C: Houses of the Oireachtas

Robert Watt: You bet I trousered that 81k pay rise.

Honestly now, who’d blame him?

Senior civil servant Robert Watt has confirmed he is in receipt of the full €294,920 salary for his job as secretary general of the Department of Health.

The confirmation comes amid increasing focus on whether or not he was still waiving an €81,000 pay increase he got when he was appointed to the role in April 2021.

Mr Watt said at the time of his appointment that he would waive the €81,000 increase “until the economy begins to recover and unemployment falls”.

A Department of Health spokeswoman said on Wednesday: “The secretary general has confirmed that he is in receipt of the full salary for his role.”

Let’s be completely honest here: Almost every last one of us, if offered €295k a year, would take it, and not think twice. Watt is a civil servant – he is not politically accountable, and you can’t vote him out. What does he care if there is bad publicity over what he is earning? The only people who will suffer – rightly enough – are the fool politicians who offered him the package to begin with. And, of course, if his pay gets them voted out of office, so what? They’ll be replaced by other politicians, who might find that spending their first few months in office cutting the pay of civil servants causes all of their other, more important, policies, to slow down a little bit.

Besides, most of us would (again, if we are honest) worry very little about what the Secretary General of the Department of Health earns if the Department of Health was delivering us the world class €20billion per year health service that we pay for. The problem is that it is not.

And all of this – all of it – is ultimately a political problem, not a civil service problem. The civil servants are the middle managers of public sector incompetence in Ireland, but the fact that they are allowed to get away with it is ultimately the responsibility of the politicians in charge.

The man in charge of health in Ireland at present is, of course, Stephen Donnelly – a man, don’t forget, with a master’s degree in public administration from Harvard University. He literally has an academic qualification in Government, from arguably the most famous and prestigious educational institution on the planet. If there is anybody in Ireland more academically qualified to run the enormous health service bureaucracy than Stephen Donnelly, then I’d very much like to hear their qualifications.

The problem is, of course, that administration by itself is meaningless. Unless the policy decisions are correct, you can have a perfectly administered health system that does not deliver for the public. Ireland does not have a perfectly administered system, but it also does not deliver for the public. And, in large part, that is because, in this country, we have constantly mistaken administration itself for delivery.

Robert Watt, for example, is not, and should not be, a policymaker. His official title sort of gives the game away on that: he is secretary general. Secretaries keep minutes, and make things run on time, and ensure that correspondence is responded to promptly. There is no evidence that in administrative terms, there is a big problem on those fronts in the Irish health service. Nor is there any evidence that the absence of Robert Watt, and his enormous salary, would much change that.

Which is why the politicians are in a bind here: They can’t really mount a defence of Watt’s salary on the basis of his skills, because that would amount to saying that he is delivering change to the system itself, which is not his job. Delivering change is Donnelly’s job.

The more credit Watt gets, the weaker Donnelly looks. So, Government is in the invidious position where it must simultaneously justify an exorbitant salary, and at the same time pretend that anything good which happens in the health service has little to do with the salary’s recipient.

And why would Watt care about any of that? He would not. And you would not. And I would not. They offered him the money, and he is entitled to it. Good luck to him.

The problem here is that the media and opposition seem intent on keeping the focus on Watt, and not on the man responsible, as his employer. Robert Watt does not need to justify his salary – Stephen Donnelly needs to justify Robert Watt’s salary.

What is Watt doing, exactly, that nobody else can? That’s not a question Donnelly appears able to answer. Which, for a man with a master’s degree in public administration, is a little troubling.

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