Minister Pat Rabbite does not believe that the crisis reveals weaknesses in our design for democracy. One might have expected his left wing background to predispose him to structural explanations. Not in this matter: he opts for agency – the system was not the problem, Fianna Fail was. Nonetheless he does believe that the relationship between ministers and civil servants deserves examination. Senior civil servants were not held to account for their failures that contributed to the crisis because their responsibilities are not clearly spelt out. The Government agrees with him and is committed to legislation that will clarify relationships and spell out responsibilities. I suppose the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform are working on that legislation. Perhaps the following will help them.
Who can doubt that weaknesses in the civil service contributed to the crisis. We cannot understand these weaknesses without attention to the links that inextricably bind the civil service to politics. We cannot expect to discover what might be done to improve the civil service without noticing how our politics have changed.
Why are policies so often poorly constructed and badly implemented? An increasingly popular answer points the finger at politicians and civil servants. Full-time politicians, and today most politicians are full-time, run errands for their constituents, stopping from time to time to gibe at their opponents. As a result, the few who make it to ministerial rank have had scant opportunity to acquire the knowledge or develop the judgement to oversee and advance a department’s policies. The civil servants have little incentive to develop the competencies in policy-making and management that they cannot deploy in conversations with their ministers. What use is a servant who cannot be understood?
In my first post, I outlined the difficulties and incoherencies in the conduct of our politics that contributed to the crisis. In particular, I drew attention to the limitations of the ‘genre’ in which Ministers and civil servants cooperated. The ‘court’ model was, I suggested, no longer working. In this part, I attempt to make good that claim by showing how the quite dramatic changes in our political landscape that became manifest in 1980s have undermined the genre. I do this in two sections. In the first, I outline what the changes have been in terms of the strategy, culture and structure of the state. Having done that, I am in a position to discuss the consequences of the changes for democracy in general and the civil service-political interface in particular.
The Celtic Tiger is dead. Who is to blame and to what degree? The interrogation goes beyond the action of individuals to question the performance of institutions. In what follows, I consider the role of the civil service. While official enquiries have regularly questioned its organizational capacities, the catastrophe has, inevitably, focussed attention on the actions of civil servants. Did they know of the looming dangers? If not, why not? If they did, did they advise their ministers accordingly? If not, why not? What was their understanding of their role and to what extend did it inhibit or encourage them to know and inform? The evidence (scarce enough) suggests that both structural weaknesses and cultural inhibitions prevented them forming and offering the advice that could have reduced the damage. The trusted ‘lookouts’ neither saw clearly enough, nor reported boldly enough what they did discern to the ‘captain’ on the bridge.
This essay attempts to explain why this was so.