Soldiers could lead the battle to reform public service

Irish troops serving the cause of peace internationally
Irish troops serving the cause of peace internationally

My column from tonight’s Evening Herald on how the reform and modernisation of the Defence Forces over the past year could prove a model for public sector reform

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The first tentative step on the path to a possible Croke Park II deal was taken last week when Public Sector unions and management sat down together for preliminary talks.

While reaching any form of deal will pose difficulties for negotiators on both sides, the management side has a particularly difficult delicate balance to strike. Though their political masters in Cabinet may be signalling their support for a deal they also know that most Fine Gael back benchers would be just as happy if no deal was reached.

The public service is just one more issue that divides back-benchers from both parties, with many of FG’s newer intake of TD’s echoing the “small government” rhetoric heard from US Republicans and Tea-Partyers.

It is not an uncommon view in these difficult times. There are many siren voices around attacking the public service and portraying it as riding on the back of a shrinking private sector.

Sadly, the public service often leaves itself open to these onslaughts with daft examples of wasteful spending and bad work practises. But the danger lies when occasionally justified criticisms are distilled into a dogma.

Yes, the public service is in need of reform and modernisation, but the one dimensional demonizing of the entire public service we hear from some quarters will not help reform anything. Nor will the “everything is just fine as it is” defence we hear from various public sector unions.

Public service reform is possible without hyperbole or blood on the carpets. With the right management and leadership the public service is capable of reforming and modernising itself. I know, because I was there when it happened.

The reform and modernisation of the Defence Forces over the past decade and a half is a model of how it can be done right.

The 2009 Bórd Snip Nua report found that the Defence Forces were the only sector in the Public Service to reduce numbers during the Celtic Tiger.

While the numbers working in the Public Service had increased by 17% between 2001 and 2009, the numbers working in the defence organisation actually fell by 8%, going from 11,808 down to 10,895 a drop of 913.

The reduction in numbers in uniform was reflected in a reduction of numbers of civil servants in the Department. These payroll savings were invested in better equipment and improved training meaning that the Irish Defence Forces could do more with less.

The negotiations were tough, but both sides recognised that it was in their mutual interest. While soldiers and officers do not have Trade Unions, they do have strong representative organisations: PDFORRA and RACO and a parallel conciliation and arbitration process that conducts it business quietly and effectively,

Perhaps the absence of outside influences, speculation and running commentaries, helped create the conditions for agreement – but not nearly as strong leadership, both political and military.

We should now be finding ways of replicating this progressive model. Before coming into office the Taoiseach’s last big idea on the Defence Forces was that it should be running boot camps for young offenders.

Doubtless he has abandoned this nonsense having spent two years seeing them close up, but their handling of the last round of barrack closures suggests that he may not yet have realised just how the Defence Forces be a model for public service reform.

ENDS