The public sector in Ireland has a proud record of service to the Irish state and to the Irish people. Out of the violence, destruction and chaos of the War of Independence and the Civil War a viable state was established in the 1920s. The politicians and the public sector of those early years of independence showed character and firmness of purpose in establishing the young state on sure foundations.
They didn’t lack ambition. Just one reminder of that period – when the power station at Ardnacrusha on the river Shannon was built it was the largest hydro generating plant in Europe. When World War Two engulfed Europe the public sector was critical in maintaining basic services in this country. It was the public sector that delivered electricity, the key to modern living, to every house in the country. In later years it was Ken Whittaker and other senior public servants who showed the way out of the economic and social doldrums of the 1950s.
This country is now facing challenges of a scale we have not faced since the early years of the state’s existence. Tribunals of enquiry have exposed major flaws and corrupt practices in our political system, also affecting parts of the public sector. The economic crisis which overwhelmed our country was caused by profound failures in our private sector.
The economic crisis has also highlighted extreme weaknesses in how we govern and in how we manage and supervise our affairs. We must be clear headed in our analysis of our difficulties and honest in telling people what needs to be done. And when tough decisions have to be taken we must be guided by principles of justice and fairness.
So let us be frank with each other. There is no going back to the way things were. Carrying on as before is no longer an option. And while we continue to deal with the fallout from the economic crisis we must also be fully aware that the world we live in is changing at an accelerating rate. Change and very rapid change is the new normal. The choice facing Ireland is simple. We can change or we can stay in the long term care of the troika.
In February 2011 this government was given a clear mandate for change. If Ireland is to prosper it is essential that the public sector work in tandem with the government embrace reform. The government can provide the leadership, the commitment and the political support for change. But it will be up to the public sector to deliver the change agenda.
As a clear indication of its intent the government established a new Department of Expenditure and Public Sector Reform. Within that we have set out the most radical reform of the public sector ever. It's a plan that is backed by real timelines and political responsibility.
I want to be very clear. This government wants the Croke Park agreement to succeed. We are ambitious for change in redesigning a new public service. Those who want to replace Croke Park need to set out what they would put in its place. This party rejects the false debate which pits public and private sector worker against each other. Those who work in the public sector of this country are not the enemy. It's a complex organisation but must deliver the changes we need. Without the agreement of the public sector we cannot set our targets for reform.
Bashing the public sector has become something of a popular blood sport in some sections of the media. The government will not play that game. We do not see the public sector as our opponent. On the contrary the government is asking the public sector to be its partner in the Reform Agenda.
We have delivered. We said we would reduce public sector numbers and we have. The Irish public service is now under 300,000 and over 6 years will reduce by about 40,000 or 12% of the total. We have to do more with less and that's what is happening.
Reform is not just about reducing the size of the public service but it’s also important that we radically reform the way we organise ourselves to deliver services so as to ensure value for money and improve performance. This requires us to look at new operating models. Using the shared services model we will use the flexibilities under Croke Park to ensure reform is driven forward and public services are delivered in a more efficient, cost effective way. The Government has now given the Department of Public Sector Reform the strategic mandate to proceed with the shared services agenda on a sectoral basis. We have set up a National Shared Services Office as a platform to strengthen programme managers and suppliers. The independent focus of the Shared Services Office facilitates better resource management, control of expenditure, better service and performance delivery and monitoring.
As well as structural and organisational reforms, I believe that we need to focus on cultural change. Culture is perhaps the most difficult element to manage in any system, but it is also the most important factor. Changing attitudes to embrace a more open, flexible and service-centred public sector is central to the success of the reform programme. But this will not happen by accident. We must win hearts and minds by putting in place the processes and structures to empower public servants to assume ownership of the change process.
The Taoiseach has set himself a target of making Ireland the best small country in the world to do business in by 1916. The government and the public sector working together as a team can achieve that. But we can also do much more. We can make Ireland one of the best countries of the world to live in - for all our people. Hard work, persistence and determination will get us there.
Contact: Emma Hynes