Credit: D Storan

The Holohan mess shows: It is time to make civil servants sackable

Who governs Ireland?

That question used to be relatively straightforward and easy to answer. You would point to the Taoiseach and his cabinet, and say “these people have been elected by the public to make the decisions”. In theory, it is a good system. We elect politicians, they make the big decisions, and when we do not like those decisions, we as voters simply replace the politicians with a different lot who promise to do things differently.

But who do you vote out of office if you are appalled by the Tony Holohan fiasco?

After all, it is now beyond doubt that the Minister for Health, Stephen Donnelly, knew nothing about the arrangement. His senior civil servants didn’t deign to tell him about it, leaving him to face the public discontent over it with his pants down, and his face red. The Minister has been humiliated in front of the public, and his political colleagues. The latter, knowing politicians, will cause him more immediate distress.

Politicians differ from civil servants in a number of ways. The biggest and most important way is this: Politicians can be sacked for incompetence. Civil servants cannot. When a politician mucks up, they will (often) get the sack. When a civil servant mucks up, a politician will (often) get the sack.

The corollary to this is supposed to be that when civil servants do things right, politicians get the credit. But that’s gone out the window, too: To the extent that Ireland’s pandemic response is (questionably) considered to have been a success, it is Dr. Holohan who took all the credit, not the politicians, who were reduced to ventriloquist’s dummies for the council of experts we christened NPHET.

But why shouldn’t civil servants be accountable? The idea has always been that if you gave Ministers, for example, the power to sack civil servants, then they would simply do so all the time, to deflect blame from themselves. A scandal, you say? Not my fault – it was my officials, and I have now sacked the people responsible.

But what would be so wrong with that? A minister who was always sacking his officials would not last long before being seen through by the media, and the public, alike. And in the meantime, we ask politicians to take control of the operations of the state, but do not grant them one of the most obvious tools needed to replace roadblocks in the system.

Consider that every so often in Ireland, we have a conversation which starts with somebody saying something like “we should get Michael O’Leary to run the department of health, somebody with private sector experience would sort out the mess”. Well, sorry – no he wouldn’t. Because in the private sector, if an experienced figure like O’Leary entered a struggling organisation, the first thing he would likely do would be to identify failing departments and replace their management. In public office, he couldn’t do that – he would be stuck with the same failing civil servants who have been running the thing into the ground for years.

Consider the case of Robert Watt – one of the best remunerated people in Irish public life. In this instance, he appears to have had a very large hand in arranging and sanctioning an appointment for Tony Holohan which would have carried considerable cost to the taxpayer. At the same time, it is not immediately clear that his efforts to improve the Department of Health have worked out in any way.

The fact that civil servants are effectively unsackable is not some brilliant Irish innovation. It is simply a relic of the British system which we inherited. It is not some kind of universal principle – in the US, for example, civil servants certainly are sackable. As they are in other countries.

So why shouldn’t Stephen Donnelly have the power to say to Robert Watt, or others responsible for this fiasco, in the immortal words of a former American President, “you’re fired”?

One of the cultural problems in the country has always been the sense amongst Ireland’s ruling class that they are kind of an untouchable elite. That, once you’re a made man, you’re safe. And that no matter what you do, or what mess you make, your fate is assured: retirement with a gold-plated pension, and a membership in the Merrion Golf Club. Oh, and maybe the occasional gig chairing a citizen’s assembly. Or, better yet, an independent enquiry into something, where you will do your duty, and take your time, and conclude that “mistakes were made” and “lessons must be learned”.

I would argue that the single most potent political reform we could introduce in Ireland would be to take this away. There is no good reason why public servants should not be sackable on the grounds of incompetence, or under-performance. The fact that they are not is probably the single biggest reason for systemic public service failure. School headmasters should be able to dismiss teachers who persistently underperform. County Councils should be able to dismiss county managers who do not deliver. And Ministers should be able to sack their senior civil servants, and appoint new ones.

If such a system existed, one consequence might be that people were less likely to do things like arranging a comfortable sinecure for Dr. Holohan. And politicians would have many fewer excuses for the failure of their departments.

It will not happen, of course, because there would immediately be massive public sector strikes. They know, those public sector unions, just how valuable that unsackable status is. Which is precisely why it should go. In a referendum, if necessary.

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