisation issue in my post- what I presume compericus refers to as the ‘certain restrictions on lateral movement’- but if career progression was patchy when I was taking the above case, it can only be worse now.

  • celtictigger says:

    Michael O’Leary as Principal Officer in Finance… good god man.. we’d soon get rid of toll plazas and have them replaced by commuters building their own flippin’ roads.

    But as an employee of a former semi state organisation with many older staff having civil-service equivalence I have experienced the joys of being dismissively asked where I had blown in from, only to wipe the smugness away by pointing out I’ve been there 10 years already.

    Also – a more open promotion system will not necessarily get the best staff promoted. Often people are left in their current role because the cost/effort/difficulty of replacing them if they were promoted is too great. Alternatively people are often promoted quickly up the organisation to geth them as far away from real work, real actions and real customers as possible.

  • […] My challenge to limiting job opportunities to people with a set number of years service (about which more here) has now bubbled up in an unexpected place. […]

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