Speech by Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Mr. Brendan Howlin, T.D. at the IPA/Office of the Ombudsman Conference Friday, 7 November 2014

Issued 7 November 2014

MPER Brendan Howlin IPA at 'Held to Account' Conference 2014

Speech by Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Mr. Brendan Howlin, T.D., at the IPA/Office of the Ombudsman Conference,

‘Held to Account: Responsibility and Accountability in the Public Service’ Friday, 7 November, 2014


It is a great pleasure to be here this morning. I congratulate the IPA and the Office of the Ombudsman on sponsoring this conference. In doing so, they present us with the fundamental and intertwined issues of accountability and responsibility in the Public Service. These are both sides of the same coin – to be accountable for actions one must be responsible for them, and vice versa. As a T.D. and member of the Government, I am ultimately responsible and accountable to the citizen. I have to re-apply for my job every 4-5 years with the electorate being the toughest of interview boards. This provides me with the legitimacy required to do my job, and gives me the impetus to continuously seek to improve our economic and social environment.

I was struck some years back by a commentator who was opining on a government policy document on the Public Service that had the words ‘citizen – centred’ as part of its title. This commentator said who else would the public service be focused on, and he seems amazed that this self-evident fact was presented as a new direction for the Public Service. The same might be said about responsibility and accountability in the Public Service. Of course systems of responsibility and accountability are and need to be in place in the Public Service, this is vital for any organisation, and employee. However, more is required of the Public Service because the impact of success or failure is felt by society at large, and not just the organisation. This is because strengthening accountability in the Civil and Public Service can contribute to the achievement of a much wider set of societal objectives. These include more effective and more efficient policy delivery, policy development and policy advice. This ultimately means better outcomes for citizens.

This is the overall goal for all public servants, and it is now articulated in the new vision for the Civil Service which is to provide a world-class service to the State and to the people of Ireland.

The Government’s objective is to ensure that the systems of accountability/responsibility are effective, robust, clear, and identifiable. It is important that we in the public service understand this quest for accountability, and that having robust and effective accountability systems are an essential characteristic of a high-performing and high-reputation organisation. This is the space we want to be in. Accountability is not a shackle that limits and confines and should never be a pathway to the ‘gotcha’ culture which focuses solely on mistakes and pays little attention to the learning available when things go wrong. Accountability supports and reinforces the already deep-rooted public service ethos of independence, integrity, impartiality, equality, fairness and respect. It will enhance our capacity to work effectively as well as assist us in meeting the public’s expectation of its public service.

Independent Panel on Strengthening Civil Service Accountability and Performance/Civil Service Renewal Plan

These were some of the reasons why back in January I established an Independent Panel on Strengthening Civil Service Accountability, chaired by Professor Kevin Rafter who is also contributing to this morning’s discussion. The Independent Panel were tasked with managing and overseeing a public consultation process, which began with a consultation paper from my Department, and with making recommendations for action to strengthen civil service accountability and performance. The Independent Panel’s excellent report was crucial in the development of the new Civil Service Renewal Plan which I and the Taoiseach launched last week. I am pleased to say that the underlying focus of the Independent Panel’s report to strengthen public trust in our administrative system and to ensure faster and more responsive policy delivery is contained in the Renewal Plan. In addition to the Panel’s report, the Renewal Plan was also informed by the work of the Civil Service Renewal Taskforce, a group of senior civil servants overseen by Secretaries General.

Trust and confidence in our public administration is not something we can take for granted. As highlighted by the IPA’s paper on Public Sector Trends earlier this year, while citizens’ level of satisfaction with public services varies significantly by sector, trust and confidence in public services remains low overall. More encouragingly this Paper also highlights that the quality of Ireland’s public administration is slightly above average for the European Union.

The Renewal Plan is part of the Government’s commitment to restoring that trust. This Plan will create a continuously improving Civil Service that can evolve and adapt to social, political, environmental and economic changes. It is important for us to remember that the performance and reputation of our public institutions is a critical factor contributing to Ireland’s competitiveness as well as the attractiveness of its business environment for investment and employment creation.

The Renewal Plan sets out clear steps to ensure that the Civil Service has the capability and capacity to perform at the highest level.

It focuses on the issues set out in the Independent Panel’s recommendations, in particular to ensure that public know ‘who does what and to whom are they accountable’. This renewal strategy will be implemented over the next 3 years.

Its key themes are taking action to improve the level of professionalism in how the Civil Service operates; to improve how the Civil Service is geared up to respond to ever increasing demands; to ensure the Civil Service openly engages and accounts for what it does; and to ensure that the Civil Service works in a better collective way. These key themes will be underpinned by a focus on ensuring delivery of the Plan so that real improvements are achieved for the people and the State.

Under the Plan, we will establish new structures to ensure greater focus on performance and accountability at the highest levels, through the new Civil Service Accountability Board, the Civil Service Management Board and the first performance review process for Secretaries General. The Accountability Board, chaired by the Taoiseach, will strengthen accountability and performance across the Civil Service by introducing greater oversight and delivery.

It will focus on and provide oversight of the implementation of key cross-cutting priorities, and the capacity and capability of the Civil Service to deliver including performance management of Secretaries General. As highlighted by the Independent Panel, this will introduce greater rigour to Civil Service accountability and performance, and crucially having external oversight will offer a greater degree of public assurance. I believe that this is a very substantial development which is intended to assist in strengthening public trust in the administrative system

Implementation of the Renewal Plan will be managed by the new Civil Service Management Board of Secretaries General, chaired by the Secretary General to the Government. Indeed for what I believe is the first time ever, each of the Secretaries General signed the Renewal Plan. These signatures at the beginning of the Plan are a strong signal of ownership, intent, and accountability. This Board of Secretaries General is holding its first meeting today. We will see collective management at the most senior levels in the system.

These are important new structures which will give assurance to the public and the Government and civil servants themselves that things are being done in the right way and objectives are being met.

In addition, the Renewal Plan will strengthen capacity in important areas such as HR, project management and policy development. It will improve how we manage our people and their performance to ensure that good performance is rewarded and poor performance is dealt with properly. It will also mean better engagement with staff and use of their experience and insights.

There will be new recruitment competitions to enhance our skills base and to ensure that we get the right people in the right posts. We will also manage our talent better to ensure that civil servants can continue to grow and develop, and to ensure that they have the opportunity to maximise their contribution.

We will share information better across Departments and Offices to improve how different parts of the Civil Service work together for their customers, regardless of organisational boundaries.

And we will standardise governance, strengthen strategic planning and review organisational performance to ensure that Departments and Office are fit-for-purpose and delivering on their commitments to both staff and customers.

All of these elements combine to bring about a strengthening of accountability, a higher performing organisation, and therefore better outcomes of citizens.

Public Service Reform

Civil Service Renewal is a core strand of the Government’s wider Public Service Reform Programme, which itself has been, and will continue to be, and important part of our strategy for recovery. The Government’s first Public Service Reform Plan was published in November, 2011.

This provided the basis for the most significant programme of reform since the foundation of the State.

Since then, good progress has been made in terms of

  • · reducing costs;
  • · improving productivity;
  • · more online delivery of services;
  • · development of shared services; and
  • · putting in place the structures to reform public procurement and property asset management to name just some areas.

We have now embarked on a renewed wave of reforms, as set out in the Government’s new Public Service Reform Plan 2014-2016, published in January this year. It outlines the key cross-cutting and sectoral reform initiatives that will be implemented over the next three years, as well as addressing our broader ambition for reform towards 2020.

As the first phase of the Public Service reform programme was devised against the backdrop of the fiscal crisis, it was necessarily focused on ways to consolidate and reduce costs, take out duplication and waste, and improve expenditure controls.

As we reach a more sustainable fiscal position, this next phase of reform has the ambitious goal of a Public Service that will have positive outcomes for all stakeholders, including citizens, businesses and public servants themselves.

The key priorities of the new Reform Plan are:

  • · the use of alternative models of service delivery and better engagement with customers;
  • · making maximum use of digitalisation and open data to deliver services and information in innovative ways;
  • · utilisation of the ‘reform dividend’ to support service improvements; and
  • · greater openness, transparency and accountability.

Reform of the Public Service has also sought to bring greater levels of openness, transparency and accountability to the planning and delivery of public services.

This includes a series of reforms to the budgetary process to ensure better oversight in allocating and spending public money. It also includes the implementation of a series of political and legislative reforms, including in the areas of

  • the Ombudsman’s powers,
  • Oireachtas inquiries,
  • protection of whistleblowers,
  • ethics in public office,
  • Ireland’s participation in the Open Government Partnership, and
  • more recently Freedom of Information - which effectively reverses the restrictions to FOI introduced in 2003 and extends FOI to all public bodies.

I am also bringing the Registration of Lobbying Bill through the Houses at the moment so that we can see ‘who is contacting whom about what’.

Indeed, as Peter Tyndall will know, the Ombudsman (Amendment) Act 2012 was one of the first pieces of legislation on Government reform enacted after I became Minister in 2011.

It represents the most substantial extension in both the powers of the Ombudsman and the Ombudsman’s remit in over three decades significantly enhancing the accountability of public bodies to citizens. The major expansion in access to members of the public to the Ombudsman has further strengthened the standing of citizens in their dealing with public bodies. It ensures that fair treatment is always provided, as well as improving the quality of decision-making and increasing accountability. The Act strengthened the Ombudsman’s powers in several important areas and also provided the legal framework to strengthen the relationship between the Ombudsman and the Oireachtas.

This broad suite of political and legislative reforms are not initiatives which easily grab the public imagination but they lay the foundations for delivering open, accountable and ethical public governance arrangements in Ireland for both Government, the wider political system, and the public service. I want to continue to strengthen our democracy which has served us well since 1922.

As we approach the suite of centenary celebrations I want to strengthen citizens’ trust in Government and in the institutions of the State and to encourage more citizen participation in decision making.


Our focus in recent years has been on addressing the considerable challenges of restoring the public finances, managing within constraints and maintaining public services. The Public Service and public servants themselves have played a key role in managing these very difficult challenges. Enormous change has occurred in that difficult period, some of which was borne out of dire necessity. Now we need to ensure that our Public Service organisations and public servants are given the right tools and supports to meet the challenges ahead, and in doing so their performance and accountability is strengthened.

This brings to mind a piece of advice offered by George Bernard Shaw – ‘We are made wise not by the recollection of our past, but by the responsibility for our future.’

Our responsibility for the future as public servants is to restore the trust and confidence of citizens in the Public Service, ensure faster and more responsive policy delivery, and in doing so strengthen our accountability.