Tuesday, 16 December 2008
Dáil Eireann Debate
1. Deputy Eamon Gilmore asked the Taoiseach the progress made in relation to the reforms proposed in the report of the OECD on reform of the public service, particularly in regard to his Department; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [29628/08]
2. Deputy Eamon Gilmore asked the Taoiseach if he has received the report of the task force appointed to implement the recommendations of the OECD report on reform of the public service; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [29629/08]
3. Deputy Joan Burton asked the Taoiseach his views on reports that a minority report recommending the axing of 8,000 public service jobs was quashed during the OECD process of drawing up its recent report on the Irish public service; the representations or submissions, whether formally or informally, made to the OECD seeking amendments to the report; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [31341/08]
4. Deputy Richard Bruton asked the Taoiseach if the group examining the OECD report of public service reform has reported to Government; if the report will be published; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [31471/08]
6. Deputy Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin asked the Taoiseach if he has received a report from the group tasked with the implementation of recommendations of the OECD report on reform of the public service; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [43737/08]
8. Deputy Enda Kenny asked the Taoiseach the cost of the launch of the Government’s response to the OECD report on the public service held on 27 November 2008; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [44683/08]
I launched the Government statement on transforming public services on Wednesday, 26 November. In tandem with this statement, the report of the task force on the public service, the report of the organisational review programme and the Civil Service customer satisfaction survey 2008 were also published. The cost of the launch, exclusive of VAT, was €1,828, which includes the cost of catering and logistical arrangements on the day.
The Government statement represents a comprehensive package for the transformation of the public service. It is an ambitious three-year plan which we are determined to implement. The package is designed to address the immediate priority of securing maximum value for public spending, made all the more urgent by recent Exchequer figures, and laying the foundation for a complete overhaul of how the public service is managed and does its business, to ensure that it is efficient and effective in meeting the needs of citizens.
Last May, I appointed the task force on the public service to develop an action plan for the public service drawing on the analysis and recommendations of the OECD review of the public service which was launched in April. The specific terms of reference of the task force were to prepare for consideration by the Government a comprehensive framework for renewal of the public service, which took into account the analysis and conclusions of the OECD review, as well as the lessons to be drawn from the strategic management initiative, the organisational review programme and the efficiency review process, and to recommend, in particular, how best to secure an overarching policy for an integrated public service that enables increased flexibility, mobility and staff development and supports the competencies and practices necessary for new networked ways of working within and across the broader public service; and the basis for determining the contribution which a senior public service could make to an integrated and cohesive public service.
The task force was also asked to outline a set of criteria to inform the way in which the business of Government is structured and organised, with a strategy to enable necessary changes to be planned and implemented successfully; the benefits of the greater use of shared services across all sectors of the public service; and an appropriate framework for the establishment, operation and governance of State agencies. In addition, it was asked to develop a strategy by which e-Government delivers coherent and citizen-focused services and more closely supports greater efficiency in administrative processes; and an implementation plan specifying the tasks and responsibilities necessary for the successful implementation of the renewal agenda, including the ways in which the principle of partnership with public servants and their representatives will be applied.
The report of the task force, which has been adopted in full by the Government, sets out a challenging agenda for change in the public service. It recommends an integrated package of initiatives to be implemented over a three-year framework focused on the following: first, achieving improved performance by organisations and individuals within the public service; second, creating flexibility in the deployment of people, assets and other resources; third, identifying the precise transformation agenda in each sector of the public service and engaging and mobilising the necessary actors; and fourth, achieving greater efficiency, effectiveness and economy.
The report sets out an extensive list of recommendations, including prioritising and making more explicit the goals and targets of Government Departments and offices, communicating these targets to the public, developing output indicators so that the performance of individuals and organisations across the public service can be measured, greater involvement of the citizen in policy and service delivery issues, greater use of e-Government and shared services, managing the business of Government in new ways and developing leaders in the public service.
The work of the task force was extensive and included engaging with a number of key stakeholders concerned with the shape of the successful implementation of the renewal agenda. I want to put on the record of the House my appreciation for the work of the individual members of the task force. It was chaired by the Secretary General to the Government and my Department provided the secretariat.
My Department will continue to play a lead role in public service transformation as the actions outlined in the Government statement and the report of the task force are implemented. I will chair a new Cabinet committee on transforming public services and the programme office being established to support implementation will be based in my Department.
In response to Deputy Burton’s question, I am aware that some media reports since the publication of the OECD report in April have contained a number of inaccuracies in regard to the process by which the OECD conducted its review. In this regard, I understand the OECD has already clarified the record and stated that throughout the review process it maintained its objectivity and independence.
The OECD is a sovereign organisation of member states and guards its independence. It was given a free hand in the conduct of this review and unlike the experience in other countries, Irish officials were not present at interviews and meetings undertaken by the OECD as part of the review. The Government did everything it could to encourage a bold approach by the OECD, including a major public consultation process whereby all 936 submissions were forwarded directly to the OECD.
The OECD study was a peer review process. We were reviewed by fellow OECD members and this involved extensive dialogue with and questioning of Irish officials by OECD staff and by a team of international experts drawn from the governments of five countries.
As a result of detailed analysis, the OECD report recommended that the capacity needs of the public service in terms of numbers and skills need to be re-examined. In this regard, the Minister for Finance has announced the establishment of a special group on public service numbers and expenditure programmes. The purpose of the special group, which has commenced its work, is to review the scope for reducing or refocusing the existing range of expenditure programmes, to critically examine the numbers of public servants employed across all areas of the public service, to assess the scope for transferring staff to priority areas and for reducing numbers overall, including identifying surplus staff.
Deputy Eamon Gilmore: Everyone is talking about public service reform, but as far as the Government is concerned we seem to be getting more reports than reform. First, there was the OECD report, then there was a task force to implement the OECD report and then a Cabinet committee was established. The Taoiseach tells us there is a programme office in his Department. The Minister for Finance set up a special group which is, I presume, the group known as an bord snip nua or bord slash or whatever the common term. Its purpose is to deal with matters in the public service. Will the Taoiseach give some examples of what specific reforms we will see in six months’ time? Will he identify two or three things, clearly visible to the public, that will have changed in the public service by that time arising from all of these reports and various bodies?
The Taoiseach referred to the task force putting an emphasis on shared services and on e-Government. Will the Taoiseach explain what has happened with the website? There was supposed to be a common website for all the public services. It was recommended and approved in 2003 and eventually delivered in 2005, some 16 months late. It cost three times more than the allocated budget. I understand it has cost approximately €40 million to date and now it has been scrapped.
Deputy Eamon Gilmore: Given there is such an emphasis on e-Government and shared services, will the Taoiseach provide some explanation as to why it was so expensive in the first place? It is merely a website and €40 million is a great deal to pay for a website. Why was it so expensive in the first place and why has it now disappeared?
The Taoiseach: The questions relate to the public service transformation project in which we are now engaged. There are ongoing reforms in the public service. Many of the pay agreements are based on agreed changes in work practices, etc. It is not a question of having a public service that mirrors exactly what it was in 1922, 1962, 1982 or 1992. Several initiatives have taken place which have brought benefits. In fairness, let us put that on the record. They are designed to address the immediate priority of securing maximum value from public spending and this is made even more urgent by recent Exchequer returns.
In the next six months, one expects to see agreements on more flexible ways of operating and changes in work practices. As the Towards 2016 ten year framework agreement puts it, these agreements will focus on putting at the centre of our concern the citizen and the way in which we provide services to the greatest extent possible, given the available level of resources. At question is the level of resources that can be applied to these areas. If we are to do this, it will involve much change in the workplace. That process of engagement with the social partners is ongoing. In a range of areas within the private and semi-State sectors, unions and management are making provisions for new arrangements to maintain, to the greatest extent possible, job security and the maximum number of jobs in a difficult climate. This is taking place across the board and must happen in the State sector within the public service. Such an engagement will now begin with a great degree of urgency in the context of the 2009 financial year and the difficulties we face therein. There will be a great number of changes in this respect.
As for the recommendations themselves, the establishment of an integrated public service in which people will have freedom to move across and work within various aspects of that service, such as the local authority system, the public administration system, the Civil Service itself or the non-commercial semi-State sector, will involve a process of engagement with the public service unions on which the Government will embark. I refer to the redesign of the service, which must take place over the three-year timespan that has been outlined and, while I do not need to refer to them specifically in this reply, the various recommendations and timeframes within which progress is expected to be made across the various areas, as set out in the report. While I do not wish to take up the time of the House with them at present, there is a clear need to do those things.
As for e-Government, were a specific question to be tabled on a specific issue pertaining to this website, I could get the detail on it for the Deputy. However, I make the point that e-Government certainly must improve. One major item to arise from the surveys on public satisfaction is that people are unable to get common information to the extent they would wish and that there are delays. Moreover, the level of available knowledge when people contact the public service is not as they would wish in some respects. This has been set out in the customer survey and the need to improve in this regard is reflected in the implementation plan the Government now has put in place to change how the public service works, what it does and what numbers are deployed. The plan will examine what are the outputs, whether people are in the right places — there are indications to the contrary at present — how to redeploy people and how to move people to priority areas.
This will involve engagement with public service unions, that is, with public servants and their representatives, and this report sets out how the Government intends to so do. In the first instance there is the immediate question, about which the group on public service numbers and expenditure programmes will play a part by advising the Government as to what it considers should happen in this regard. However, the Government will be obliged to make the decisions itself. Moreover, the wider social partnership process must not be forgotten in this respect. I refer to the need to engage, in an accelerated way, on how to change work practices in order that service levels in 2009 will be maintained for the amount of money that will be provided. The third and more medium-term issue concerns the redesign of the service itself in respect of the freeing up of deployment and redeployment issues etc., as well as the establishment of a senior public service. This also is set out in the report over a three-year period.
Deputy Eamon Gilmore: The Taoiseach has done a very good job of describing the process by which the Government addresses public service reform in respect of the various consultations, reports, studies and different groups that are set up to do this, that or the other on public service reform. However, the Taoiseach has not told Members what are or what are likely to be the outcomes. I asked the Taoiseach to identify a couple of specific areas he might share with the House in which in six months time, as a result of all these processes, the public will be able to see some tangible results. The Taoiseach is correct to state the public service is quite different from what it was in 1922, 1982 or 1992. Twenty years ago, were one to telephone a public office, one would get to talk to a person. At present, were one to do so, one would be presented with a menu asking one to press buttons A, B or whatever it is——
The alternative is to look up the website. Incidentally, the Taoiseach has not answered this part of the question either. The idea was there would be a single website containing all public service information. It was to have been a one-stop shop, at which those who wished to get information about public services could access a particular website that would be able to navigate and get the information required. Moreover, if one needed to go from one Department to another or from one service to another, one could do that.
There was an attempt made to establish such a website at very considerable cost to the public — we are now told €40 million. However, it took so long and it cost so much, and it eventually duplicated some of the things that were there already, that the Comptroller and Auditor General issued a report on it last year and now it is closed down. If the Government cannot establish a website describing the way in which public services are integrated, what confidence do we have that it will be able to integrate the services themselves?
The public does not need to hear a litany of what the process involves, this task force and that task force or this study and that study, and new working groups and new action groups etc. The public needs to see tangible results, something to which one can point that a particular service either is improved or will be improved in six months’ time as a result of all of these initiatives of which we hear so much.
The Taoiseach: I have explained to the Deputy that I am not talking about process. I am talking about changes that now have to be negotiated with public service unions in the same way as many of those unions, or their like in other areas of the economy, are engaging in change programmes as we speak in order to survive in the marketplace in which they operate. I expect that within the next six months — or before it — we will have to see agreements drawn up which will provide for far more flexibility in the delivery of our health services, how we are organised and how we get more for the amount of money that we are providing. All of that process will be accelerated and accordioned in the next couple of months if we are to have outcomes which avoid unnecessary cuts in services because we were not prepared to make the changes in how we organise their delivery.
I believe that there is a strong willingness on all sides of that equation, both at management and union levels, to make the necessary changes and to bring in new flexibilities in how we organise services in a way which has not been possible to be negotiated for some time simply because everyone recognises that we are in a situation that requires that sort of response. Those are the sort of practical changes that one will see because people are willing and understand that if we are to avoid unnecessary dislocation of services at the front line, people will have to change how we deliver the system. We must achieve more efficiencies — that is the way it is. I believe everyone is up for that challenge. The social partnership provides us with the framework to achieve that.
Deputy Gilmore makes a criticism of when people go about trying to change the public service in some isolated or specific case. The purpose of this OECD review is to look at the entire service to outline how we can improve motivation and performance, how we get to deepen citizen engagement, how we get the potential for e-Government to work, how we provide the economies that will be available through shared services, how we develop people and develop leaders within the service who will be able to go and manage what is a multibillion euro operation, how we strengthen the governance of these organisations, including the agencies, and how we ensure that the public service works in an accountable, transparent and effective way that will increase public confidence in the country.
It sets out an implementation strategy. On the arguments that people were decrying the fact that we were not setting out a plan over a three year period covering all of these issues, ambitious timeframes are set out. I do not need to read each and every one of them, but each chapter sets out that they are not simply recommendations, but recommendations within certain timeframes. If one wants to change how the public service works, one must have a beginning, a middle and an end to it. One must start at a point that creates the means by which one gets the changes rather than everyone going about doing their own thing. The purpose of bringing that group of people together was to give us an implementation plan, based on what the OECD had to say, on what way we could improve the service and how we could go about it.
Quite apart from that redesign of the service, which is a reform issue that needs to be addressed, there are the specifics about which Deputy Gilmore spoke in terms of changes in the workplaces that must occur in the immediate period ahead on a range of public services in order to ensure the outputs we get are commensurate for the inputs we make.
We also know that a gap is emerging between the tax revenues we are raising as a country, which are at 2005 levels, and the 2009 level of services we have to provide. That is not sustainable in the medium to long term and we have to get down to the business of reducing that discrepancy over a credible timeframe so that we bring the public finances back into balance as quickly as possible. However, by working through the social partnership, this will be done in a way that avoids to the greatest extent possible an adverse effect on those who depend on these services. That is the shared responsibility not only of the Government, Ministers or Departments but of everyone who works in the service. The quality of leadership required to successfully achieve that aim will be of a high order. That is why we need the social partnership process to work. The purpose of the engagement that will begin in the coming weeks is to ensure we get down to the business of providing the best possible level of service from the State’s depleted revenues and depleting resources.
Deputy Enda Kenny: The Taoiseach draws his authority and strength from the Constitution and the people. His leadership does not come from agencies or reports commissioned by the Government. One of the hallmarks of what I regard as the failure of this Government and its predecessors has been the devaluation of the public service by the commissioning of report after report from outside consultants which in many cases could have been done within the public service and behind the recommendations of which the Government hides.
In respect of the new body, the special group on public service numbers and expenditure programmes, a ludicrous situation appears to have arisen. Last year the Government set out its programme for Government and the budget and capital allocations for various programmes which Ministers would implement in their respective Departments as part of the public service. Before the year was out, another board was established to take some of this money back from Ministers and Departments. Surely the Ministers appointed by the Taoiseach should see to it that the money allocated to them by the Government achieves value for the purpose for which it was intended. An bord snip nua, as the new body is known, is now required to do the work and make the recommendations when Ministers should know what is to happen in their Departments. Will the body’s report be published and will we see its recommendations? Does the Taoiseach agree it is ludicrous that in the course of one year the Cabinet solemnly proposed votes in respect of moneys for programmes and expenditure to be spent under Ministers and then asked for recommendations on how they could be drawn back?
The Government’s task force for the public service recently recommended a move to a common public service contract to facilitate the transfer of staff to priority areas. When is that likely to take effect and will it require legislation? It is an important recommendation in terms of the quality of the public service.
The Taoiseach: The purpose of undertaking a comprehensive review and transformation of the public service requires in the first instance an analysis which is hopefully objective. An organisation such as the OECD is more likely to be objective than an internal review, which if conducted by the Government would immediately be regarded by the likes of Deputy Kenny as inadequate. The OECD was commissioned to conduct the review and I set out in my earlier reply its extensive, comprehensive and independent nature. It pointed to some strengths in the service and to the good things we are doing as well as to areas where, as a result of the way they developed, we need to reconsider the organisational remit in order to determine how we can better organise the delivery of public services.
Upon receiving the extensive and comprehensive report, we asked a number of people from within the public service, as well as people in business with a competence or interest in the area, or who had management experience of change programmes in other sectors, to set out an implementation programme for the comprehensive change envisaged in the OECD report. We have now received the report and are in the process of implementing it. That is the right way to go.
If the process is to be done properly, an overview should be taken by others of the strengths and weaknesses of the system. The peer review process should be done by others rather than within the service, where people will have a certain view that there is not much wrong at all.
There are people within the service who want to get on with having modern performance benchmarks in place where underperformance can be dealt with and where the need for deployment and flexibility, training and the provision of leadership can be dealt with. This leadership takes in how to identify and motivate people who can lead in these areas to manage what is a very complex series of organisations delivering critical services for the citizens of the country. We should not be simplistic about it while suggesting it is not an area which can be reformed. It can and it will be reformed.
Another point was made on getting in an outside body. The allocations made during the course of 2008 for Ministers were adhered to in the main and we have been able to come in within those expenditure parameters. After the six-month Exchequer returns we saw the rate of deterioration in our tax revenues which led to a gap, and we made decisions on making economies in our spending to ensure we came within what we set out to achieve this year. In the second six months of the year we identified further full-year savings, and these have been confirmed. Those savings remain in place with full-year effect for 2009.
The deterioration in our public finance position and the tax revenues coming in on that side have come as part of the global recession, which affects us no differently than anyone else. The rate of the deterioration has been such that we have ended up in the position of being down between 13% and 15% in tax revenues on what could have been expected based on growth forecasts from everybody in this economy as of November last year. That has opened a gap of €8 billion that needs to be closed.
We have insisted we will try to do that while not totally undermining our capital investment programme, the means by which we can build up capacity in the country, as well as the road and other transport networks. It will also build up our education system with school buildings, colleges, universities and institutes of technology etc. There are other areas of social spending, for example, we will spend €1.6 billion on social housing next year. All those allocations remain in place because we must provide those services through capital investments.
We have a gap in our current day to day spend that will have to be closed over a period. We need social partnership on the basis that I believe it is a problem-solving process rather than a problem-avoiding process. We will decide over a credible timeframe how we will close the gap and at the same time, to the greatest possible extent, adhere to the 2016 partnership principles. They are about trying to improve this society over the period ahead, knowing that the envisaged growth in revenues that fed into the ambition of that programme will now have to be modified as those resources will not be available to any Government in the immediate years ahead.
One either decides to do this in a way that is inclusive, participatory and gets people around a certain set of problems on the basis of a common analysis and understanding of the choices for dealing with them or we end up in a position that puts at risk the benefits deriving from such an approach. I believe that collaborative approach is the right one. It is not about outsourcing the Government’s responsibility regarding expenditure programmes or public service numbers, whether in respect of the particular advisory body the Deputy is talking about or others. Ultimately, the Government remains responsible for the political decisions it will have to take, but it will do so on the basis of the best advice and collaboration that we can muster in a limited timeframe, working with the people who have been part of this country’s success in the past. When the pressure comes on in tough times it is all the more reason why one should work in that way, rather than simply regarding it as a process to be used when it comes to the dispersal of extra resources that came about because of the good times we had in the past. That is the approach that is being taken.
Common public service contracts constitute one of the recommendations to provide for easy flexibility across services, with local authority staff coming into the Civil Service. That cannot be provided by fiat, but will have to be negotiated with public service unions. People have to buy into this process of transformation for public service reform also. We intend to proceed with it and will work with people in that regard, but we have a voluntary industrial relations culture which must be respected. We will have to sit down with people to get through that process. The benefit of the task force report we are discussing in these series of questions is that they have visibly set out for all stakeholders in the service how we will proceed in prioritising the work as identified in this report, which also reflects the OECD’s priorities. That is the way to proceed but it will not be done by a Minister going off into a corner and devising a common contract saying “Here it is, I have it” and when it is published, saying “Am I not very efficient because I have done it within a week of the report’s publication?” That is nonsense and it is no way to govern. One must sit down with those affected by the proposed reforms and get their agreement on the basis that it will improve the workplace and career prospects, and provide training for people in the service so they can achieve their potential. It should get away from crisis management and get on with the more strategic approach that respects the various stakeholders’ positions in this reform programme process. It will probably best guarantee its success by doing so.
Deputy Enda Kenny: I agree with the Taoiseach, for once, in that it is not about governance where Ministers go off into a corner and make up their own minds. However, that is exactly what the former Minister for Finance, Deputy McCreevy, did when he announced his decentralisation programme. It involved 10,000 civil servants moving to 53 locations over three years, but he never told anyone — well, maybe two — before announcing it. The Taoiseach derives his authority from the people, not from any of these agencies or reports. The former Minister for Health and Children, Deputy Martin, commissioned 120 reports. Some of the most brilliant people I have ever met work in the public service and they have always played their part above and beyond the call of duty. The point is, however, that if they are asked or challenged to provide the answers to political or public service problems that the Government might face at any one time, they will invariably provide a list of options. In many cases, they will not require outside consultants to do reports in the first instance. The Taoiseach spoke of leadership in that regard but he draws his authority from the people, not from consultancy reports. I admit that such reports may be necessary in some cases if they are of a technical or specialist nature.
The Taoiseach spoke of economies in spending and I agree with that. The Taoiseach should ask the Minister for Health and Children, Deputy Harney, who is beside him, about that. An operation may cost approximately €5,000 for someone on a waiting list, but why is it that under the National Treatment Purchase Fund the same operation, carried out by the same consultant, can cost €15,000? We are seeking economies of scale but surely this is ludicrous. It could be in someone’s interests to keep a long list of people for the National Treatment Purchase Fund. For example, the same operation could cost three times as much. This is not in the interests of the taxpayer or the general economy. Does the Taoiseach view this type of practical change, which he spoke of, in the interests of the economy and the people as something on which he would follow through?
Does the Government intend to consider linking the system of awarding annual pay increments in the public service with enhanced performance? In offices and elements of the public service, there are people who show great creativity and initiative, but they are swamped and stalled by the system. It might be in everyone’s interests to consider the system of awarding annual pay increments and to link them more clearly with performance. This would give many public servants an opportunity to give of their best in the knowledge that they would be rewarded for their work.
In the context of public service reform, has the Government turned its thoughts to a voluntary redundancy scheme? The Minister for Health and Children, who is sitting beside the Taoiseach, referred to a voluntary scheme within the HSE. What is the Government’s position on the overall public service?
The Taoiseach: Regarding the question of reports being commissioned by Departments, it cannot be suggested that, within our public service or within each Department, there is the total level of expertise necessary to give full and frank advice on every aspect of what is a very complex service delivery system. Even taking the number mentioned, that of 120 reports in the Department of Health and Children, some 98% of the problems, dossiers and files that are dealt with by the Department where decisions are taken are done without any reference to a report.
If one is trying to develop a public policy position or to change a policy in order for it to gain greater acceptance among various stakeholders in, for example, the pharmacy area, the Irish Medicines Board area or the question of how one can improve the delivery of disability services, one would often bring in various stakeholders and ask some independent person to work and collaborate with them, listen to the various points of view and come forward with a set of proposals arising from that process. These things are not necessarily expensive.
Taking the report in question as an example, there was a need to get someone from outside the country to do a peer review to determine how well the Irish public service was doing compared to other public services, the ways in which it was different, whether it was ahead of or behind others and whether any best practice models in other countries could be applied to the Irish public service. The OECD, which has done a lot of work in this area and in public administration and policy formulation generally, was the obvious group to take on the task. It took whatever time was necessary and did it in a very comprehensive fashion, as I have outlined in my reply.
If doing a report is a precursor to pulling a range of diverse opinions behind a means forward to deal with some of these issues, on a cost-benefit analysis it is very much the right thing to do. If it charts a way forward, as this task force now does by pushing the buttons in respect of all areas to determine how to bring about public service reform, it is a far more cost effective way of doing it than allowing each sector to go at its own pace and to do its own thing, some successfully and others not so much because there is no overall systemic response that would bring about a coherent outcome.
Sometimes, this idea that one can only have an effective Government if no one reports to it about some issue is a simplified and populist message. I am sure that it goes down well with certain elements, but it is not necessarily a very accurate assessment of how modern governance systems can work in a modern democracy.
Regarding the National Treatment Purchase Fund, I do not know the specific case to which Deputy Kenny referred or how accurate he was. However, as a mechanism for increasing throughput in the health service and identifying people who have been awaiting treatments, its contribution to improving waiting times has been a great success. When I served as Minister for Health and Children, waiting times were between two to five years whereas they are now between two to five months. Last year alone, waiting times were reduced in 60% of the categories to which such waiting times apply. Improvements continue to be made.
The Taoiseach: In respect of specific areas, the Minister has, as she is entitled to do under the various Acts, indicated the priority action she wants to be taken in the context of the service plans the Health Service Executive has presented to her for the purpose of outlining how services will be applied next year. That is part of the process. She has been able to make informed decisions based on the up-to-date statistical analysis provided in the annual report of the National Treatment Purchase Fund. This is another example of the system working rather than not doing so. The system is improving the situation for ordinary citizens in the context of obtaining access to important health services, such as operations and surgical procedures.
On enhanced performance and how to provide recognition or acknowledgement, financial or otherwise, to those managers or staff in the health service who are working well and meeting their targets, the task force is of the view that the transparent performance management system must be strengthened and developed. There is then the question of how to provide recognition such as that to which I refer in a way that will incentivise performance and allow people to pursue excellence to the greatest extent possible while also eliminating underperformance, which is a major problem. In such circumstances, one must negotiate and work with staff representatives on how best to proceed. I do not have a difficulty with this in principle, but we must also maintain the public service ethos, which is an important consideration.
Deputy Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin: The Taoiseach referred to sitting down with the people affected and recognises that this is a crucial aspect in the context of the social partners. However, the task force did not include representation from all the key sectors. There was representation from the private sector but consumers, trade unions and the NGOs were not represented. Given that it has published its action plan, does the Taoiseach envisage that the task force will remain in place? If it does remain in place and in the context of his comments on sitting down with the people affected, does he propose to include representation on it from the various sectors to which I refer?
In light of the fact that the deliberations of the task force took place against a backdrop of cuts and an ever-tightening economic reality, there is great concern that the implementation of the action plan will represent a further facilitation of cuts within the public service.
Deputy Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin: Does the Taoiseach accept that attempts are being made — even in this House — to scapegoat the public service with regard to the mismanagement of the economy in recent years? Does he agree that the overwhelming majority of people employed in the public service do not have responsibility for the mismanagement of or decline in the economy?
The Taoiseach: The economy was not mismanaged during the past ten years, particularly if by mismanagement the Deputy is referring to having the highest growth rate in the European economy. The latter would be an unusual description of mismanagement.
The Taoiseach: During the past 12 months the public finances deteriorated following the extremely rapid decrease in growth rates. As a result, the economy is now contracting. This raises serious challenges for us in the short to medium term. I intend using the social partnership process as a means of seeking to address that issue in a timeframe that is credible at home and abroad.
Due to my interest in defending public services, I believe one should be in favour of public service reform. It is in the interest of upholding public confidence in public services that we be involved in public service reform. Reforms are taking place in every sector of the economy not alone in respect of competition in the environment in which we now operate but in respect of the new environment in which we will have to operate. Decisions and deals are being done between management and unions in every sector of the economy in order to maintain jobs to the greatest extent possible even though, as we know, this is predicated on the possibility of increased joblessness as the recession deepens and lengthens. This is what we must face up to.
The public sector is, in my opinion, willing to respond in the same way in respect of the delivery of efficient and effective public services. If we want to avoid, to the greatest extent possible, any diminution in front line services we must be prepared to deliver those services in a different manner than up to now. The one sure way of ensuring a problem in this area is to insist on delivery of such services in the same manner as up to now. This wider reform process, which is about redesigning the public service in the longer term, is a related issue, one which is just as urgent in terms of it having to be done over a certain timeframe, which is three years according to the recommendations. The recommendations have been made and we must now sit down with the unions and ensure the plan is implemented.
In respect of the immediate challenge ahead, in terms of our problem in respect of public finances, this will happen in the weeks and months ahead through social partnership engagement, which will be intensive and will seek solutions to these problems over a credible timeframe and, which will have the objective of maintaining front line services as best we can within the resources available. This can best be achieved through the flexibilities and work practices necessary to bring about a more effective public service.
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