Frank Litton on policy-making, the civil service and the malaise of Ireland's democracy.

Strengthening Civil Service Accountability and Performance: A Poor Performance

Feb 12, 14 • The Public Sector2 Comments


On the 14 January last, the Government Reform Unit of the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform published a public consultation paper. It invites the public submit their views on ‘Strengthening Civil Service Accountability and Performance’. The paper discusses the ins-and-outs of the topic, presenting us with 19 questions that deserve answers.

The topic comes before us because of a commitment made in the Programme for Government. This was largely inspired by the Labour Party’s concern that civil servants could too easily evade responsibility when things went wrong. In a speech- Public Service Reform should not let Ministers off the hook – to the Burren Law School in 2010, Pat Rabbite argued that if ministers were to be suspended from hooks, so to should senior civil servants. The Programme of Government promises to provide the hook. It is a question of decisions, who makes them and who supervises their execution.

‘If ministers take a decision personally, he or she should say so and account for it; if the decision is taken by the Department, under a delegated power, then the relevant, named official should say so and account for it; and the Minister would then have to account for the degree of supervision that he or she exercised over the department in relation to the exercise within it of delegated powers’  -p22.

The problems dealt within the paper- adjusting accountability to match the changes in our political landscape, improving the performance of the civil service- are important. It is a pity, therefore, that paper’s analysis is weak and its arguments poor. Given that it does not examine, in any detail, the tasks that bring ministers and senior civil servants together and that it works with an old-fashioned model of policy-making, its failure was inevitable. In this post, I do examine those tasks and report a more realistic approach to understanding policy-making. I do not provide solutions. The discussion of them is for another post. The first step is a clear view of the problem. That is what I attempt here.

Performance and accountability

Observing an organization is akin to watching a play. We watch how the different roles interact, revealing the plot and carrying it forward. We evaluate the skill of the actors. There are, of course, differences. The scripts that assemble an organization are open-ended; rather than speak lines written for them the actors improvise within the boundaries set by their roles [or by the genre- see post 1]. A play’s plot has a beginning, a middle and an end. An organization’s plot is a journey whose destination [aim] changes as obstacles are overcome and opportunities exploited. Perhaps, we should speak of a ‘performance’ rather than a play.

As the performance proceeds the actors exchange information, respond to requests, issue orders, ask for explanations evaluate and comment on each other’s performance. They argue, perhaps even fight. Everybody knows their own role, more or less, and the ambiguities that arise in the normal course of business are cleared up as disputes about how and why things drift off course are resolved. Occasionally things go badly wrong. It is not now a question of an actor’s miscue or incompetence. The whole performance has gone off course. There is a hiatus. Our attention is drawn away from the action which recedes into the background. The dispute takes centre stage. Enquiries are made, charges drawn up and answered. To talk of accountability is to talk of the terms in which these disputes are framed. The terms in which the every-day disputes, unavoidable, in the execution of a division of a labour are fixed might be described as ‘management.’  They are different from those that come to the fore in the hiatus.

Accountability varies from one category of performance to another. I discussed this in post 5. Suffice here observe that the civil servant who is held to account for her failings as a parent/partner over breakfast deploys quite different justifications from those available to her when, arriving at the office she is challenged by her angry minister with the Irish Daily Mail in one hand and summons to the News-at-One in the other. The conclusion is clear: to understand accountability, we have to attend closely to the performance, identifying its dynamics and its aims and purposes. The paper does not do this. Perhaps, understandably, it focuses on the law [The Constitution, Minister and Secretaries Acts, The Public Service Management Act]. Of course, the law is relevant; it provides the scaffold that supports the performance. We cannot, however, interpret the law or criticise its weakness without reference to the performance. It is changes within the performance that make the scaffold shaky.

The dynamics of the performance

‘To advice, assist, and sometimes influence those set in authority over them’. This is the role assigned to civil serva’nts in the Northcote-Trevelayn Report, one of the foundations of the ‘Westminster Model’. It is hard to envisage this advising, assisting and influencing apart from a conversation. Conversation, we may conclude, is central to the performance that brings the roles of ministers and civil servants together in pursuit of the public interest. The Minister’s voice has final authority. He alone can bring the conversation to a conclusion.

The centrality of conversation makes for obvious difficulties in accountability. A decision emerging from a conversation has been a disaster. The minister is on the rack, or rather, Prime Time. He is angry with his civil servants: ‘you never told me, you did not explain, you should have known, you did not press your point strongly enough’. His civil servants have their own resentments: ‘he never listens, he will not accept unpalatable facts, he refuses to understand, he hears only his media advisers’. Separating the interlocutors from a conversation is as difficult as separating the dancers from the dance.

It is worth delving deeper into what counts as a good performance by civil servants in the conversation between them and their ministers. In the absence of published research, I rely on my own informal enquiries. I could hardly avoid gleaning information on the topic as I explored Politics and Organizational Analysis [my disciplines] with my civil servant students. I was contributing to courses in management.  It was impossible not to recognize that though the students saw the worth of management studies and acknowledged their relevance, management was a side-show, perhaps, an important one.  I recall an assistant-secretary telling me that ‘being a cute hoor’ was the most important qualification for the post. His class-mates, all assistant-secretaries, did not demur at this correction of my assumption that expertise in management was essential. The term ‘cute hoor’ is evocative but hardly precise.

Another senior civil servant provided a more useful account. He was explaining to me why some civil servants stood out from the crowd and were acknowledged as excellent performers by both politicians and their peers. They did so, he said, because of their superior skill in handling a ‘situation’. A situation could be a row in Brussels when a meeting took an unexpected turn up-ending the apple cart and frustrating the minister’s plans. It could be, in broad daylight, when some ‘scandal’ grabbed the headlines. A good civil servant finds a route out of the situation: a form of words, a deviation in policy that circumvents the obstacle, a promise that brings opponents on side. Little attention is paid to what might happen down the road- another situation for another day? What matters is that balance has been restored, affairs put back on track. The story can go on.

Of course, handling situations is not the routine business of ministers and civil servants. Most of time, they are occupied with representing and defending the department, preparing legislation, adapting or adjusting policies and overseeing their implementation. Situations are occasional episodes in the smooth flow of business. Nonetheless, they are central to any discussion of accountability. The high regard in which the qualities required to manage them are held tell us how important they are.  Situations are becoming more frequent and more difficult.

Situations and policy-making

A lot of the paper’s difficulties and confusions flow from its starting point. Its authors had no option but to adopt a model of policy-making as the making and implementation of decisions. This is Minister Rabbitte’s model in his Burren speech. It is the model reflected in the proposal in the Programme for Government. Accept it, and situations are breakdowns in performance. And accountability is straightforward: identify who is responsible for bad decisions and who messed up implementation. Unfortunately, the model does not fit reality. The paper acknowledges this. Policy-making and implementation cannot be easily separated with the minister responsible for decisions and the civil servants responsible for implementation. ‘It is clear, however, that it is not possible to draw a line though the policy process after which no more ministerial involvement is required’ p23. Nonetheless, they continue to struggle in the hopeless task of saying something useful about accountability with this misguided distinction.

There is a better understanding available that allows us see situations, not as breakdowns in performance but as inherent in them. They may not be routine but they are normal. This better model is implicit in the work of Simon and Lindblom, whose work laid the foundations of our understanding of decision-making and policy-making. The ‘pragmatic turn’ in sociology makes it explicit. [I have reported on this in posts 3 and 4]

The essential point is that decisions do not precede action. They arise within it. You awoke this morning and decided to get up. You worked out how to implemented the decision; having successfully done so you decided to wash and shower, implementing this decision brings you to the bathroom where you decide…… . This account is ridiculous. If you made any explicit decisions these were provoked by an obstacle- an empty toothpaste tube, no hot water, a blown light bulb….

Why should we expect it to be any different with policy-making? Policy-makers do not decide and implement, they implement and decide. And the decisions that they make are framed by the routines [Simon’s ‘bounded rationality’] and depend on their tacit knowledge [Lindblom’s incrementalism]. This reality is captured by the notion of a policy-narrative. The commitments made, the resources deployed, the interests engaged, the purposes found, the aims assigned and the scripts written can be accounted for in a narrative of conflicts accommodated, obstacles overcome, purposes adapted and aims adjusted.

This is, of course, a simplification. Closer inspection of policy narratives reveals multiple narratives. A policy engages with the narratives of the citizens it serves and with the interest groups with which it engages. For example, education policy overlaps with the narratives of parents, churches and teachers. Developments within any of these may cause problems for the policy narrative. [I discussed how the declining significance of religion impacts on education policy in post 4].

Furthermore, policy narratives cannot be understood apart from the political narrative with which they are allied. The political narrative’s endless task is to draw the circle that unites the citizens together with their fractious and contending interests in acceptance of the limitations, burdens and rewards their government disperses. Policy narratives are its successful ‘stories’. They carry on in the background. Nevertheless, they must be kept in harmony with the political narrative. This is the routine of the minister-civil servant performance. A situation occurs when the harmony is lost. It can have its origins within the political narrative or within a policy narrative or in some combination of both. Whatever the reasons, it must be dealt with, the narratives must be patched together.

There is a problem with accountability because the number of situations increases and the difficulties in handling them grow. Why is this so? Difficulties in keeping policy-narratives on track must be part of the answer. The bulk of the problems however, follows from changes in the political narrative.

The political narrative.

Compare and contrast Enda Kenny with Garrett Fitzgerald or Bertie Ahern with Eamonn de Valera. Whatever judgment you make, all four did win support and admiration with the narratives they used to justify what their governments did and intended to do. Fitzgerald’s narrative is closer to De Valera’s than it is to Kenny’s. His is closer to Ahern’s than to any of his FG predecessors. Obviously, the closeness has nothing to do with agreement. It has to do with what it is important to disagree about.

The conventions of accountability, we question to-day, were formed when the political narrative exemplified by De Valera and Fitzgerald prevailed. Changes the narrative and the conversation between ministers and civil servants changes. The challenge of patching the political and policy-narratives changes. The relationship between ministers and civil servants changes. Accountability becomes a problem.

Changes in the political narrative

We have many studies of the transformation of the political culture of western states to draw to account for the changes. We can note that De Valera and Fitzgerald had grand narratives [Lyotard] upon which they could draw to articulate their positions. No such narratives are available to an Ahern or a Kenny. We could follow Bobbitt and explain the differences as consequent on the move from nation-state to market-state; or recognise that we are in a new phase in the history of representative democracy, as analysed by Manin- audience democracy. Rosanvallon’s history of democratic legitimacy provides yet another scheme. As far as I know, no one has compared and contrasted these approaches in examining how well they illuminate Irish experience. [A thesis for a political science graduate?] Rather than attempt it here, I will proceed with the aid of just one.

The political narrative and political legitimacy

The political narrative addresses the expectations of the citizens: this is how we met them yesterday, this how we will meet them tomorrow. Rosanvallon tells us citizens expect impartiality, proximity, and reflexivity. They are disgusted when particular interests are favoured over the general interest [impartiality]. They want evidence that their government respects them, granting them the dignity proper to all citizens in a democracy. There should be no peripheries in democracy. Everyone’s concerns are of equal value [proximity]. They expect government policies to be well constructed, attentive to their circumstances and in line with widely accepted social values [reflexivity].

It is not easy to tell a story that balances these expectations. As I write there is a furore over proposals to extend the electricity grid with large pylons marching across the landscape. The protesters believe that the government has given into vested interests. Besides, it has ignored the concerns of rural dwellers. The expertise of those who propose the scheme is discounted. The minister and his civil servants know that some citizens think that the protesters themselves are vested interest, subverting the general interest in jobs and economic growth. They view the close attention that is paid to the protesters as further evidence of the localism that that afflicts Irish politics. The impending local and European elections transforms the tribulations of this policy narrative into a situation. The route out is via an independent commission, that is independent of the experts paid by the state to oversee the national interest in the electricity network. The ball is kicked to touch, maybe further down the road this reflexivity will defuse the issue.

At first sight, the difference between this scenario and those that challenged politicians up to, I suppose, the late 1970s is a decline in trust and a heightening democratic ethos. This may be misleading. I do not think citizens were any less concerned with impartiality or were more trusting of government in the old days. Their trust and mistrust was differently deployed. They trusted the political party that they supported. They mistrusted its competitors, doubting their good faith and their capacity to find, and pursue, the general interest. To the extent that they noticed it, they trusted the civil service. Of course, local issues could test voters’ loyalty and challenge the party. Situations were normal then as now. Ministers and civil servants, however, had more room to manoeuvre. The ‘pupils’ could be troublesome questioning the teacher but they remained in the classroom. The majority of voters no longer report themselves as loyal supporters of a party. The ‘pupils’ have left the classroom; citizens are no longer docile.

The balance in our political discourse has shifted. We hear more of interests frustrated, damage done, hurt inflicted,, wickedness unpunished than we do of goals worth pursuing, progress made, difficulties overcome, enemies fought. Transparency and accountability assume a new importance- how can we uncover wrong-doing without transparency? How can we punish, or deter, it without accountability? Impartiality and proximity crowd out reflexivity.

Impact on the conversation between ministers and civil servants

This rebalancing of our politics has, inevitably, changed the conversation between minister and civil servant. In the past the minister engaged with the civil servant as an ally in pursuit of their party’s version of national project. He may not have been satisfied with his allies. They could be unduly cautious, or as Lemass found them, mired in detail and lacking a broad strategic perspective. The civil servants may have been frustrated with the minister’s attention to constituency business and the large number of representations that they had to handle. Nevertheless, they were allies and the conversation could proceed within the shared horizon of the national project. It would be going too far to say that the ally has become the enemy, nonetheless, the relationship has become, if not more hostile, more wary as the misdeeds of the department, uncovered, or ready to be uncovered are a more prominent part in the conversation. The number of situations increase.

Politicians in this situation look for ways to transfer blame to civil servants as an obvious route out. Ministers, after all are dependent on their interlocutors and they may have good reason to feel let down when a situation goes ballistic. The proposals for public sector modernization, hardly implemented and never evaluated, that remain on the table allow the next move. Suppose that situations arise because of the poor management of routine business and the neat solution is: make civil servants accountable for the management of their departments.

The complexity of the matter becomes clear when we remember that the proposals were put on the table by senior civil servants. They were concerned that the preoccupation with situations prevented that mid to long term perspective required in the national interest: what happens down the road does matter. So, both civil servants and ministers want to distance themselves from situations, dumping the blame for them on each other. They both want to change the performance to ‘management.’  They want to do it for reasons that are diametrically opposed. The politicians believe that it will put the bureaucrats in the political frame; the civil servants hope that it will put clear blue water between them and a political system that is less and less interested, or c?apable, of finding a national perspective. The paper attempts to show how the politicians’ expectations might be met while not entirely giving up on the civil servants’ aspiration to serve the national interest. Hence the emphasis on ‘civil service’ values.

Management- the route out?

Is management the route out of the accountability situation? Management here means the 20th century business model’s machine bureaucracy. We are, after all dealing with an Ireland whose thinking about politics and public administration remains fixed in the 1950s.This solution would recast the typical policy narrative. The plethora of sometimes conflicting goals would be replaced with sets of well-defined, prioritised goals. Well understood technologies would allow for the detailed regulation of work that would be closely monitored. Lines of accountability would be clear in this new story. When independent watch dogs barked, we would have no difficulty in deciding who was to blame. The minister who signed off on the goals? The senior civil servants who decided how it was to be reached? The more junior civil servants who implemented their schemes?

The faith in machine bureaucracy explains the close connection that the paper makes between accountability and performance:  Strengthening Accountability and Performance.  In most circumstances issues of accountability and performance are quite distinct. For instance, I have heard many discussions of the performance of the Irish rugby team. Accountability does not enter the picture until a steam of defeats brings us to an hiatus. The strengths and weaknesses of individual players and tactics move out of the picture as the question becomes who is to blame? It is not obvious that adjusting the accountability of ministers and civil servants will, in and of itself, improve performance. It could be argued, I suppose, that increasing the fear of being found out motivates. Nonetheless, it is overly cynical to suppose that the best way to motivate senior civil servants is to magnify the fear that they bring to work. It may also be overly generous to their abilities to suppose that the best explanation for their failures is a lack of fear. If, however, you believe that machine bureaucracy can improve performance, then the two do come together in same neat solution.

It will not work. Aims are not contending and means are not uncertain because civil servants have failed to listen and learn from management consultants with their nostrums from the private sector or from economists with their dreams of a utopia free of vested interests. They are so because we live in a democracy whose citizens expect their state to struggle with intractable problems in pursuit of a public interest that is always contested.  Policy narratives cannot be simplified and the problem of reconciling the political narrative with policy-narratives when situations disrupt their harmony cannot be wished away. The skills demanded of senior civil servants belong more to diplomacy than management. And when they are held accountable for their performance in handling situations, it cannot be as managers.

The problem

The problem is not accountability, or rather we are troubled by accountability because of the difficulties of aligning a political narrative preoccupied with impartiality and proximity with the realities of policy narratives. While the narrative does valuable work, indispensable in a democracy, in identifying biases, exposing failures and consoling victims it does not assist in the rewriting of policy narratives to remedy the biases or reduce the failure. It blames, shames, accuses, excuses but it does not teach why things went wrong and still less, of how aims and purposes should be adapted or adjusted. Politicians have little interest in these matters. Who is to blame them? They are either searching for stones to throw or deflecting those thrown at them.  Democracy is supposed to educate its citizens; we need lessons in more than how ministers and civil servants fail us.  

Solution: improving civil service performance

Thanks to NESC we know what needs to be done to improve the performance of the public service. Its investigation into how a number of services tackled their poor performance summarised in Achieving Quality in Ireland’s Public Services- a Synthesis Report shows how we can improve the reflexivity of policy narratives. Schemes for evaluation that are tailored to the tasks reduce the inertia of routine, identify failures while prompting, and informing, the learning that guides improvement. The question  how this learning can be encouraged and integrated into wider organizational settings remains unanswered. This is not because it is difficult-the management style required is well understood- but because it has not been asked. DPER remains enthralled by centralised control achieved through top-down regulations and enforced by the threat of punishment [‘performance management’]. Perhaps, the problem of accountability makes this dream irresistible. The paper is, then, correct to this extent: the performance of the civil service cannot be improved until the problem of accountability is solved.

Solution: politics

We know were a solution cannot be found. A restoration of party democracy is inconceivable, even if it were desirable. I do not think we can expect a better balance among impartiality, proximity and reflexivity in the discourse of our politicians. A reduction in the attention they must pay to impartiality and proximity is unlikely and would be undesirable. As the listener, or viewer, of public affairs programmes knows the politician who talks of the difficulties of policy will be accused of ignoring the plight of victims and evading accountability. To find an answer, we must step back, examine our design for democracy and ask how scripts can be changed and new parts written.   I will discuss this in my next post.


The paper is badly written and conceptually confused. This is disturbing. It was a long time in preparation. No doubt drafts were written and discussed within the department before a draft was submitted to secretaries-general and assistant secretaries for their observations. So many readers at so many levels and these sentences, and many similar, were allowed stand:

‘What could be the likely impact, including practical changes, in strengthening civil service accountability? What could be the impact on the civil service, Ministers, the overall political system, and on individual civil servants? Consideration could be given to any possible unintended consequences.’ This is question 5 of the 19 presented to the public for their deliberation. We are told that ‘There is a lack of clarity created by quite different connotations associated with the use and meaning of the term ‘accountability’ that have proliferated in more recent times’. We are informed that ‘The reasonableness test relating to ensuring that the purpose of the delegation is not perceived to be essentially to assign the risk of blame, scapegoating, or sanctions from public accountability that appropriately accompanies it.  -p40.

Writing this bad is not excusable in a document presented to citizens by their Government. While we lament the conceptual confusion we may pardon it. The relationship between ministers and senior civil servants is complicated and largely unexamined in Ireland. Nonetheless, the poor prose and confusion require explanation. The promiscuous use of adjectives that fall like confetti over the prose suggest a rhetoric that aims to impress rather than inform or clarify. When we read that that In legal terms this option would involve the establishment of clarity on the legal relationships between ministers and their civil servants in the context of a comprehensive, robust, and effective system of delegated responsibility from ministers to Secretaries-Generals and onwards to other senior civil servants fully consistent with constitutional and political requirements for ministerial responsibility and accountability’ (p43) we know the authors want us to know that something significant is being proposed. We are left in the dark as exactly what and why. Adjectives are the accomplices of bullshit.

There has never been so many civil servants with undergraduate and post-graduate qualifications. Earlier drafts must have been read by civil servants with qualifications in public management, policy analysis or governance. It is too depressing to believe that they had neither the knowledge nor understanding to dispel the confusion and clarify the issues. More likely, they recognised the constraints under which the drafters worked. We cannot understand the accountability of ministers and senior civil servants apart from an understanding of their jobs. Each plays a role in a division of labour that brings them together in pursuit of a common aim and that divides them by the different perspectives that it generates. Each role has its own responsibilities.  To understand how these unite and divide we must relate them to the task that the division of labour is designed to accomplish. This cannot be done without incursions into politics. And for civil servants this territory is fenced off with a large sign ‘no trespassing.’ The paper skirts the territory, eying it from a distance, makes a dart into it only to reverse quickly out. Given that the political dimension could not be examined, only box-ticking bullshit was possible. Why waste time perfecting it?




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  • Veronica

    Frank, Thanks for yet another very interesting post and your comments on an important issue. In fact in terms of the events of the past week, it is self-evident that there needs to be some serious deliberation regarding the dynamics of the relationships between senior civil servants and their political masters and how they work in practice rather than according to assumptions that are, as you suggest, more appropriate to the political and administrative environment of the 1950s than the second decade of the 21st century.

    As regards the present ‘crisis’ I’m puzzled and confused – as I think are so many other ordinary citizens – about what was really going on over last weekend and whether or not the ‘tapes’ issue is being blown out of proportion for political reasons,that are frankly baffling, or whether it represents a genuine crisis with far reaching implications for the administration of justice in our country. One small point, though, on which I think you might be able to assist my understanding – according to the time sequence, the Secretary General of the Department of Justice was sent by The Taoiseach to the home of the then Garda Commissioner on Monday evening to convey to him the Taoiseach’s concerns with regard to the ‘tapes’ issue which had been brought to the Taoiseach’s attention by the Attorney General the previous day. My question is: given that Ministers are ‘corporations sole’ has the Taoiseach the power/authority to direct the Secretary General of the Department of Justice to act on his behalf in this way? Can he do so without the assent of the line Minister to whom that Secretary General reports directly? Your view on this question would be appreciate

    • franklitton

      Yes, ‘situations’ do keep piling up. The calls for a Police Authority are yet another example of the lack of trust in the electoral/representative system. A new ‘functionally representative’ body is likely. Politicians and the media are too busy throwing stones to reflect on the pros and cons of this.
      I am afraid I do not know the answer to your question on the Taoiseach’s authority over Secretary’generals. I suppose it follows from his authority over his Ministers.
      The ‘corporation sole’ is a legal device to give a legal personality to a department; just as company law does for a firm. It’s origin lies in the middle ages when Parish priests were deemed the ‘corporation sole’ of the Parish. Of course, this legal doctrine has to put alongside the political and management ‘doctrines’ that provide the scaffold for the relationship between ministers and their civil servants.