Wednesday, 3 December 2008
Dáil Eireann Debate
1. Deputy Enda Kenny asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the recent work of the committee in his Department that oversees the awarding of public relations contracts by Ministers; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [29495/08]
2. Deputy Eamon Gilmore asked the Taoiseach the work programme of the committee chaired by his Department which oversees the awarding of public relations contracts by Ministers; if the committee has issued new guidelines in view of the restrictions in such contracts announced in July 2008; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [38353/08]
3. Deputy Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin asked the Taoiseach if the committee to oversee the awarding of public relations contracts by Ministers is still operating; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [43734/08]
These questions relate to the findings of the Quigley report, which was published in 2005. That report highlighted the need for special care in cases where a proposed consultancy comprises an element of direct service to a Minister or Minister of State, particularly in the public relations or communications area, and-or where a Minister or a Minister of State suggests the name of a person or enterprise as being suitable.
As I outlined to the House previously, following publication of the Quigley report, additional procurement guidelines were approved by the Government and are published on my Department’s website. The guidelines were brought to the attention of all Secretaries General, who were asked to implement them and to bring them in future to the attention of all newly-appointed Ministers, and Ministers of State where relevant, in their Department or office.
The guidelines give the Secretary General to the Government and the Government secretariat a role in examining certain procurements. I should say, however, that there is no special committee in my Department to oversee the awarding of public relations contracts by Ministers. Any workload arising from the application of these additional procedures is handled within existing resources in the Government secretariat.
The restrictions on consultancies and public relations announced last July were aimed at reducing expenditure by Departments and they have no impact on the procurement procedures which must be followed by Departments. The question of issuing new guidelines in relation to the additional procedures prescribed following the Quigley report does not, therefore, arise.
Deputy Enda Kenny: Are any measures in place to evaluate the impact of public relations campaigns, advertising and consultancies awarded by Government? For instance, in June 2007 the National Centre for Partnership and Performance launched a major public awareness campaign which involved advertising through coverage on television, radio, Internet, outdoor, press and public relations. The campaign represented an unprecedented opportunity to raise public awareness about the national workplace strategy. Does the Taoiseach know the extent of the cost of that campaign? What sort of impact analysis was carried out following that programme?
Last week it came to light that 93% of the expenditure of €866,000 by FÁS on its 2005 science challenge, was spent on advertising, PR and promotional communications. Was that matter referred to Government in respect of the extent of expenditure for covering advertising and promotional communications? Is the Taoiseach happy with the apparent sole control of this being vested in one person? In other words, if we spend 93% of a budget of €866,000 on a science challenge, which is an important element of Government strategy and considered to be important in the light of young people getting involved in this area, who approves that funding?
Does the Taoiseach consider the recommendations of the Quigley report, produced in 2005, are important, including the recommendation which states that the Department of Finance should also consider giving advice on the monitoring and recording of work done under these contracts and their quality? Does that occur and did it occur in the case of the expenditure on the science challenge by FÁS?
The Taoiseach: In regard to what progress has been made in implementing the remainder of the recommendations contained in the Quigley report, the first point to make is that by immediately drawing up and issuing the additional guidelines, all recommendations relevant to my Department were implemented.
In regard to recommendations addressed to other Departments, I understand the position to be as follows. A Department of Finance subgroup, consisting of representatives from the Department of Finance and the Government’s contracts committee, carried out a review in accordance with the recommendations of the Quigley report regarding the engagement of consultants guidelines, consolidating various elements of previous guidelines and augmenting them, where appropriate. These were prepared, subsequently published and circulated.
The Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government procurement guidelines and practices in that Department were reviewed and a set of consolidated guidelines were made available to all staff. Revised procedures were put in place to strengthen monitoring and control of procurement and intensive briefing and refresher training was arranged for all staff engaged in procurement. Reference material on procurement was also published on the Department’s Internet website which made it readily available to all staff.
The OPW procurement procedures were reviewed within Dublin Castle and conference facility and public procurement best practice is applied to all procurement requirements. Within the broader OPW, a working group was established to review the procurement policies and procedures and make recommendations as to necessary changes. The report contained revised procurement guidelines for all OPW staff. They were embraced in best practice and ensure that the 2004 Department of Finance public procurement guidelines competitive process is fully implemented.
Regarding the Deputy’s question, the only matters brought to my attention if a Department proposes to engage PR consultants to advise it on issues, is where the Department proposes to engage such consultants — that fact has to be brought to my attention — where there is an element of direct service to a Minister, particularly a PR communications area, and the Minister has suggested the name of a person or enterprise as being suitable. If these criteria are not applicable, then there is no need for my approval or for their referral to the Government secretariat.
Regarding PR budgets within agencies, that is a matter for senior management, as these are operational matters within individual agencies. The guidelines that apply to public bodies are expected to be adhered to and the audit committee and others are the control mechanisms by which that is scrutinised.
Deputy Enda Kenny: Following on the Taoiseach’s reply, it is important that the work of State Departments and Ministers, in following through on implementing Government policy be made known to people and be made public in order that people can understand what the Government is about or supposed to be about. From that point of view, does the Taoiseach consider it is necessary for every Minister to have his or her own public relations contract, in other words, to promote the Minister individually or the Minister and Ministers of State? There is an army of press officers throughout the entire Government sector and each Department has its own press officer and so on who have, I assume, a duty and responsibility to spell out the work of the Department and, therefore, the work of the Minister.
If the Taoiseach is talking about cutbacks in current spending, would he consider the question of every Minister in the Government having his or her own public relations contract separate from the press work of the Department he or she heads? Perhaps it might be considered appropriate, under the Taoiseach’s Department or whatever, to have a Government relations agency, such as the Government press and information section, which should be able to deal with the promotion of the work of all the Taoiseach’s Ministers and which, I am sure, would implement a considerable saving as opposed to individual public relations contracts being allocated to each Minister. Is this a proposal the Taoiseach might examine in the context of getting out the same message but at a considerable saving?
The Taoiseach: As part of our savings, we introduced a 50% cut across all these areas. The point here is that many offices serve Departments and Ministers in respect of dealing with the media and public affairs, etc., who are themselves career civil servants; not all of them are brought in but some are and it is a matter of preference for Ministers who may have built up a relationship with people in this area over a period of time and who particularly suit their way of working. The general point to be made, however, is that this area, like every other, must be watched very closely to ensure that the benefits one would expect for the resources applied emanate and that it is run in a proper and professional way.
Regarding the idea of establishing an omnibus Government relations agency, for many Departments a certain expertise and acquaintance with the issues of the day is required. For example, the Department of Finance would be very different in terms of the needs of media and others compared to the Department of Arts, Sport and Tourism or another Department. In many cases, there are people who are of the Department who work either in a primary position or in supplementary positions around the person engaged as a press officer for that purpose and without whom the efficiency and efficacy of the office would be compromised. Taking account of all that, in terms of achieving savings, would one get the service required? It could be argued that we would not. There are some specialist areas that require a specialist knowledge and an ability to come back with information quickly to people.
Deputy Eamon Gilmore: I wish to pursue two aspects of the Quigley report with the Taoiseach. One of the recommendations of the report was that approval by the Taoiseach would be required where a Minister was taking on either an individual or a PR consultancy firm providing advice to the Minister. Was that practice ever adopted and on how many occasions, if any, has his approval been sought for the appointment of such a person?
A procedure was recommended by the Quigley report that where a Minister was nominating an individual or a PR firm to be appointed, it would be notified to the Secretary General of the Government. Will the Taoiseach indicate to the House on how many occasions that practice has been complied with since 2005?
The Taoiseach: In regard to how many cases referred to the Government Secretariat under the procedure have received the Taoiseach’s approval, seven cases coming within the terms of the guidelines have been processed so far. In September of this year, I agreed to the appointment of a consultant by the Department of Communications, Energy and Natural Resources to conduct a facilitation exercise in connection with the consultation paper on next generation broadband. In 2007, one case was noted by my predecessor following consideration by the Secretary General to the Government of an invitation to tender for consultancy work at the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government to scope out a project to lead to the establishment of an independent electoral commission. I understand the candidate concerned was not subsequently successful in the tender competition. Two cases related to the appointment of an arts adviser to the Department of Arts, Sport and Tourism. My predecessor approved one of those appointments in 2005 following appropriate prior consideration by the Secretary General to the Government. Upon the resignation of the original post holder, my predecessor approved the appointment of a successor to the post in 2006.
The three other cases referred to the Secretary General to the Government were, on consideration by him, found not to fall within the scope of the guidelines and so did not require consideration or approval. They related to the appointment of IT, PR and communications consultants, respectively.
Deputy Eamon Gilmore: Perhaps the Taoiseach would advise us in respect of the three which did come within the remit of the guidelines? Can he tell us what was the value or the cost of the contract in each case?
Deputy Arthur Morgan: How is it decided whether PR work to be undertaken is to be given to the various press offices within each Department, the Government’s own press department or to go to outside contract? Has the committee in question examined the criteria used to make that call in the first instance? If not, will there be an examination of the criteria? Is it the practice of the committee to vet proposals by Ministers for PR work to be contracted out? Does the committee vet the Minister’s decision?
Have there been any further restrictions on PR contracts since the Government’s announcement of cutbacks in July? The Taoiseach referred to cutbacks of 50%. Will he clarify whether there has been a 50% cutback in PR operations? Does the Taoiseach refer to PR contracts or the in-house department?
The Taoiseach: We have asked for 50% reductions in PR contracts as part of our savings in the July initiative. That has been carried out. On the question of how it is decided whether to use somebody in-house or to get somebody from outside, it is a matter in many instances for the Minister. Under the guidelines Ministers have an entitlement to bring two or three advisers with him or her to a Department to help advise them on matters of policy, communications or whatever. That is the process whereby a Minister applies to the Minister for Finance for approval of the appointment of such a person within various income guidelines that are outlined. There is a procedure that enables one to decide. The appointment must come within a Minister’s complement of staff. Sometimes Ministers do not make appointments for that purpose; they might have two policy advisers rather than one policy adviser and one person looking after press matters. It is a question of ministerial choice.
Deputy Arthur Morgan: Does the committee vet a Minister’s decision? I am not clear on that element of the matter. If a Minister wishes to bring in outside contractors for PR purposes, must he or she get the approval of the committee? If that is the case, what criteria are involved in the committee’s decision?
The Taoiseach: A committee is not involved; the Minister for Finance is involved in the approval process. Arising out of an initiative that arose some years ago, the Quigley report indicated, where a Department proposed to engage consultants, that fact must be brought to the attention of the Taoiseach where there is an element of direct service to a Minister, especially in the PR-communications area, or if the Minister has suggested the name of a person or enterprise as being suitable. Where a Minister indicates he or she would like to have person X to carry out services directly for him or her, that issue would have to be brought to the attention of the Taoiseach, in addition to the approval requirement of the Minister for Finance.
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