April 9, 2006

The State should do the public some more service

Posted in Irish Independent ·
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Have you ever looked for a government service in the phone book?

Let�s try. Childcare – now there�s a hot topic.

The government talks about it a lot. Last year�s budget made a big splash about it.

Many also suggest that the next general election will be fought on the issue of childcare, particularly, in the burgeoning suburbs of Headford, Ballincollig and Naas. So surely the State should be falling over itself to make information on childcare readily available. Let�s check out the old reliable – the phone book.

Page 592 of this year�s phone book lists �Government services�. That would seem like a good place to start. Try as you might, you won�t find anything obvious about childcare.

Let�s try the more consumer-friendly Golden Pages. Everyone who is selling anything advertises there, right? Again, under childcare, there is no mention of any State services, and, under State services, there is no mention of childcare.

Why does the State make it so difficult to find out basic information about what is available? It is not that it is hiding anything; it is just not making it easy for the citizen or consumer to find out information.

The listing for government services tells you the numbers of the departments and various sub-departments. It is up to you to try your luck, search for the right person in the right office, be put on hold for ages and eventually you might get the information.

Wouldn�t it be so much easier if the State carried a listing in the phone book or the Golden Pages saying �Looking for childcare? Here�s where to go�?

A little change like this would save hassle, boost our confidence in dealing with the authorities and positively change many voters� perceptions of the public service as a basket case, pampered by benchmarking and job security.

Unfortunately, it appears that the public service is still stuck in the producer rather than the consumer mentality. It has not realised that times have changed and the role of the State, particularly where it is providing services like childcare, is that of a salesman. The citizens are now consumers and need to be treated as such.

In the old days, the role of the State was to direct and organise society. It was all-powerful and it did the citizens of this country a great service. In the first 70 years since independence, the role of the State was as a producer. All policies were geared towards the interests of the producer, whether it was farmers, airline workers or gardai.

The object was to raise incomes and living standards for the producers either internationally via the Common Agricultural Policy and the EU or internally by offering secure employment for thousands.

But the world has changed and globalisation has ensured that the consumer rather than the producer is king. This means that the State, while maybe not competing with the private sector in every area, is competing against a consumer mindset, where our expectations of service have been heightened immeasurably over the past few years.

Our tolerance levels for shoddy service are considerably lower than they were.

This implies that the public service has to change its mindset too. It has to decide whose side is it on. Is it on the consumer/citizen side or the producer/vested interested side?

At the moment, its inability to decide is a huge obstacle, for it compromises the State�s ability to deliver on these �little things�, such as easy access to child care information.

Failure to do the small things right, not only erodes our confidence in its ability to do the �big things� but increases antagonism between the public and private sectors, between state employees and tax payers and between voters and the political system.

You might ask whether this matters.

Does anyone care if we lose faith in the public service? After all, it is the private sector that runs the show these days, it creates the wealth and drives the economy and society forward.

Who cares about the public realm, when there are full employment, second houses, 100 per cent interest-only mortgages and a Debenhams in every small town?

Well, we should care. The public sector is essential for the running of the place and an efficient and happy public sector is crucial for all of us.

Think about schools, hospitals,10 per cent corporation tax, 20 per cent capital gains tax or the gardai. Consider air traffic controllers, ambulance drivers, special-needs teachers and geriatric nurses. We couldn�t function without them, and they are as essential to our society as IT professionals, marketing managers, bank lenders and main-street retailers. After all who taught us to read and write, count and spell?

So while change in the public sector is essential, it is not our job to make the public sector change. Change in the public sector can only come from within and can only come with serious leadership.

Here is the rub. It seems that the Irish public and semi-state sector has not quite decided yet whether it is on the side of the consumer or on the side of the producer.

A great example of this is the proposed sale of Aer Lingus this week. The state and employees (the producers) are to keep half – or at bit less – and the other half is to be bought by the citizens (the consumers).

Who wants to buy half an airline?

What is this codology about? Either the airline is private or it is public, but a bit of both is bonkers. In whose interest is this sale: we the consumers who use and pay for Aer Lingus, or the vested interests of the trade unionists inside the company and the investment bankers outside it who will make a fortune on commissions from floating the airline?

Ironically, the �producers� in this deal represent two vested interests who claim to be at polar ends of the ideological spectrum – stockbrokers and Siptu officials.

This goes to prove that if the pill is sweet enough, anyone will swallow it. The upshot is a bad deal for consumers and ultimately shareholders – who are drawn from the great unwashed aspirant consumer class (by the way, the real winner of this carry-on will be Ryanair).

This example shows just how muddled the thinking is within government. The crux of the problem is an inability to decide where the public sector stands.

In the years ahead, the euphemism �public sector reform� will really mean the public sector making this producer or that consumer choice. It needs real leadership to do this. There may be battles, strikes and recrimination.

The alternative is what we have seen in France last week. Behind all the pomp and ceremony, the government of the Fifth Republic is incapable of governing because it can�t take on the vested interests in the public sector.

The French public sector is a selfish producer-driven body, unable to change even in the face of 50 per cent youth unemployment. Is this what we want? The choice is ours and leaders of the public sector must now act. There�s more at stake than the presentation of childcare services in the phone book.


  1. Laura

    I think the uncertainty over the public sector is partially
    due to confusion over ideology, and partially due to a
    conflict between powerful vested interests and those who
    want change.

    If people want good services then somebody has to pay for
    it – which either means you pay more tax to subsidise to
    make cheap or free for some or all, or you charge more to
    those who can afford it – or spread amongst users.

    Unfortunately the benchmarking exercise has so much
    divorced the public sector workforce from the idea of
    performance related pay as it happens in the real world of
    compeitition that it will be impossible to get value for
    money from this sector. The end result will be cutbacks
    for end users, huge rises in end user costs, further
    degradation of services. What will probably end up
    happening is wholescale outsourcing of services to the
    private sector who will probably do no better, but make
    money out of it, and gradually drain jobs away from the
    public sector. Eventually the number of jobs will be
    reduced, and with it the power of the bargaining groups, so
    that eventually the jobs will be forced to complete and in
    the long term vast savings will be imposed on the remaining
    workforce to compensate for overspends of the past. This
    will leave the workers demoralised and resentful, causing
    even more cuts and outsourcing.

  2. Mark

    311,the number you dial in new york city for information on
    ALL public (city)services, information, complaints, health,
    childcare, you name it, if the city provides it, 311 is who
    you call. it is manned 24 hours a day and after 2-3 years
    it is a huge success….maybe its time for the irish
    version “333″…after all our population is 1/2 nyc!

  3. Sam

    I agree with the thrust of the arguments made above, that
    the public sector needs to be customer focused and that
    promotion etc must be performance based (which apparently
    has become the case to a greater degree in recent years).

    I must object however to the general negative attitude
    about public sector workers that seems commonplace. Many
    public servants respect the fact that they are servants of
    the people and take pride in there work as a result. I
    know plenty of private sector workers who couldn’t care
    less about thier employer’s success. Also the better
    public servants would be delighted if there performance
    was rewarded properly.
    It is often said that the public sector get paid too much
    and have too generous pensions, but surely if we want an
    effiently run country we should be paying top civil
    servants well (based on performance based promotion) and
    not have parrott such a negative perseption of them, so in
    future some of our best and brightest will get involved in
    the running of the country.

  4. Brian

    Lets be perfectly honest here,the Government would replace
    all their public servants with foreign imports at entry
    level minimun wage if they thought they could get away with
    it.The private sector are already doing it,cheered on by the
    governing parties and their vested interest allies.We are
    not living in an economy that is recognizeable as such,we
    are living in a money laundry.Most governments protect their
    populations through good times and bad but recent statements
    from leading ministers indicates that they don’t know the
    difference.

  5. Billy Waters

    The state could not care less who you are or what you want
    to do. The public services do as little as they can get
    away with and there is no way of making them accountable for
    their neglect. If they can’t get away with it they
    outsource it to a consulting company who then do what the
    public service was ssupposed to do but for five times the price.

    The government have no idea what the public services do and
    don’t want to fix it in case they ruffle some dinasours
    feathers and they might lose votes.

    Combined they couldnt arrange two paper bags and for the
    luxury of their incompetence we pay for it by paying taxes
    that vanish in to black holes and with our lives on the
    roads and in the hospitals.

  6. ian

    David, in some areas i agree with you. I think a good
    public service is at the centre of a good society. I agree
    with the previous respsondent , in the fact that Irish
    people get into the public service be that teaching, the
    civil servie or the gardas. and wilt away. yes these people
    will say they work but do they. Dont tell a fifity year old
    teacher in ireland cares about what he is doing. he is
    clocking in his hours and going through the run of things.
    We have all experienced this type of teacher. lets be fair
    here these people need there jobs beacuse noone else would
    employ them

  7. Garry

    According to one of the newspapers today, the cabinet have
    to vote this week to sack a teacher who has been in jail
    for the last couple of years for manslaughter.

    Says it all really about how hard it is to get fired from
    the public service… Benchmarking, me bol…..!

  8. Garrett Mullan

    Heres .. improvements that in total would cost less than
    the consultants who did not deliver integrated ticketing

    - HSE Direct (AKA NHS Direct) a free phone number where you
    can ring health professional call centre for prognosis on
    illnesses (is it really worth going to A&E doc tell me /
    spare me)

    - Dublin Bus/ Bus Eireann/ Dart Free phone advice number as
    to location of buses and trains- as I wait in this isolated
    puddle out in the arse end of commuterville, could you
    please advice whether the driver came back from his smoke break

    The marvellous thing about these two proposals is that they
    require no change from anyone else. All they will deliver
    is information and that would benefit us all.

    - Carpool website considering there are no plans to improve
    public transport (yeah I have heard of T21)

  9. Fergal

    I think there is more to it than even the service provided
    in the public sector – parts of which run well (the school
    I went to), parts of which do not (the hospital I used to
    work in).

    There is, as has been noted, an attitude to the public
    sector worker that that person is somehow different to an
    employee in the private sector (of which I am now a part,
    having abandoned my public sector career).
    I don’t want to get into specifics, – the teacher in jail
    referred to above, the older lady in the admin staff in
    hospital who seemed to be employed for the sole purpose of
    watering the plants, we all know the stories.
    The attitude comes from the people themselves, and as the
    numbers of public sector employees grow, so does their
    influence on society.

    The elephant in the room is the Aer Lingus privatisation.
    Whether you agree with it or not is another debate, but
    assuming that it is going ahead, why are some public
    sector employees worthy of more reward than others? Tke
    the example of a cleaner with Aer Lingus, compare that
    with a cleaner in the health service. When Aer Lingus is
    sold, the cleaner will get ‘compensation’ from the state –
    that is you and me – and the cleaner in the health
    service. The cleaner in the health service gets nothing of
    course, and in our lifetimes, the health service is highly
    unlikely to ever be privatised. I only chose a cleaner as
    the job is comparable across all sectors, from travel to
    healthcare to private sector.

    Morally, I do not see a reason as to why the Aer Lingus
    cleaner is rewarded directly as a result of a sale of a
    state asset, while other citizens are not. Financially, I
    can see that a strike by Aer Lingus workers would result
    in losses to the state with a lower ultimate cost on sale.

    What these means is that the Aer Lingus public sector
    unions are holding the rest of us to ransom – and it seems
    to me that no-one is saying anything about it. If it is a
    financial reality, let’s acknowledge it and let it be
    known why the govt is prepared to reward one worker over
    another. If financial realities mean accepting blackmail,
    then so be it, but let’s not hide it.

  10. Ian

    “But the world has changed and globalisation has ensured
    that the consumer rather than the producer is king.”

    You weren’t thinking of Ryanair when you penned that
    sentence. What is more scary? A public monopoly or a
    private monopoly which is Ryanair’s ultimate goal?

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