Howlin’s most petty last “last ask”

In the past couple of weeks, some public servants have started receiving emails and circulars regarding their temporary cut to annual leave.  This was one of the minor clauses contained in the Haddington Road Agreement (aka Croke Park II), something glossed over or ignored by the unions when advising staff to vote in favour of it.

In essence, those on the max of their salary scale, earning between €35k and €65k per annum, and with more than 23 days’ annual leave entitlement, lose up to six days’ annual leave, temporarily, between now and 2015.  So, e.g., an Administrative Officer reaching the top of their scale this year will lose 2 days in 2014, 2 more in 2015, and one in 2016 – and in 2017 will be back to their full leave entitlement.  People effected are essentially working an extra six days over three years.

Why? Er, reasons. Just because.

I suppose ostensibly Howlin will claim it’s necessary, it’ll increase productivity, and sure look, it’s part of the (cue his overused phrase) “last ask” for public servants.

So the Administrative Officer on max of scale loses 6 days leave. Her division head on more leave and a lot more money loses nothing.  The Junior Systems Analyst on max of scale loses 6 days leave but his boss on possibly less money loses none.  Two people in the same grade but where one started a couple of months before the other – one loses days, the other doesn’t.

It’s petty.

It won’t increase productivity by any measurable amount.  Every office, department, and public body has lost staff that haven’t been replaced.  Some of us working an extra two days a year for a couple of years doesn’t – can’t – make up for that.

It’s there because Robert Watt told Brendan Howlin to do it, because, on paper, x number of civil servants working 2 days extra per year for three years can apparently roughly translate into a monetary amount that can go onto one side of a balance sheet.

What isn’t taken into account is that after the pay freeze, the numerous pay cuts, the lack of any promotional opportunities, the longer hours, the reneging on the Croke Park Agreement by Labour and Fine Gael, the gutting of family-friendly work practices (such as flexi-time and term-time) and everything else, this latest unnecessary, inequitable exercise does come at a cost – whatever goodwill or flexibility that may have remained.

Another cost may well be a pretty direct relationship between the number people losing leave and the number of votes lost by Labour and Fine Gael…

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How to save €300 million: #1 in an occasional series

The Government keeps telling Brendan Howlin to insist it needs to save €300 million from public pay this year because of reasons.  It really doesn’t, but let’s ignore for a moment that they could increase taxes on the wealthy or refuse to pay foreign bankers who gambled and lost.  There is still another way – which Croke Park 1 was achieving in large part, anyway – and that’s to reduce costs.

So here are some ideas.  Feel free to contribute your own.

1. Bring the Garda Síochána into the 21st century.  Actually, that may be too ambitious. Let’s just say the 20th century. Introduce legislation that allows statements to be taken electronically.

Seriously. I had to give a statement to the guards last year. I knew when they were calling and so prepared a statement and printed out two copies. Two of them arrived at the appointed time, read over my statement, said “That’s grand” and proceeded to write the entire thing again. By hand. Because the law doesn’t permit them to take a statement any other way, apparently.  It took over an hour (and was almost word for word identical to the original version I could have emailed them).

If they could take statements electronically, they could be emailed in advance, only printed off when required, digitally signed…

Savings: Hmm – the force is 14,000 strong. Let’s say half of them take a statement, once a week.  It takes (based on my admittedly limited experience) one hour less to witness/print off/have someone digitally sign a statement – even if the Garda is typing it him- or herself – than it does to have to write a statement out longhand, read it back to someone, make any corrections, and have it signed. So – we save 7,000 hours a week across the country.  No Spin Ireland(!) conveniently tells me that a Garda a year out of Templemore earns a mighty €28,867 per annum, and why would you send anyone more senior to take a statement?  Assuming a 40-hour week, that’s the princely sum of €13.87 saved on each statement.  7,000 of those is €97,090 a week, or €5,048,680 in a full year.

Sure, you’d have initial expenses as you equipped the force with laptops and email addresses, but after that – all those guards are freed up to do policework.

2. Let us buy stuff cheaply. I don’t care if you’ve arranged a “Central Model Of Distribution” framework contract that in theory saves everyone money, I get angry when I see stuff costing more than it should and I’m forced to buy it. Do not force the public service to use the National Procurement Service. At least until it’s able to negotiate proper deals that allow us go elsewhere if stuff is cheaper elsewhere.

Seriously. It’s got all of these various agreements in place, and we’re supposed to use its catalogue.  But when I see a standard backup tape costing a tenner more in the NPS catalogue than Joe Public can buy it for, from an Irish-based distributor, over the internet and without a contract – then I have to wonder how much more we’re being ripped off on other stuff.

Savings: Ok, just taking the silly example of the backup tapes.  I use five a week. €50/week for my employer saved if we buy from this company (or that one, or that one) rather than who the NPS says we have to use.  €2,500/year.

It’s hard to find out how many public bodies there are in Ireland. This report from 2007 claims 213 regulatory bodies (but omits “The Judiciary and Quasi-Judicial Bodies; Gardai & Defence Forces; Ombudsman Services and Offices”).  Assuming every organisation only uses a very modest five backup tapes a week (many would use far more!), that’s still a saving of €537,500.  From one single item in the NPS catalogue.

Running total: Two ideas, €5,586,180 in savings.  Just another €295m to go, give or take.  Don’t worry, I’ll have more ideas…

Bureaucracy is *fun*!

I keep telling people how efficient certain parts of the public sector are.  And it’s true.  No matter how much the Sindo would have you believe that every public servant is evil or incompetent or thieving or inefficient or lazy or… well, you get the picture – sometimes, quite often, in fact, we do stuff well.

With reducing resources, in adverse circumstances, and with a concerted campaign to demean and belittle us, and make us guilty for daring to get paid for doing our jobs – really, we do manage to be efficient.  And having friends at all levels of the private sector, I know that we are often more efficient than the private sector.

But not always.

I’d heard about an interesting vacancy advertised on PublicJobs so I go to have a look. Or, well, I try to.

First, I can’t get the site to do anything.  My browser has frozen.  No, wait now. It’s the site. They’ve put up a popup warning me about (SHOCK! HORROR!) the danger of cookies, and how their cookies aren’t really dangerous.  It’s just that the popup blends in so well with the site that you don’t actually notice it.

Close that popup and we hit problem number two – you can do nothing unless you’re logged in.  You can’t even download the application form.  So you have to register with the site so you can log in.

Oh, look – you have to create a Username. Which can’t be your email address.  That’s… quaint.  Security questions?  Yes, the same security questions most sites ask for.  At least they could phrase it differently – “What’s your pornstar name?” so they can get your first pet’s name and mother’s maiden name in one question.

We get there eventually. We get the form downloaded. We get told we need Adobe version 7 (no, we need Adobe reader, there’s a difference) but that’s ok.

Then we find out that to apply for a senior position in the Irish civil/public service you get  exactly the same application form as you would when applying for the most junior post.

“Give below, in date order (starting with your current employer), full particulars of all employment (including any periods of unemployment) between the date of leaving school or college and the present date. No period between these dates should be unaccounted for.”

For real?  I’m applying for a fairly senior post.  You make it clear people need relevant experience.  You’re not getting people fresh out of college here.  But you want to know everything they’ve done since they left secondary school or college?

In my case, that’s well over twenty years.  I do not see how filling out boxes about a FÁS course I did in the 1980s, some months I spent unemployed back then, or a couple of years spent working in a clothes shop can be of any benefit to you or to me.  In fact, even finding the relevant dates will be a pain in the ass – and will involve me taking up the valuable time of other public servants as I try to find this information during working hours. “Hello – I was unemployed twenty-something years ago for a couple of months – if I give you my PPS number, can you get me the dates?  And would there be anything about a FÁS course on there too?  Thanks, I’ll hold…”

Private sector people – middle-to-senior management job.  You’d be looking at what, last ten years only?  Add in other, older stuff if it directly supports the application?

The sad thing is this is pretty much exactly the same application form they were using five or six years ago,. the last time I filled one of these out.  So in six years, there’s been not one person in the Public Appointments Service who has said “You know, this is bullshit.  At this level, the interview boards always skip the early stuff  – let’s save everyone’s time and resources and just ask…”

Mind you, last time, I thought to myself “I’m scanning this, just in case…” and had a hard drive crash.  So yeah, there is a benefit to bureaucracy, and doing things in triplicate…

Decentralisation: doing the same thing over and over…

A famous man once said that the definition of insanity was:

“Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”

Einstein

Obviously, nobody has repeated these sage words to Young Dev.  Somebody let him near a microphone again, and so at the Merriman Summer School, he’s been extolling the virtues of decentralisation.

I used to work in a government department which had a head office and several smaller offices around the country, with a workforce of over 1,000 people.  Around 50 to 60 or so worked in “my” area, and I had excellent promotion prospects.  I now work in an organisation with less than 100 people, total, and my only hope of promotion in this organisation is if my boss dies, or retires.  I believe the Klingons have a word for the former method?  The reason for my move was, of course, decentralisation.  I had no desire to move to a midlands town.  Even if I did have, my family didn’t.  And y’know, my wife has a job in Dublin too…

This notion was first inflicted on the country by then Taoiseach, Albert Reynolds (after advice from the self-congratulatory Terry Leyden), who took ten years to “move” the  General Registrar’s Office from Dublin to Roscommon, where it’s no good to anybody.  (Really.  It’s actually easier for an American tourist to trace their Irish roots by visiting the Mormons in Salt Lake City, Utah, than it is to get access to Ireland’s public birth, marriage and death records. But sure who needs tourist dollars, it’s not like there’s a recession).

The idea was more or less parked for several years.  We had some decentralised offices – generally sections of larger departments.  The Collector General’s office was based in Limerick, and Pensions were in Sligo.  It kind of worked ok, though if you were on the inside looking out, you could see the problems.

Then – Charlie McCreevy. We were going to decentralise, and how!  Forget this piecemeal moving of bits of organisations!  Let’s move whole government departments!  11,000 jobs taken out of Dublin and moved around the country!  Because that made perfect sense…

Only it doesn’t.  The project was, of course, a complete and utter expensive failure. Loss of corporate memory.  Huge inefficiencies.  More expense.  No proper planning.  No planning at all.  Sticking departments where it’d win votes (Marine to a landlocked county?  The Irish Prison Service to somewhere with no prisons?), not where it might make some sense. Ignoring the government’s own spacial strategy.  And so on.

Dev Óg

Proverbs 26:11

Éamon O Cuiv wants to go back to all that.

“Decentralised offices had lower staff turnover, saved money on property expenses and ensured economic growth in areas that would otherwise not attract industry, achieving balanced regional development.”

“Decentralised offices had lower staff turnover”:  Yes, this is true.  This is a bad thing.  They have low staff turnover because if you’ve decentralised to, say, Killarney, there’s nowhere else for you to move to that’s within a reasonable commute.  So you stay put.  Stagnating. Forever.

“…saved money on property”: Yes, this is true.  An office in Sligo is cheaper than the equivalent office space in Dublin.  Assuming everything was procured properly and above board, and not done on a nod and a wink basis.  Which I’m sure never happened anywhere. We won’t mention all the additional costs associated with decentralisation, either, cos that’d be embarrassing.

“…ensured economic growth in areas that would otherwise not attract industry”: Well – if providing 100 or so jobs in a town is the purpose of a government department, then I guess this could be true. Except no.  The purpose of government departments is to help develop and implement government policy, at the behest of our elected politicians, in conjunction with stakeholders and, well – ideally – other government departments!  You know – that “joined-up government” that everyone thinks would be a good idea!

Ok, Éamon, you’re a politician. You were speaking to your audience – mainly people from the country, while in your own back yard.  You know your audience.  But please tell me that’s all it was, a bit of harmless showboating in the middle of silly season.  Rather than a serious FF policy, which will cost us if you ever get back into power.

€238,000. Per job.

Standards in Public Office – “standards” optional

The Standards in Public Office Commission (SIPO) is a strange beast.  It’s supposed to lay down the law to elected officials – TDs, senators and councillors – and public and civil servants.  It kind of does that, sometimes.  But without, apparently, applying best practice standards.

They’re in the news today for telling Councillor Oisin Quinn that he was a bold boy for voting on something, after he’d checked whether or not he could vote, and being told he could, when he owned property in the affected area.

The council, quite rightly, then said “Hmm – lots of councillors own property in the area that elects them.  Yet the county development plan must be signed off by councillors.  Who apparently are not allowed vote on the plan if they own property in the area… we see a problem.  We should get SIPO to clarify things.

SIPO… well, SIPO refused.  The public body charged with maintenance of standards in public life, refused to offer clarification or advice when requested to do so by another public body.

Le sigh.

My dealings with them, thus far, have been minor.  As someone who can spend money, I have to print off a form every year, sign it, and return it to them.  Yes, that’s physically print off a form, and physically sign it.  Because this is only the 21st century and nobody trusts that new-fangled “electronic communication” thing.  I tried doing it by email and was told I couldn’t.  The form essentially states “I am not corrupt.  I will procure stuff transparently and fairly.  I am not buying stuff from a friend or relative.”  The thousands of forms, when returned to SIPO each year by thousands of public servants, are presumably then stuffed into boxes, unsorted, to be ignored forever, judging by the total lack of prosecutions of county managers for buying and leasing storage places for e-voting machines from relatives.  For example.