Opportunity comes knocking

29 Jan 2004

Charlie McCreevy’s decision to move 10,000 civil servants out of Dublin has been variously described as a stroke, a stunt or even just plain vandalism. Whatever your opinion, there can be absolutely no doubt that it will have a profound impact throughout the public service. And, for communities and commerce in the 50 or so towns around the country, it can only be good news as they face the prospect of real sustainable money flowing through local economies and property values reflecting the higher demand from the newly displaced.

Some of the more cynical among us would contend that it will do no harm at all for the government parties in the forthcoming local and European parliamentary elections. How could they possibly think such a thing? Shame on them!

Whatever McCreevy’s motivation, there’s certainly no denying that it’ll take some time for a lot of folk affected to come to terms with it. But whatever camp you happen to find yourself in, one thing is certain — this is a once-in-history opportunity to totally rewrite the script. This is a chance for the powers that be to start with a bright new page and do something bold, imaginative and innovative with our old model public service that has evolved over many decades as governments came to terms with the changing demands of a growing economy and society.

To be fair, our bureaucracy or collection of bureaucracies is not the biggest in the world. Nor is it the most inefficient by a long chalk. But that doesn’t mean the opportunity should be lost. In fact, the size and complexity of what we’ve got is not that daunting when compared to others around. Some countries have thousands of local authorities. Denmark, for instance, has something like 2,000. You can just imagine the difficulties in trying to tackle a large-scale reform of Denmark’s public service.

Coming at any time such a disruptive event as decentralisation can represent a profound shock to the bureaucratic system. Coming, as this does, after 10 years of modernisation — a process that has meant a lot of focus on the way public servants work, measuring what they are doing and talking about private sector notions of customer service — decentralisation runs like a coach-and-four through all of that and brings everything back to basics.

For the e-government promoters, decentralisation has hastened the moment of truth because technology seems to be the one thing that will make decentralisation possible. Technology can cope with maintaining the complex networks of practice required in delivering public services — the virtuality that will be required when the public service has to think and act like a single enterprise.

That being said, the real opportunity lies in the total disruption that this huge operation presents — the chance to really innovate — the opportunity for the public service to look deeply at who it is serving, what services it is delivering and at how and with what structures it is delivering these services.

In terms of the public service client base, is there sufficient awareness across government departments, local authorities, health boards and all the other layers of bureaucracy that they are all serving the same citizen in a lot of cases? Does the concept of citizen centricity not mean that they should be working closer together to get a more rounded view of those who get services and of those who pay for them — the taxpayer? Are the existing structures, both central and local, the right ones to deal with this changed perspective?

Looking at the service product, is the current approach the best way to maximise impact? For instance, for those who get state assistance to cope with economic or social disadvantage, is there a different or more effective form of assistance that can treat the cause rather than the symptoms? Is it right to have a number of public servants traipsing around looking at people’s predicaments from an individual agency perspective? Indeed, is the traditional way of helping people the best way to make them self-sufficient? Would it be possible to look again at what the State does for people to promote their sense of responsibility to themselves and others, and then to help them to help themselves? In other words, is it time to look closely at the service product and see if it is possible to make a new and far more potent service offering that can yield better returns on taxpayers’ investments?

Finally, is the method of delivery the best in this new era of technology and connectivity readily available self-service mechanisms and easy access to sources of relevant information? Would it be better to look again at the layers of administration laid down in other eras where communication was not what it is today?

The dilemma facing the public service and political leaders is how to maintain momentum and do it right. One of the problems of simply moving legions of officials to new centres is that they may well be making permanent what are ineffective and inefficient structures. No town that becomes host to one of the decentralised departments will look kindly on attempts to subsequently close them down (just look at the Nenagh hospitals of this world). But to delay the process until the design is right will put the whole enterprise in serious jeopardy.

The sensible thing may be to do a bit of both. Clearly there are several offices that are relatively self-contained and can be easily transferred within the three-year timeframe. And there are some obvious candidates for amalgamation in shared services centres. But there may also be a good case to set up a separate and parallel mechanism to look at the three areas mentioned above to try to ensure that the golden opportunity is not lost — client case, service product and delivery mechanisms. These are the three areas that can form the basis of an innovation strategy. And an innovation strategy has not yet been mentioned in the decentralisation debate.

By Syl O’Connor