Six months on from Croke Park Deal, when will implementation start?

There has never been a time, good or bad, when there has not been a debate about the need for reform in the public service. I cannot remember any such time. I make that point, not because I want to diminish in any way the importance of this debate and of achieving real reform in the public service. I do not doubt that for one second. However, it is interesting to note that it is a constant dynamic in public debate and discussion.

As we approach the weeks leading up the budget, people are free to say what they wish to but I hope they will not contribute unwittingly to the re-emergence of a period of paralysis such as we had last year concerning the public and private sectors. I refer not only to the Government side but across the board to commentators, Members of this House and others, to questions put about what the public sector is getting that the private sector is not, and all the other arguments that led to a toxic atmosphere, especially during the debates which took place at this time last year about what needed to be done.

I do not wish to diminish the necessity for reform in the public service because it clearly exists and has been demonstrated. The OECD report in 2008 gave us a lot to chew on regarding various steps that needed to be taken. There were a number of positive points in that report regarding the Irish public service. It pointed out the progress that had been made in areas that required reform, going back to the 1990s, if I am not mistaken. One of the report’s highlighted conclusions - I speak from memory - was that while many of the reforms were internal and process-led there was a need to look outwards and have a much more citizen or customer focused approach in the public service. I absolutely agree with that. Nobody could disagree with it. It is essential and will affect people. It may mean there will be fewer public servants; it will certainly require more flexibility and transferability across services. It may require or call for fewer agencies in order that core services can be reintegrated and provided within the public service. There are all kinds of changes that will impact on individual members of the public service. That is the case and it would be wrong for anybody in this House or anywhere else to think that public servants are not aware change is needed and is coming.

As a politician going about one’s daily work around the constituency and going to meetings, one meets many people from both sectors. The most discerning - I hesitate to say intelligent because that implies looking down on others - and thoughtful people in the public and private sectors can see the value of and necessity for both sectors. One talks to private sector workers who may be in business. They require services such as public transport and child care for their workers and health services as part of the make up of any modern economy. They recognise the importance of a vibrant and proper public service because they need it, as do their staff and their families. Equally, people in the public service will say, “We know we are nothing without the private sector. We can’t self-fund. If there isn’t a dynamic economy and private sector there is no money to fund the public service”.

These points sound basic and are almost truisms but sometimes we must remind ourselves of them. People understand the story. They know change is necessary. There is a problem and I refer to the Minister’s speech.
I realise we are having this debate in an atmosphere where people are committed to progressing the issue rather than looking backwards.

One of the advantages of the Croke Park agreement is that we move a step forward from those speeches on the need for reform, and all the stuff about the “fat cats”. People say they have no problem with those in the frontline, the nurses, gardaí, prison officers etc. that are needed. However, it is that other block of people that are invoked in their thousands as wasters or for low productivity which is the problem. I should like to see somewhat more specificity in this. Who are these people and where are they? How come Governments of all hues have not been able to find them in 20 or 25 years? What are they all doing, and where have those people on their big salaries who do nothing, been hiding?

It is not as simple as that, to simply shunt those people out because there is deadwood around the place for all these years. It is not like that at all. The way people’s talents are used or marshalled, the manner in which they are involved in their work and sometimes the fact that people need to be encouraged to work harder are all issues that have to be addressed. It is something of a slog, really. One has to ask, how we are going to change this office or agency; who is going to work differently next week and how we are going to manage this better. One has to go through it, almost, line by line, office by office, service by service and so forth.

If it is a big area that is believed not to be needed at all, that is easy to resolve, but I do not believe there are many examples such as that, at this stage. We are down to nitty-gritty stuff in the individual Departments and agencies. The advantage of the Croke Park agreement is that it opens up the possibility for the heavy lifting to be done, finally. Let’s move away from the rhetoric about the need for reform, the “fat cats” and low productivity. Let us have it out now and put it up to everyone involved including the public service unions. Let us see where and how this can be done in the best interests of the country, public and private.

Public sector workers are voters as well. They have an entitlement to be involved in public debate and public discourse. No election is about who will stand up to the public service or public sector workers. That is a gross simplification and it is not about that. No election is, or should be, about that. It will be about many of the issues he talked about. There should be issues in the election, but please do not characterise it in terms of who will take on those people who, apparently, are single-handedly holding the country back. That is no way to look at this.

I remind the House that when the Croke Park agreement was first published, my party leader welcomed and commended those involved in putting it together, and said it would be a matter for the members of each of the unions to consider the proposals and vote on them in accordance with their respective democratic procedures. That was exactly how the Minister of State put it in his speech today, where he said that he urged public servants to decide on the agreement on its merits, precisely the view the Labour Party took.

In relation to public service workers and public sector staff, as a politician and citizen I believe most of them I know really believe in the work they are doing and want to have a stake in the future of the organisations they work for. Another advantage of the Croke Park agreement is that it invites workers to be part of the process for change. No change is ever really truly successful if it is imposed. Everybody understands that at times there is need for a “carrot and stick” approach, but there cannot be a dynamic of change across a whole sophisticated public service if this is imposed, in some way, or done as a threat. One must involve and have onside the people who are going to do the work, perhaps in a different and more productive way, or whatever.

People have a stake in the Government agency, Department or public sector organisation they work in, as well as in their country. As I heard the Minister of State’s speech and looked through it very carefully, as I do again, I see it is replete with references to what is now going to happen or what will happen. The word “shortly” appears half a dozen times. I believe the Minister of State, or at least the Government, owes the House an explanation as to why it has taken six months for anything to do with this agreement to happen at all. I acknowledge that the implementation body was set up, but the individual action plans appear to only have been activated within the last couple of weeks. In fact, the Minister of State expressed his disappointment that various Departments had missed their deadlines and so on, but had now met them. It is a very good thing they have, so that the process may actually start.

However, why has it taken six months? If it has taken six months to set up the basic mechanisms for this, are we not entitled to be concerned as regards how much longer it will take for the substance of the agreement to be addressed?