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Yes, €292k for a civil servant is an outrage

As you may have heard, the new Secretary General of the Department of Health is to receive an annual salary of €292,000. This represents an increase of 40% from the previous salary for the position, which was a mere €211,000.

The Government’s position is that the sum is necessary. If you pay peanuts, you get monkeys, after all, goes the argument. Minister McGrath, whose job it is to deal with things like public sector pay, told the Oireachtas yesterday that the salary offered was “commensurate with the scale of the responsibilities and the unique challenges attached to this role, not least at the current time”.

There’s one major problem with that analysis, however, and it’s this: The position being advertised is not a policymaking position, but an administrative one. Normally, major executive roles come with decision-making responsibility. But that’s simply not true, is it, of a role as a Department Secretary General? Government Departments already have a chief executive officer making the big policy calls: The Minister, in this case, of Health.

There’s a reason, after all, that the position is called Secretary General. The person who gets this job has two sets of responsibilities: To manage the personnel in the department; and to lead them in the implementation of Government policy, whatever that policy might be.

This distinction seems to have completely escaped the Government, when deciding on the salary for the role.

The other thing about this job, incidentally, is that it comes with no accountability, or risk, whatever. If the Department of Health fails, the Secretary General does not carry the political can. In fact, what usually happens is that the Minister for Health, who’s actually paid less, is the one who takes the blame and public opprobrium when things go wrong, as they inevitably do in health.

So how does this role, with no political accountability, or policy making powers, compare with other jobs? Peadar Tóibín sent out a press release on it yesterday, which is worth quoting from:

“The Secretary of Health in the USA is paid less than €200,000 a year. The British Prime Minister receives a salary of just over £150,000. The Director General of the World Health Organisation earns less than €200,000. Yet FF and FG think its good enough to pay a senior civil servant in Ireland a salary of €290,000 at this time”.

All of the above jobs, of course, meet the criteria we mentioned above, which this job doesn’t: They’re policy making positions, where the person holding them is tasked with taking hugely significant policy decisions, affecting millions of people. They’re accountable, too: If you’re in any of those jobs that the Aontú leader mentions, and you make a mess of it, then people will blame you, not somebody else.

This is, as the headline above mentions, an outrage.

It is not simply an outrage on the basis that the salary is excessive, though. It’s also an outrage because of what it says about political decision making in Ireland over the past number of years. If we take the Government at its word, then the purpose of such a lofty salary for a position like this is so that they can hire a capable administrator who can manage a critical department. But isn’t that fundamentally at odds with recent Ministerial appointments to the health department?

The last two Ministers have had basically no management experience whatever. Simon Harris was barely thirty years of age when he was put in charge. The present Minister, as far as we know, has never managed a large department either. In both of their cases, it was their first senior Ministerial job. Rather than taking somebody who had experience in leading a smaller, less important Department, and asking them to step up, all of our three most recent Taoisigh have thrown inexperienced Ministers in at the deep end and asked them to run an organisation larger than NASA.

And now, after all that, the department is apparently so poorly run that only by offering somebody Ryan Tubridy-esque wages can we find somebody to manage the day to day administrative tasks that come with running a Government healthcare system.

That’s an admission of failure, to put it mildly.

If the person willing to do the job for €292,000 is that good to begin with, wouldn’t it be better for the country just to appoint them to the Seanad, and make them Minister for Health as well? After all, if they’re qualified to run the department, then at that price we may as well get them to make the policy decisions too.

And at this kind of wage, they’ll probably come with actual relevant experience – which is more than we can say for Mr. Donnelly, or Mr. Harris before him.


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