Address by Mr. Brendan Howlin, T.D.,
Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform
2011 MacGill Forum
on Wednesday, 14 December, 2011
Thank you for inviting me here today. I am delighted to have the opportunity to meet with you, particularly as I believe that fora such as this are highly valuable for stimulating debate and generating fresh ideas on how to address the challenges that face Irish society.
From day one, this Government has demonstrated that it is serious about the reforms necessary to meet those challenges. Equally, however, we are conscious that there is much work ahead of us on a range of fronts.
Today, I want to address two key priority areas for the Government – Political Reform and Public Service Reform.
The economic crisis of the past 3 years has been bitter indeed. But if this crisis has one great benefit it is that it has engaged ordinary people with the business of politics and the activities of the State. We have always been a nation obsessed with politics but never before have people been so familiar with budgetary figures, with banking and economic terms. Never before have EU Commissioners and officials from the IMF been household names. While certainly borne out of crisis, I want to harness that awareness and that engagement of our citizens in a positive way, to help us to transform our thinking on our constitutional arrangements, our parliamentary system and our interaction with citizens on every level. The actions we take now will enable us to go forward with confidence.
So let us take this opportunity to learn collectively from past mistakes and to improve:
- how we handle our economic challenges;
- how we govern ourselves;
- how we as a Government engage with citizens; and
- how we ensure that there is greater answerability at all levels in our society.
We have an opportunity to scope out a new vision of how we wish to be governed.
It is important to recognise what is good in our current system and to value the institutional and legal framework that has served us well for nearly 90 years. But some areas are crying out for change. The Programme for Government sets out a range of major reforms to the Constitution and the political system to help us to better conduct the business of government to meet the challenges of the
21st Century. The establishment earlier this year of the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform serves to reinforce the political and economic importance attached to delivering on this broad reform agenda.
Two referenda have already been put to the people. The referendum in relation to the inquiry powers of the Oireachtas was not accepted by the people. While there are many reasons for the rejection of a proposed amendment, those of us who are part of the political system must consider whether increasing lack of trust in the political system is one such factor. This is a message that must not be lost in the desire to implement future change. There are risks for our democracy if the business of politics continues to be viewed with skepticism. Politicians of all hues will have to reflect on how this trust has diminished to the extent that it has and how we can rebuild it.
The proposed Constitutional Convention may provide an opportunity to take a step along that road to rebuilding that trust. A key priority is to ensure that the process:
- is highly inclusive and achieves meaningful participation by ordinary members of the public;
- is a participative, informed, accessible and open public forum; and
- has a direct and meaningful involvement of the political parties represented in Dáil Éireann.
In this context, the Citizens’ Assembly model is an approach that is being carefully examined.
In parallel with constitutional review, I will be progressing legislative proposals to deal with whistleblowers rights, the regulation of lobbying activity and the reform of Freedom of Information legislation. I am also continuing to examine arrangements for protection of confidential information by citizens to Oireachtas members. Taken together, this body of work represents an opportunity to rewrite some of the old rules, to nurture more debate and to allow our citizens a greater insight into the business of Government.
Public Service Reform
Turning to Public Service Reform, the challenging fiscal position which we face means that far-reaching reform of the Public Service is essential in order to ensure it is customer-focused, leaner, more efficient, better integrated and delivering maximum value for money. That is why we have recently published an ambitious and action focused Public Service Reform Plan.
The Reform Plan contains some 70 recommendations and 200 actions and sets out five main areas. These are:
- Placing customer service at the core of everything we do;
- Maximising new and innovative service delivery channels;
- Radically reducing our costs to drive better value for money;
- Leading, Organising and Working in new ways; and
- Maintaining a strong focus on implementation and delivery.
Implementation of this Plan will ensure that we:
- Have a strong focus on the customer and make better use of technology to improve the customer experience;
- Implement a radical restructuring of how we manage our business by
establishing new ways of doing business such as shared services;
- Further reform procurement processes under the direct stewardship of
Minister Hayes and the National Procurement Service;
- Reform how we manage our property portfolio; and
- Reduce costs, address duplication and eliminate waste across the entire system.
In order to meet the challenge of delivering quality services with significantly reduced resources and staff numbers, the Public Service will focus on supporting citizens and businesses where and when they need it most, making the interaction with the State as simple and seamless as possible and improving the customer’s experience in engaging with Government. The Government is determined to protect frontline services and that is precisely why we are pursuing such an ambitious programme of reform. The reality is that without urgent and meaningful reform, frontline services will suffer.
The planned reduction in Public Service numbers – a further 23,500 from end 2010 to end 2015 – will necessarily mean that things will have to change. Next year alone, we expect a further reduction of 6,000 staff, which will leave the total number of staff at a level last seen in 2005. Through reduced numbers, the pay cuts that were applied in 2010 and through the ongoing pension related deduction, the overall cost of paying public servants will fall by €3.5 billion or 20% over the 7 year period from 2008 to 2015.
In light of these reductions, we will need to organise and manage the Public Service differently and in some cases we will need to deliver services in a different way to reflect the evolving needs of our citizens. As I have said previously, we have no choice but to change and I believe that the Croke Park Agreement will be a key enabler in this regard.
As you will be aware, we have also announced the Government’s plan to overhaul Ireland’s old-fashioned budget system which has so clearly failed to deliver sustainable spending policies, proper value for money or good outcomes for our citizens. The sometimes short-sighted traditional annual estimates cycle is being replaced by a more dynamic multi-annual expenditure framework which will provide greater transparency about the allocations available to each Department over a three year period. This new framework and a number of related reforms announced last week will enable responsible structural planning based on priorities and the need for ongoing reform with full public input and Oireachtas oversight.
These are all significant changes and, as a result, we need a strong focus on the implementation of the Public Service Reform Plan. That is why I have established a dedicated Reform and Delivery Office within my Department to lead and co-ordinate the implementation of the Reform Plan. This Office is being led by a new Programme Director with experience of leading major change in the private sector. We are also putting in place the necessary governance and reporting arrangements to ensure a strong focus on delivery of both cross-cutting and organisation / sector specific reforms.
In concluding, let me say thatIrelandhas a long and proud tradition of service to the public and the State. Yes, we need to reform but I firmly believe that this tradition provides a very strong foundation for our national recovery. Of course, every single one of us has a role to play in that recovery. To this end, I wish you well in the rest of your deliberations and look forward to hearing about the outcome of the Forum.