Northern Ireland Assembly Flax Flower Logo

Committee of the Centre

Wednesday 24 April 2002


Review of Public Administration

Ordered by The Committee of the Centre to be printed 29th May 2002
Minutes of Evidence: 02/01/E (Committee of the Centre)


The Committee of the Centre is a Standing Committee established in accordance with paragraph 10 of Strand One of the Belfast Agreement and under Standing Order No 54 of the Northern Ireland Assembly. The Terms of Reference of the Committee are to examine and report on functions carried out in the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister and on any other related matters determined by the Assembly.

The Committee has the power to send for persons and papers.

The Committee has seventeen members, including a Chairperson and Deputy Chairperson and a quorum of five members.

The current membership of the Committee established on 15 December 1999, is as follows:

Mr Edwin Poots (Chairperson)
Mr Oliver Gibson (Deputy Chairperson
Mr Roy Beggs Jnr Mr Alex Maskey
Mrs Eileen Bell Mr Conor Murphy
Dr Esmond Birnie Dr Alasdair McDonnell
Mrs Annie Courtney Mr Barry McElduff
Mr Duncan Shipley Dalton Mr Eugene McMenamin
Mr David Ervine Mr Ken Robinson
Mr Danny Kennedy Mr Jim Shannon
Ms Patricia Lewsley  



Wednesday 24 April 2002

Members present:

Mr Gibson (Deputy Chairperson)
Mr Beggs
Mrs Bell
Mr Dalton
Mr Ervine
Mr Kennedy
Mr McMenamin
Mr Maskey
Mr C Murphy
Mr K Robinson
Mr Shannon


Mr John Stapleton ) Senior Lecturer in Public
Administration, Department of
Government and Society,
University of Limerick


The Deputy Chairperson: Mr Stapleton, you are very welcome. Perhaps this is your first time in Parliament Buildings. We look forward to hearing your presentation, which will be followed by questions. Owing to the limited time, I ask Members not to make speeches but only to ask questions.


Mr Stapleton: Thank you very much. This is by no means my first visit to Belfast, but it is my first time in Parliament Buildings and I am very impressed.


I am glad to contribute to the important work of the review of public administration in Northern Ireland. I understand that draft terms of reference are being considered and issues are being scoped. In that context, present structures, recent developments and general experience in the Republic of Ireland could be of interest and benefit to the review. It may not be necessary to reiterate my submission, but I will highlight its major themes.


What is striking about the Republic’s administrative experience from 1922 until 2002 is that the simple two-tiered system of Civil Service departments and local government is now much more complex. The system today contains two new elements, one of which is state-sponsored bodies in central Government. That is a mixture of public enterprises and executive agencies outside the Civil Service. In public administration terminology they are paragovernmental organisations and quangos. The second new element in the system is regionalism. I described that in my submission as amounting to an element of administration, although not regional government.


Paragovernmental quangos emerged as early as the 1920s and by 1984, when posts and telecommunications were separated from the Civil Service, it was the largest single element of the public service. It is easy to remember that 99,500 people worked in that sector at that time. Since then, in line with trends elsewhere, there has been significant shrinkage in that part of public administration, and I will come to the reasons for that.


The other new element was the emergence of regionalism. One of our few official inquiries — which corresponds roughly to a Royal Commission — between 1966 and 1969, the Devlin Report, which was in a way our Fulton Report, remarked on the drift towards regionalism at that time. Regionalism was beginning to emerge particularly in agencies concerned with industrial and economic development and with employment and training as part of a more general economic debate about overconcentration on Dublin and regional dispersal.


That process was indicative of the greater involvement of the state in the economy. Additional responses began to emerge. The state began to think about its relationship with employers and the unions, and the origins of what would later become social partnership grew from that. The expanded and more complex public administration posed management problems. The term "accountable management" came into existence at that time. It is a Fulton rather than a Devlin term and is transferable. A revival of interest in management evolved under the rubric of public management — or new public management — particularly in the 1990s.


Some of those developments were driven off course somewhat by events in the 1970s, particularly the economic crisis and the fiscal crisis, which were the result of the first and second crises. As a result, states in the developed world were seen as overburdened and overcommitted, doing too much too badly rather than doing less but doing it well. That prompted responses that dominated the next two decades. One was the idea of rolling back the state, various forms of liberalisation and, ultimately, privatisation. That in turn led to less direct state provision, and it was necessary to regulate what was happening, so there was a rise in regulatory administration.


It was felt that slimming down the state was not enough, as the state was congested and there was a need for decongestion. That led to movements that were committed to local or regional decentralisation and devolution. Ideas of empowerment and endogenous development from below became very popular and began to wash over Irish public administration, although it took time.


The third element was revitalising good public management. Public administration had to shift gear from traditional bureaucratic public administration towards systems that were more managerial in their outlook and orientation.


Finally, the managerial agenda was particularly dominant in the 1990s as were standards in public life, openness, accountability and transparency, freedom of information, ethics and standards in public office. They have been to the fore of debate in the Republic — at times in unfortunate ways in the past decade. The last theme that I recall from the paper is the growing internationalisation of public administration. I will refrain from using the term "globalisation", as it has many connotations and is disputatious.


Since the early 1970s membership of the European Union has been very important. The British/Irish relationship and the North/South relationship is another new component in the administrative architecture. However, bodies such as the Organisation for Economic Co- operation and Development (OECD), particularly its public management service and the functional agencies of the United Nations such as the World Health Organisation, have also been significant in developing public policy in the Republic. A devolved Administration may like to bear that in mind for access to such sources, influences and ideas.


Those are the main themes of the paper, and it is probably best to proceed, by way of Members’ interests. To close where I started, I draw attention to paragovernmental organisations and quangos and to the regional dimension. The excellent paper that your research team produced, the debate on the draft terms of reference in the Assembly on 25 February and some of the themes that you raised with Prof Knox and Dr Carmichael last week focus on those two issues, raising as they do some of the valuable components, such as access, accountability and subsidiarity, which are central to the review. They are the two dominant themes and could be two of the most interesting themes for the review.


The Deputy Chairperson: I believe that an effort was made to bring in the community sector under regionalisation or the county management scheme. Is there a Representation of the People Act passed by the Dáil that enables that?


Mr Stapleton: There has been a great deal of local government legislation since the early 1990s. Most recently, the Local Government Act 2001 has been dealing with matters such as directly elected mayors, payment to members, and standards in public life. It also underpins developments such as strategic policy committees in local government, and it provides a statutory basis for city and county development boards. Those are forms of local partnership, which are part of the county system.


The new regional authorities, which comprise members who are nominated indirectly by the councils that make up each region, have fewer functions. Their activities focus more on voluntary co-ordination, monitoring and review, and they have fewer resources than local government. The Irish government structure seems to have changed from a two-tier system of central and local government to a two-and-a-half tier model. The new structure comprises not only central Government and local government, which have strong democratic oversight, but a regional tier of administration that is more indirectly representative and more technocratic.


Mr Shannon: Thank you for your presentation. Can you confirm that none of the changes in the Republic directly affected the number of councillors or the boundaries of each area? If so, why were there no such effects? Was that due to effective lobbying by the councillors or local councils?


Mr Stapleton: That is true. Such outcomes were not the driving aim of the reforms. There were two main aims. The first was to enhance the role of the members in policy making. In theory, reserved functions always lie with members, and executive functions lie with managers. However, in practice the managerial officials were driving the development of policy options and so on, and members were reacting to that in a limited fashion, with the perspective of a client. The roles of members and officials had become scrambled, almost to the point of inversion. There was therefore a desire to strengthen the role of the democratically elected member and to link local councils with non-government area partnerships. Strategic policy committees and city and country development boards are designed to bring those groups together.


Another scheme, known irreverently among the public as "scrappage", involved voluntary retirement by members to make way for new blood. That was needed because although local elections in the Republic were due by statute to happen every five years they could be deferred — for seven or eight years in some cases — with the effect that a member could be re-elected only once in 15 years.


Mr Kennedy: What is wrong with that?


Mr Stapleton: I see that I am planting bad ideas. There was a desire to renew the intake into local government. It was expected, or at least hoped, that a new intake might help to redress the gender balance, but that did not shift greatly. Local government has become more significant since it was given constitutional status for the first time in the Republic through an amendment in 1999. The five-year term of office is now constitutionally fixed and elections cannot be deferred.


Mr Shannon: Were extra responsibilities given to local government in the South?


Mr Stapleton: Yes. Local government was restricted to physical development and environmental functions. It got significant planning and development powers in the 1960s, but it lacked involvement with many of the traditional functions of local government elsewhere such as policing, education and economic development.


Local government has been given a more general mandate — the doctrine of ultra vires has been abandoned. It has more authority; however, resources are another issue. Much development activity has been taking place through partnerships many of which, but not all, were EU driven. Partnerships have become a way of expanding authority, and this has made them acceptable to local elected representatives who might otherwise have been sceptical about sharing authority with unelected people.


Two factors have made partnership acceptable. First, the partnership philosophy, including that occurring at a national level — the social partnership philosophy — has been very extensive in the Republic since the 1960s. It has been particularly evident since 1987. Partnership is seen as a good thing and that makes it easier for everybody to buy into it. I say in the paper that some strains are emerging in partnerships, but we must wait to see what happens.


Secondly, there is the pragmatic response. Democratically mandated representatives would be more sceptical about being asked to share existing powers than they would about sharing what would amount to an enlargement of their role, particularly in economic and tourism development, on condition that they are willing to engage in partnership with others in the system.


Mr Beggs: There is a perception that changes in local government renewal in the Republic of Ireland have been extensive. Have the changes been dramatic? What changes have there been in the internal management of councils in the Republic of Ireland and have the changes improved their effectiveness? I declare an interest as a councillor and as a member of a partnership forum. How do you ensure accountability and avoid conflicts of interest? Business people or voluntary sector workers may be serving on such partnerships. There is a huge potential for failure, but there can be many benefits also.


Mr Stapleton: The changes have not been dramatic, but they are significant by the standards of the Republic and measured against the long-term scepticism there has been about local government. In that sense, the cumulative changes of the past decade have been significant, and the possibility of directly elected mayors could provide more direct electoral legitimacy.


Strategic policy committees bring together councillors and local partners. The chairman of the committee is always a councillor. Typically, there are five committees; however, the number is not legislated for and can vary. They cover economic, social, transport, and cultural issues. Each chairperson together with the chairman of the council constitutes a corporate policy group, which relates more effectively and with greater impact to the county manager than the old plenary council system.


The new directors of services parallel those policy groups, and that reflects the more managerial/ customer-oriented route. Under the manager, directors of services are expected to be more attuned to quality service delivery and to viewing people as citizens, but also as clients and customers, than perhaps they would have been under traditional public administration.


Mr Dalton: One question in the review asks whether some services should be delivered outside the influence of elected representatives. To what extent do such services exist in the Republic? Why have state- sponsored bodies or quangos declined? Is there a clash between accountability and efficiency?


Mr Stapleton: The state-sponsored bodies sector has declined. State-sponsored bodies have not been the largest employer in the public administration sector since 1998; the health services are now the largest employer. Those trends were general. The commercial state-sponsored bodies, the public enterprises, have lent themselves most readily to privatisation and thus removal from the public sector. That sector has declined because elements of it have been taken out of the public sector and put into the private sector.


The sector has also ceased to expand, because previously the public policy instinct was to establish a state-sponsored body, but now the state is more likely to consider whether local government — local government on its own or local government in the broader sense — can do that in alliance with local partnerships or public-private partnerships and perhaps use those as financial instruments that do not necessitate establishing an institution.


There has been scepticism about quangos, and accountability is a real issue. Although there may be scope for scaling back quangos, particularly in Northern Ireland where the circumstances that brought about direct rule also brought about a measure of deliberate depoliticisation, that reduction would not be a factor in other public administration systems. There may be greater scope for "quango hunting", as Mrs Thatcher once called it, than elsewhere. I noticed that two weeks ago Prof Knox put some caveats on this. It is hard to imagine a modern public administration that does not include some quangos.


There are several options for thinning out quangos. One can transfer their functions to Departments under Ministers. That may be done through an agency, given the prevalence of next-step agencies in Northern Ireland. One can also transfer them to local government. Of course, increasing the functions of local government significantly begs the question of whether 26 local councils are necessary. One can also consider a regional, or if one regards Northern Ireland as a region, a sub-regional theme, and I know that the Macrory Report and the Burns Report considered having four regions or fewer. I should like to return to that if I may.


If there is an irreducible core of quangos, several ideas on accountability can be pursued. One that has been around for a while but which has not been acted on is to focus on the role of the chairman. A board legally consists of a chairman and several other members, so the position of chairman is already pre-eminent, and the chairman is the formal channel of communication on behalf of the board and the agency to the Minister. Chairmen, however, tend to be primus inter pares. There have been suggestions in various public body reports over the past 15 or 20 years that the role of the chairman should be enhanced. The chairman might be chosen first and would then have a say in appointing other board members. The board members would know why a person had been chosen as chairman. For better or worse, the chairman would be significantly more accountable, and in the extreme and unhappy case of serious breakdown a chairman could be dismissed instead of having to dismiss entire boards.


More recently, a related idea was floated that if depoliticisation is a worry surrounding quangos they could be repoliticised by allowing hearings like those in Congressional Committees on the appointment of chairmen. A chairman would be proposed but could not be appointed without Assembly involvement. The options for quangos are extensive and of course in no way mutually exclusive.


In the Republic, a chaotic regional situation is beginning to take on some shape and perhaps to put down roots. In the Assembly debate of 25 February 2002, reference was made to Cookstown District Council being at the intersection of around four regional areas. I was immediately reminded of Roscommon. Had one been asked 15 years ago what region Roscommon was in, one could only reply, "For what function and for what purpose?". It was variously in the western region, the north-western region and the midlands region. Now it is indisputably in the western region.


I tried to bring out in the paper that, particularly in the most recent round of structural funding, the line was held on the existing eight regions, and they became three- and five-region building blocks of the two European Union super regions. Although they are not standard regions, the Local Government Act 1991 suggests that, where possible, other regional bodies should align their boundaries with them. The possibility of standard regions as an intermediate tier between central and local government might usefully be considered.


Mr Kennedy: I was interested to read about European Union initiatives such as LEADER, Peace I and now the European structural programme. There has been no great involvement with elected members, something that is now being addressed. Can you outline the background and explain why that is the case? In Northern Ireland it was very much a partnership approach.


Mr Stapleton: Many of the programmes, including LEADER, were EU-driven and emerged at a time when local government was not publicly perceived as having a function in economic development. They grew up outside the local government system and, of course, local representatives. That was a cause of concern, not least to local councillors, and eventually, as part of the Republic’s rethinking of local government in the late 1980s and 1990s, it was decided that there should be a task force on integration. The title of the report, the ‘Integration of Local Government and Local Development’, is revealing.


That became the basis of thinking behind the strategic policy committees, which link councillors to other local actors. The county and city development boards bring local government representatives and the executives of other public bodies and agencies together with the social partners — trades unions, farmers, chambers of commerce and so on — in joint activity.


Mr Kennedy: Are they now blending well?


Mr Stapleton: Yes, although the boards are in transition, and there are questions of how "social actor" groups are defined as representative. There are questions of "Who does it?" and "How is it done?" There are also obviously questions about potential conflicts of interest. The standards in public life legislation, which began at national level, has been incorporated into local government statute.


Mr K Robinson: It has been intriguing listening to you develop the themes as the Administration have evolved over the years. An Administration is only as good as the Civil Service that supports it, and I want to ask you about the Civil Service reform in the state — particularly the strategic management initiative. It was said to be a marked and major attempt to improve the Civil Service. Given the propensity of the Civil Service to survive all attempts to reform and streamline it, was that legislation any more successful in the Republic of Ireland?


Moreover, the Act contains significant provision on a chain of accountability among Ministers, senior civil servants and officers. You may have heard us say that a similar chain of accountability is not exactly functioning here. Will you comment on those two aspects?


Mr Stapleton: We are on our third phase of administrative reform, especially that type of managerial- style public management. The Devlin Report — an external Fulton-type body — drove the first phase, and they did tremendous work. That engagement was perceptive and prescient, and it produced recommendations that were radical for the time. However, the political and administrative systems were unable to absorb them.


The second phase came in the mid-1980s, and was more politically driven by the then Taoiseach Dr Garret FitzGerald, who had an interest in general governance issues. It was also driven by the economic and financial stresses of the period. That was also the only time when we had a Minister who was exclusively devoted to the public service, and that put political energy into the review. The focus was very much on efficiency, cutting out waste, service delivery et cetera — a response to the needs at the time.


More recently, we have had the strategic management initiative (SMI), which has been described as an attempt at a continuous process of management development. What is interesting about that is that it is, to some extent, a Civil Service initiative, and the Civil Service has bought into it. In 1987, politicians and senior civil servants were shocked by the condition in which Ireland found itself. A report at the end of 1986 from the National Economic and Social Council more or less said that if we continued as we were, we were ruined. That is the sort of language one never encounters in official reports. The shock waves meant that both politicians and senior civil servants were in the market for ideas, which fits in with new public management thinking. A group of senior civil servants on an MSc organisational analysis course in Trinity College Dublin brought that idea to the Government. The Government could hardly believe their luck. That happened once before, at the end of the 1950s, with the Whittaker initiative, which dealt with economic development. One of the strengths of the current approach is that senior civil servants are committed to a review of public administration.


A legislative framework — the Public Service Management Act, 1997 — and various other processes have been put in place, and elements such as strategy statements are now mandated. That is happening, and the general view is that the quality and sophistication of strategy statements have improved over the period. However, even its proponents recognise that a long-term cultural re-orientation is involved here, and some questions have arisen as to what the real remit is throughout the service at present. To date, anything published has been partial or interim, so we do not have a complete picture.


It may be significant that we are at a stocktaking stage, and the PA Consulting management group has been invited to undertake a review of the process. Its report is ready but is not yet in the public domain. There is talk of rebranding and re-energising the exercise. A process of continuous management change is one thing, but after the initial jump-start it becomes increasingly difficult to distinguish it from ordinary incrementalism. The feeling is that a start has been made but that the effect to date has not been profound. However, it could not be expected to be profound, as this project will take a generation to be implemented.


There is an interesting provision in the Public Service Management Act for dealing with cross- departmental or cross-cutting issues. However, I do not believe that it has been used statutorily to date. There was a standard range of co-ordinating devices from Ministers of State, programme managers — especially under coalition Governments between 1992 and 1997 — and interdepartmental Committees. The ordinary interdepartmental Committee, especially if chaired from the centre by the Department of the Taoiseach or the Department of Finance, is seen as too territorial. Therefore, there has been a shift towards cross- departmental teams in which one Department is clearly identified as the lead agency. That is already happening, and it has been used in childcare and in anti-poverty strategies.


The Public Service Management Act gives it a strong legislative base. There are arrangements whereby Ministers in consultation with Secretaries General, and, if necessary, with the Minister of Finance, can delegate responsibility to civil servants. Some of the work involved the Institute of Public Administration on the management of cross-cutting issues. Finance is important, because civil servants could be placed in specialist units or task forces with their own office accommodation, equipment and budget to report to the Department of the Taoiseach or to the Department of Finance. That has not happened, but it is possible to envisage it.


Unfortunately, in the Dáil and in the Seanad, neither the Minister nor the Minister of State elaborated on that provision; neither were any amendments tabled to it. The responsibility of Ministers for all aspects of their Departments under the Ministers and Secretaries Act, 1924 was changed by the Public Service Management Act, 1997. Ministers are responsible for strategy and for specifying performance targets. Operational and managerial responsibility has been delegated to the Secretary General of a Department, who in turn is statutorily empowered to delegate further. To the best of my information, that process has reached assistant secretary level but no further. The next grade — principal officer — is one of the key grades in the Civil Service.


Mr McMenamin: What is the most important step to take in the review of public administration in Northern Ireland? What was the most important step taken in the Republic?


Mr Stapleton: First, with regard to the review, to bring most of the issues into focus, we should first address the issues of centralisation and de-centralisation. We must consider what we want to do for all of Northern Ireland, and what we want to devolve. Secondly, within the centre, we must decide what we expect Departments and non-departmental agencies to do. Thirdly, with regard to de-centralised matters, we must decide whether we want a local government-based system that would create a two-tier system, or whether we envisage an intermediate tier, involving Northern Ireland, three or four regions and local government. I do not wish to sound too optimistic, but once we begin to focus on those issues, nearly everything else starts to fall into place.


The other question was harder, so I was tempted to forget it.


Mr McMenamin: What do you consider to be the most important change that the review in the Republic recommended?


Mr Stapleton: That is a difficult question. There was a recognition that the state was both overloaded and congested, and moves were made to slim it down. By historical standards, it was a significant, although not a dramatic, move. The most important change was probably the shift to a more benign attitude towards local government and the concept of devolution in general.


Mrs E Bell: I also wish to ask a basic question. The reason for our review is to bring about the effective delivery of services and good government. You mentioned accountability. With regard to the system in the South, the Public Service Act, 1997, and the SMI, when will the person in the street be affected, and how will he or she see that services are being delivered? Would those be complemented by an approach that encouraged and extended e-government and communication techniques such as e-mail?


Mr Stapleton: You have touched on an important issue. I mentioned that we have not had a comprehensive review of the SMI, although various academics have studied certain aspects of it. I explained about the strategy statements. The one theme that has emerged is the need to articulate the strategies in measurable performance terms. It is agreed that there is a weakness in that regard. It could be argued that we should be sympathetic because we are in the early stages. We have not established those performance terms yet. At present, we are under the pressure of an election and the quality of delivery of public services is strongly contested.


Mrs E Bell: That would also apply to our situation.


Mr Stapleton: With regard to information technology (IT), I must be careful about what I say because I do not consider myself to be anything like an expert in that field. There is a move towards e-government; primarily, there is a move towards e-commerce. The state must be seen to practise what it preaches. Much is online, and interaction with bodies such as the Revenue Commissioners is much easier than it was. Politics Online recently conducted a review of Government web sites across Europe. Some 19 countries were included in the study; the Republic of Ireland came first and the UK came second. Delivery is being enhanced. Whether IT is being used in a fundamental, transformational way is beyond my expertise to say. Reference was made to that in the paper by Assembly researchers.


Mr Maskey: How have public-private partnerships (PPPs) affected accountability and participative democracy?


Mr Stapleton: The PPP instrument is at an early stage of development in the Republic, but it seems to be becoming more popular and Governments seem more predisposed to it. It is a financial instrument, and I am not entirely clear of its accountability implications. One of the controversies associated with PPPs in the Republic relates to tollings.


Mr Ervine: I do not have much time so please take as long as you like to answer the question.


Mr Stapleton: One learns something new every day.


Mr Ervine: You have impressed me greatly. We often receive reports telling us that if we do not change our ways we shall be in trouble. That is wonderful because we have received one of those every three weeks since the formation of the Northern Ireland state; we paid no attention, but we are learning a little.


What mistakes were made in the process and what opportunities were missed? Knowing the mistakes that you made might help us to avoid them in our review.


Mr Stapleton: Probably our greatest missed opportunity was not implementing fully the proposals of the 1969 Devlin Report, which would have transformed public administration in a state that was becoming far more developmental in its outlook. There were various reasons for that, including developments in Northern Ireland, pressures arising from the oil crisis and the competing demands of the European Union. There have been several discussions of the methodology of the review. It took that august body three years to produce a blockbuster of a report. Had there been interim publications and dialogue, politicians and civil servants might have been more attuned to its ideas. However, an opportunity was missed.


The legislation to set up the Department of Public Service, which was one of the recommendations to drive the reform programme, did not happen until 1973. That was a blunder. Moreover, the rationale was to take those functions out of the Department of Finance, which was thought to have too much of a short-term annual budgetary perspective. There were competing arguments endorsed by the Devlin group, mistakenly in my view, was that there should continue to be a ministerial association between public service and finance. A significant opportunity was lost. The agenda then changed — someone once unkindly described it after the oil crisis as "good husbandry to slash-and-burn". That is a bit unfair, but it took most of a generation before that public management agenda was retrieved. Serious mistakes were made after 1969 and in the early 1970s. We might have been much further down the road than we are now if some of the thinking in the Devlin and Fulton reports had been implemented.


Mr Ervine: In a word, would that at least be partly due to being reactive to circumstances as opposed to developing attributes?


Mr Stapleton: Yes. There has been a constant tension in the reform initiatives between the focus on strategic policy-making and delivery. I do not mean to come across as a complete proponent of the Devlin Report. It was probably over-concerned with the policy dimension and institutional design, rather than human resource management et cetera.


The second wave in the 1980s was driven by the urgency of the situation. It was valuable initially, but it was more concerned with short-term efficiency rather than performance effectiveness, and it underplayed the strategic policy dimension. There was a learning curve over time. The SMI attempts to combine those aspects. In principle, as it is a strategic management initiative, there is a strong emphasis on strategic policy-making, performance et cetera. There is also a strong emphasis on the quality delivery of public services.


The Deputy Chairperson: Are the 1969 Devlin Report and the 1986 report worth reading or being researched by the Committee?


Mr Stapleton: I have reviewed those reports in a published article. That may be a convenient way of accessing them. I have not researched the SMI, but I know what it consists of. I am sure that I could find something convenient and suitable on that to bring the story up to date.


Mr K Robinson: My question relates to the mechanics of introducing the Act. You said that it was brought in by ministerial Order. We used to have experience here of Orders in Council, which meant that the process happened quickly. Is that a similar process?


Mr Stapleton: I am not sure. I did not mean to say that. The Act is a statute, an Act of Parliament. There may be a ministerial Order or a commencement day. Provision is made in the Act — perhaps this is what I was talking about — whereby Ministers can, by Order, set the process in place. I have explained the system of standard delegation in Departments. It has gone from a system completely focused on the Minister to a much more significant role for the Secretary General. The Secretary General has a right to delegate on that, which has reached, but not gone beyond, assistant secretary level.


Another point identified in the Public Service Management Act was the need for a much stronger focus on cross-cutting issues, which do not fall neatly into the domain of any one Department. A statutory provision reflects the situation as it is, but it could be used differently. With the Civil Service taken out of line, special units that are specially resourced by a sunset clause could revert to their original form. There is potential.


The Deputy Chairperson: Thank you for your presentation and questions. You will have noticed that someone has remarked that I gave little time to Committee members, and you got ample time. I was interested in the word "scrappage".


Mr Stapleton: I said that the public can be impolite at times. Their vernacular can be a little unsympathetic.


The Deputy Chairperson: Thank you.





Senior Lecturer in Public Administration
Department of Government and Society
University of Limerick

17 April 2002


1. The Public Sector

In the immediate aftermath of the establishment of the Irish Free State in 1922 the public sector, in line with prevailing ideas and patterns of the time, constituted a very small component of what was a small underdeveloped economy. However, in 1930s the sector began to grow with determined state action to vindicate independence in socio-economic as well as political and cultural terms. The sector grew most rapidly in the post-war period as such activity became assimilated to wider Keynesian and welfare ideas about the mixed economy and the managed-economy welfare state. The origins of what would eventually become "social partnership" lie in this period. By 1980s however domestic fiscal crisis allied to prevailing new right ideas saw significant retrenchment in the level of state activity and the size of the state sector. Currently political debate revolves around the relative merits of limited state involvement in a predominantly liberal market or more extensive state involvement in a social market – the so-called Boston or Berlin issue – or the possibility of some third way combining broadly liberal economics with a commitment to social equity. A related question is whether social partnership will provide a continuing framework for the articulation and resolution of these issues.

2. Social Partnership

As the state began to take an active role in the promotion of economic and social development from the late 1950s new forms of institutional arrangements began to emerge, initially between government, employers and trade unions. These extended in time to include farmers and the voluntary sector in ever more ambitious forms of social partnership. There is widespread though not complete acceptance that social partnership has made a significant contribution to economic and social development in the Republic particularly since 1987 even if opinions differ on the extent of that contribution. Recently however there has been increased questioning as to whether, from a socio-economic perspective, the existing model of social partnership remains appropriate to the next phase of economic and social development.

From a broader governance and public administration perspective there has been some, though perhaps surprisingly little, questioning as to how the essentially functional principle of representation embodied in social partnership is to be reconciled with the elective democratic principle of parliamentary representation. A modest strengthening of the role of parliament (in particular, parliamentary committees) and the creation of a National Economic and Social Forum which provides a loose linkage between the two streams seems to have been sufficient to allay whatever latent concerns there may have been on this score. Some concern continues to be expressed that a strong policy consensus orientation in this and other areas may be a factor in declining levels of electoral participation over the past two decades though, of course, many other reasons have been advanced to account for this phenomenon.

3. Structure of Public Administration

The structure of public administration as inherited and tidied up in the early years of the state consisted of a simple two-tier system consisting of a civil service under direct ministerial control (together with a small number of independent offices) and a system of local government. Within this framework the balance was strongly towards centralisation; for a variety of reasons the functions of local government were limited and it was strongly supervised from the centre. Subsequent developments include:

4. The Civil Service

The traditional civil service, combining policy and implementation roles, operated within an administrative ("bureaucratic") culture. Over time virtually all commercial functions were allocated to commercial SSBs (public enterprises). Likewise, many though by no means all executive functions were allocated to non-commercial SSBs (Executive Agencies), leaving a blurred indistinct line in the executive domain between these agencies and the civil service. There is currently an on-going incremental process of agentification within the civil service involving a range of approaches.

This is taking place against a background whereby the overall culture of the civil service is evolving in a managerial direction in line with the Strategic Management Initiative (SMI) of 1994, which itself embodies many of the ideas of the New Public Management (NPM) movement.

5. State-Sponsored Bodies (SSBs-PGOs/QUANGOs)

Against the backdrop of a traditional civil service culture of bureaucratic administration allocating public service functions to operationally autonomous SSBs/PGOs/ QUANGOS represents a classic 20th century response to the dilemma of reconciling demands for managerial effectiveness with public sector accountability. By 1984 SSBs constituted by employment the largest single sector of the administrative system in the republic. Since then however the sector has undergone significant decline.

A significant consequence of developments in this area is the recent emergence of a culture of regulatory administration (in eg. broadcasting, aviation, telecommunications and energy) in which the Irish state is embarked on a steep learning curve.

6. Local Government

Historically local government in the Republic has been characterised by its limited range of functions and strong central supervision. Under British rule functions such as education and policing were regarded as too sensitive for local preference and strong oversight of local government from Dublin was regarded de rigeur. A civil war at the establishment of the new state effectively destroyed any prospect of decentralisation at a critical point of transition. By then, in any event, Nationalist and Unionist political monopolies in local government had left the sector looking lethargic at best and subsequent economic-managerial ideas about efficiency being associated with economies of scale were also unhelpful to local government. However, widespread fiscal crisis in the 1970s forced a rethink about the role of the modern state which had come to be seen as overloaded and congested. The first was addressed via the privatisation agenda of rolling back the state; the second via a swing towards the idea of devolution/decentralisation as a way of relieving central government and empowering regional and local communities. These ideas have impacted on Irish local government particularly in the past decade.

The scale of change is not dramatic however, and the financial basis of local government remains problematic despite some recent initiatives.

7. Regional Administration

The early independent Irish state contained no regional dimension. An uncoordinated "drift towards regionalism" occurred from the mid 1960s as civil service departments and offices (notably the Department of Health) and state-sponsored bodies (notably those concerned with industrial development, employment and training and tourism) began to regionalise for their own functional purposes and as local authorities began to cooperate on a regional basis in relation to physical planning matters. A light scaffolding of non-statutory, non-standard , non-executive regionalism was erected around this structure in the 1970s. The arrival of substantial EU regional and other structural and cohesion funding to be allocated according to dual criteria – an economic per capita income test and a governance test of an adequate system of central-regional-local consultation – pushed the regional issue up the policy agenda.

8. European Dimension

From the beginning membership of the EEC as it then was made new demands for policy and administrative coordination within Irish Government with particular reference to the Departments of the Taoiseach, Foreign Affairs and Finance. Today the activities of the EU impact significantly on all government departments and particularly on the Departments of Agriculture, Food and Rural Development; Enterprise, Trade and Employment ; and Justice, Equality and Law Reform. Indeed the EU dimension of Public Administration may be thought of as virtually another layer in the system.

9. North-South Cooperation and Institutions

Arrangements for British-Irish and North-South cooperation under the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement constitute a new dimension of the public administration architecture. At this early stage it is interesting to note the variety of institutional styles being adopted in respect of the Implementation Bodies and of Tourism Ireland in relation to that area of cooperation.

10. New Trends

Attention has already been drawn to the emergence of a public management culture (emphasising strategic management, performance specification and evaluation, quality service delivery and value for money) and a sphere of regulatory administration as significant developments in recent times. The past decade has also seen a much greater emphasis on a culture of openness, transparency and accountability in such matters as ethics and standards in public life, freedom of information and enhanced accountability of the executive to parliament. As the republic has become more pluralist and exposed to multicultural influences equality and human rights issues have also moved up the policy agenda. Mostly this derives from developments within the Republic itself though some derive also from commitments under the Belfast Agreement.

10 April 2002 / Menu / 1 May 2002