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

Part 1 – The Civil Service and the Crisis: an Historical Perspective

Sep 5, 12 • The Public SectorNo Comments


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. Structural features do count. It does matter how tasks are allocated and responsibilities assigned. If the requisite competencies (in management, policy formulation, economics…) are not in place, or properly orchestrated, then, regardless of how hard individuals try, matters will not turn out well. However, individuals are not ciphers whose actions are entirely circumscribed by the roles they inhabit. What they know and value shapes how they act within the constraints of structure. Having discussed how the concept of ‘genre’ captures both the reality of structure and the possibility of creative action, I put it to work in an historical narrative of the civil service. The narrative is presented as a ‘play’ in four acts. The characters are ministers and senior civil servants, the setting in which they operate is a ‘court’, the plot is their efforts to execute the political project (identify, execute, defend the public interest) as circumstances changed bringing new threats and opportunities. I argue that incoherencies in the ‘script’ and limitations of the ‘court’ go some way to explaining present difficulties.

I go on to explore what reforms are necessary. I explain how profound changes in the culture and structure of our politics feed the incoherencies and expose the limitations. These changes to our political landscape have damaged the civil service and weakened its indispensable contribution to our democracy. We need to adjust the design of our democracy to allow the civil service play its role in policy-making.

The Wright report

The economy is in difficulties, unemployment is high and the government has lost control of economic policy to the EU-ECB-IMF. The public have no doubt where political responsibility lies. The politicians judged responsible have been punished in one of the most dramatic reversals in political fortunes seen in Europe in recent times. The conclusion that the civil service – ‘the permanent government’ –  is implicated in the crisis is hard to avoid. However no senior civil servant has been censured or held publicly accountable for any failures on their part. Perhaps there were none.

There has been one investigation. Not surprisingly, given its central role, the Minister for Finance commissioned, in 2010, a panel of outside experts to review the Department’s performance and advice on how its capacities might be improved. The panel which reported in December 2010 (the Wright report) found serious weaknesses in the department’s structure and modus operandi. Too few economists were employed and the coordination of activities left much to be desired. The Department, it found, had proffered prudent advice to the Government on the framing of budgets. It had also been aware of the risks from an ‘overheating’ construction sector. The crisis would have been a good deal less severe had this advice been taken and the risks acknowledged. However, the Panel concluded that officials had not pressed their views on these matters with sufficient strength.

The failure of the Department to offer strong independent advice is a departure from the historical norm. Whitaker’s enormous reputation as a public servant is based, in considerable measure, on the fact that under his tenure, the Department did offer strong independent advice based on its own economic analysis. Of course, much has changed since Whitaker’s time and changing circumstances may well have recast the relationship between ministers and senior civil servants.

The panel itself offers no direct explanation of the failure. Nonetheless, it provides clues. Its findings suggest two reasons. The first concerns the Department’s capacities, the second its ethos or culture. The report informs us that the Department lacked expertise in tax policy and macroeconomic analysis and forecasting, both essential to building up a strong case. Maybe the problem was in the culture: officials did not believe that it was their role, as the Panel clearly does, to offer their political masters strong, independent advice even if it was unpalatable. The Panel’s observation that the Department’s ‘MAC committee does not play a meaningful role in ensuring that senior management debate all major policy issues of concern to the Department’ can be taken as indirect evidence that this is the case. While such internal debate might not be essential to constructing a strong independent view available to the Minister, it would certainly support it.

The structural failings identified by the Panel should not surprise. Its report can be placed in a long line of reports stretching back to the report of the Public Sector Organization Review Group (The Devlin Report) in 1969. More recently the ‘Strategic Management Initiative’ launched in 1994 reported weaknesses it had identified in Delivering Better Government. The latest general review in the line, the OECD report (2008) informs us how little has been achieved, how much remains to be done. The culture of the civil service has not received the same scrutiny. Yet, it is as important a factor as structure. It was the culture that provided the reasons, good or bad, for resisting change. It was the culture that did not encourage a more independent stance among finance officials.

It is clear that we have good reason to be concerned with the civil service. The structural weaknesses revealed in successive reports suggest that it is not fit for purpose. The undesirable change in culture indicated in the Wright report is unlikely to be confined to the Department of Finance. An approach to these problems that confined itself to either structural defects or weaknesses in culture will not do. Blueprints have been offered to remedy the former and sermons have been preached to strengthen the latter; all with no good effect. We need to understand how structure shapes and constrains behaviour just as we need to know how what individuals believe and value form the structures in which they interact. I attempt to sketch just such an understanding in this article. I rely on the notion of a ‘genre’ (Bakhtin 1986) to help us keep both structure and culture in view as we seek to understand what is right and wrong with the civil service.


For many years those concerned with how language worked and represented reality made sentences, lexicon and syntax, the fundamental units of analysis. Bakhtin, a Russian literary critic was one of a number of influential thinkers who shifted attention away from the sentence. In Bakhtin’s case this was done by replacing the sentence with the ‘utterance’ as the fundamental unit of language. Unlike a sentence an ‘utterance’ invites a response. To understand what is said is to know what response is called for. For example, as a sentence ‘Litton is worth reading on the civil service ethos’ has a clear sense. Considered as an utterance its sense remains the same but its meaning depends on the context in which it is uttered. A professor says it to friend over coffee; a supervisor says it to her PhD student; a PO says it to an AP whom he instructing to write a memo on civil service reform. In each case the intention (speech plan) of the speaker is different: to offer an evaluation, to advice, to instruct. In each case a different response is in order: agree, disagree or note, read the article, include discussion of it in the memo. Suppose the interlocutor in each case is the AP. Bakhtin asks how is it that she knows what the utterance means and, therefore, the correct response. The answer is that she grasps the relationships that constitute the social setting. She recognises the roles of professor and student and how they differ from those of AP and PO. She knows that friends can say things to each other that professors cannot say to students or APs to POs. In Bakhtin’s terminology what she grasps is the ‘genre’ in which the utterance is spoken. It is this that allows her place the particular utterance in the context in which its intention, and so its meaning, can be apprehended.

We communicate successfully not because we understand each others sentences but because we have mastery of the genres in which they are uttered. This mastery includes knowledge of the relationships between speaker and listener. Knowing a genre is akin to knowing what play you are acting in. You know what role you play and how it relates to the roles of the other actors. While there is no script, there are stock phrases typical of each role. Your knowledge of these guides your improvisations. The notion of genre therefore refers both to structure (roles) and culture (script). The roles come alive only in the script. While the script is improvised and new things can be said and novel outcomes achieved, what can be said is nonetheless constrained by the roles.

To understand how structure and culture interact in the civil service is to know the genres through which it conducts its business. This is a tall order. To make it simpler, I focus on the genre in which ministers and senior civil servants conduct their business. Nonetheless, the task remains difficult. Information is scant. However, progress can be made when we recognise that the movement of a genre through time can be represented as a play. We can get an idea of the genre, and hence of culture and structure in action, by considering the characters and their roles and how these interact as the plot unfolds. To take the plot first: since the play is unfinished with new scenes unfolding as I write, it does not help us to think of the plot in the conventional sense of having a beginning middle and an end. However, we can think of it as having the narrative form of a quest. There is an aim and the plot unfolds as the various characters seek and commit themselves to purposes they believe will bring them closer to that aim. Circumstances change, resources increase or diminish, new problems arise. The relationships among the roles change as new understandings of purposes and the aim are found in the face of new challenges.

At the most abstract level, the plot with which we are concerned with as we examine the civil service traces the fortunes of the political project. This project supposes a people with conflicting interests and inequalities in power and wealth. They are a people because they are interdependent. The divisions and inequalities among them emerge from a division of labour which draws them together in mutual dependence. The political project has three tasks: it identifies the general interest that expresses the interdependence, it implements policies to pursue it, it protects it against internal and external threats. The tasks are not easy, indeed they are best considered as intractable problems that can never find completely satisfactory solutions. There have been many different regimes designed to pursue the project. Ours is a version of one of the most durable regimes – representative democracy.

Representative democracy

Aristotle who (together with Plato) first identified and studied the political project argued that regimes that mixed aristocratic and democratic elements were the most successful. Democracy was valued because it provided the best defence of the general interest against powerful particular interests that were its biggest internal threat. Aristocracy was valued because it brought the brightest and best together to work out what was in the general interest. Representative democracy is, arguably, such a regime. Senior civil servants are at the lower level of the aristocratic element. They owe their permanent position to their expertise in the formulation and implementation of polices. Above them, we have the Taoiseach and his ministers, the government that controls the state’s sovereign authority. They owe their position to their success in proving to the electorate that they had a better vision of the general interest and a greater competence to deliver it than their competitors in general elections.


Having outlined the plot, the next task is to describe the roles. How do the two levels of the ‘aristocracy’ relate to each other? As already mentioned, information is scant. However, an interview with Dr Garrett Fitzgerald on the relationship between ministers and senior civil servants does provide some clues (Hannon, 2004). As a former Taoiseach and Minister for Foreign Affairs with a long involvement in politics, Dr Fitzgerald is a valuable witness.

Fitzgerald’s long experience has convinced him that departments have their own policies to which they are strongly committed.

‘The idea that they are neutral is nonsense. They have developed policy positions over the years-like the protectionist policy in Industry and Commerce and the pro-farm policy in Agriculture. These were strongly held. It isn’t entirely bad a thing, but ministers would want to be aware of it and of what they’re up against’.

‘If the Taoiseach appoints a minister who’s going to be bullied by civil servants, it’s his own bloody fault. And on the whole most politicians aren’t easily bullied – most have sufficient self confidence to hold their own. Not all of the time, but most of the time’.

He claims that he always had a very clear recognition that he was capable of making mistakes.

‘I never saw myself as infallible. That would be dangerous. What I wanted was civil servants who would not kow-tow to me.’

He claims that had exactly this difficulty with a particular civil servant.

‘In the civil service I never dealt with this civil servant because I knew that he was a sycophant. I cut him out completely. (My emphasis) Instead of telling me that [a policy initiative] wouldn’t be wise he would go off and do it. So about once a year I would see him (my emphasis). I preferred people who would say “Taoiseach, have you considered the full implications of this…” I knew that I was safe with them.’

Fitzgerald is also quick to praise the professionalism of ‘most’ civil servants.

‘The quality of what they do is high, their integrity is great. We never had any problems with corruption – it’s a tradition that was established early on.’

There was one occasion, however when a civil servant attempted to blackmail Fitzgerald into appointing him into a job he was claiming did not actually exist.

‘It was extraordinary. He came to me and said that a committee I had working on a particular issue had no authority and it would be very unfortunate if that got out. He wanted to be made chairman of it. He was threatening to talk to the press.’

The civil servant remained in his position, albeit with a less taxing in-tray.

I never gave him any work to do after that.‘ (My emphasis). (pp155-156)

The interesting feature of the interview is how difficult it is to fit it into either of the two models modern management would propose as the basis for understanding the relationship between minister and senior civil servant. The world Dr Fitzgerald describes is very different from that of modern (machine) bureaucracy or the principal agent relationship embedded in professional bureaucracy. In modern bureaucracy, relationships among senior mangers, CEOs and Directors are set in the context of strategy. The strategy identifies the organizations diverse interests, finds a balance among them and a way to sustain and advance them. Senior mangers have clear responsibilities in regard to the strategy. If they fail in these, or are found incompetent in their pursuit, they are not ‘banished’ or ignored- they are dismissed. Notions of strategy or competence do not figure in Fitzgerald’s account. Nor does the account match the ‘principal-agent’ relationship. It is not a relationship between a minister who relies on the expertise of his civil servant as a house owner depends on the builder who is refurbishing his house, or as an ill person depends on the skill of his medical consultant. The relationship is controlled by the norms of democracy that direct the civil servant to put his expertise at the disposal of the Minister whom the will of the people have placed in authority over him. It is not a relationship between equals who are seeking outcomes that maximise their individual interests.

I suggest, that as befits an aristocracy, the relationships between ministers and senior civil servants are best understood on the analogy of a ‘court’. Loyalty and territory are central to the relationship. We can think of the Taoiseach as ‘King’, the ministers his ‘lords’ and their senior civil servants, ‘vassals’. Ministers are in charge of a territory or policy-field. They depend on their senior civil servants, their ‘vassals’ whose expertise, rooted in practical understanding gained in implementing policy is indispensable as they justify and decide on policy. As the ministers have their own interests distinct from the Taoiseach’s so to do the senior civil servants. When their concerns overlap with the minister’s, then his must have priority, just as the minister must concede when the Taoiseach’s concerns intrude on his.

The Wright report (Wright, 2011) (see above) provides further evidence in support of the ‘court’ hypothesis. The report informs us that the ‘department needs to be more effective and needs to remake itself. This requires a series of changes of structure, professional capacity and internal working methods, together with a more outward looking attitude (p 48)’. The report takes a managerialist view and the defects it identifies are hardly news. A consistent theme of the report is the failure of the department’s senior managers to share and exchange information and encourage teamwork. The MAC does not function as a focus for strategy and corporate purpose. ‘The department’s MAC does not play a meaningful role in ensuring that senior management debate all major policy issues of concern to the department. We understand that the MAC structure is used, in the main, for the exchange of information (p42)’. And it is not very successful at that for we are also told that ‘the department often operates in silos with little information sharing’ (p35). The number of economists in the department is ‘extraordinarily low’ (p45). The department is poorly equipped to handle those members of its staff that ‘conspicuously underperform’ (p46).

All these features are consistent with how courts operate. Courts are inherently individualistic and discourage team-work. The courtiers’ attention is centred on the prince. They may attend him directly, at his will or their access may be controlled by a more senior courtier. In a court any banding together by the courtiers is seen as a threat to the prince’s authority. His will cannot be opposed by any ‘corporate will’. Consequently, ‘but minister what you propose goes against the department’s strategy’ is not a line in a senior civil servant’s script. Experts do not fit comfortable into the court setting. The authority of their expertise is a challenge. The skill that makes its advice palatable within a political environment is not on the curriculum of any economics course. It easy to see why a group of economists sufficient in number to support each other and whose loyalties are as much to their professional colleagues outside the department as to the department poses a problem for the court.

In the absence of any sense of corporate purpose, it is difficult to manage performance. Since no links can be made among tasks, unit goals and strategy, all evaluations are seen as personal (subjective) judgements and are avoided for the injury that they inflict and the conflicts they threaten. Banishment is the preferred option. Poor performers are moved towards the periphery, probably with half-empty in-trays and certainly working on inconsequential matters like statements of strategy or the processing of performance measurement forms.

The Moriarity Tribunal report (Moriarity, 2011) into payments to politicians finds that no civil servant behaved corruptly. But it could be said that he found that they behaved oddly and in a manner not conducive to transparent fairness in the awarding of the mobile phone license. The Minister’s interventions were largely responsible for this. As the tribunal traces the intricate path to the awarding of the contract further evidence for the court hypothesis can be adduced. The procedures for awarding the contract matched international standards. A project team was established and consultants employed to assist in the design and application of an assessment framework. However the project team hardly operated as a team, the professional ethos that should have imbued its work was absent. This is what one would expect in a court setting. The overriding concern to support the minister (and to be thought well of by him) pulls individuals away from collective efforts. The intrinsic rewards of the process- contracts fairly assessed-were far less than the extrinsic reward of satisfying the minister


The civil service ethos follows accordingly. Above all the senior civil servant owes his Minister loyalty. While this loyalty is to a particular person, it is grounded in a wider loyalty to democracy. Since there are two loyalties in play, there is a possibility that they could clash. And it is clear that in any clash the more basic loyalty should win out. How might such a clash occur? Only in circumstances where a Minister’s actions were directly aimed at damaging, or dismantling democracy. What about circumstances where the threat is one of indirect damage? For example, the civil servant could believe that a course of action proposed by the minister would damage the capacities of the civil service. Since the civil service is part of the design for democracy, democracy itself is, to some extent, damaged. Nonetheless, the minister does not intend to impair democracy but to please the citizens and the civil servant will loyally implement the policy.

Loyalty has some of the attributes of friendship. Both demand an active concern for the well-being for the friend or superior. In the case of friendship this is based on affection, in the case of loyalty on attachment to an order of things to which the superior owes his position. The concern carries with an obligation to truthfulness. The well-being of a friend or superior is seldom if ever served by falsehood. The civil servant who avoids telling the minister the truth because he fears the messenger will be shot is disloyal.

The loyalty owed to the minister has its implications for the relationships among civil servants. It excludes loyalty to any sense of corporate purpose which produces collegial bonds. In the setting of a court, this is to form a cabal and is seen as a disloyal attempt to weaken the minister’s authority and power. The senior civil servants do not stand before the minister as a group but as a collection of individuals each of whom has potential to assist him. They compete for his attention and approval. As the principal channel of the minister’s will, the secretary-general should moderate the competition. The senior civil servants also have an obligation to ensure the competition does not get out of hand by acknowledging the need for cooperation and friendly dealing.

The relationship between secretary-general and minister repeats itself down the line. The secretary-general expects the same loyalty from his assistant secretaries as they expect from their principal officers and so on.

What Ministers require of their civil servants

What exactly does the minister require of the senior civil servant? What does the senior civil servant need from the minister? The minister depends on his senior civil servants to oversee the efficient and effective implementation of routine business. A department’s policy-field is populated by policies based on commitments and embedded in organizational routines. The senior civil servant is concerned that these be resourced and advanced. He depends on the minister to sustain support and win resources. The minister depends on the civil servant as he faces public opinion that demands justifications for what is done and decisions on what should be done. The senior civil servant is a master of what is feasible. His expertise is based on the practical knowledge that comes from engagement with interest groups and follows from trial and error. In the complex world of contending interests and uncertain solutions, this cannot be trumped by theory. Because of its source in the ongoing business of the department, the expertise tends to favour adjustments to existing arrangements rather than radical reform.


The circumstances in which the plot unfolds change all the time. Since, independence when we took control of the plot, Ireland has moved from a largely rural to a largely urban society, from a closed to an open economy, from a sovereign nation-state to one that exercises its sovereignty in cooperation with the twenty-six other states in the European Union. Accompanying these changes the culture has become increasingly individualistic. To understand the civil service and its relationships with the political system is to understand how these changes have impacted on the genre, challenging its roles and calling for innovations in the scripts. I suggest that plot has unfolded in four Acts: national development (1956-1980), fiscal crisis (1980-1996) and the Celtic tiger (1997-2007) and Act 4 Fiscal crisis again.

Act 1: National Development

The first task of a new state is to consolidate its monopoly over the legitimate use of physical coercion. The task was complicated by a civil war and prolonged by a world war. The legitimacy of a nation-state is based on its claim to protect and advance the well-being of the nation. The political scripts were shaped accordingly. History-ancient, modern, contemporary,- was important as politicians justified their claims to be guardians of the national interest with reference to the national struggle. Catholicism was closely intertwined with the national identity and respect for its authority bolstered the state’s legitimacy. Economics played at best a minor role. In the 1950s matters changed: economic and social issues moved up the agenda, national development replaced national independence and economics supplanted history and religion as the most important point of reference. The move to national development gave an opening for expert, technocratic discourse on the public interest. Whitaker, secretary of the department of finance took (made) the opportunity with his key, public contribution to the new script, the green paper Economic Development. However, other senior civil servants did not follow him. The much admired figures that led the increasing number of state sponsored-bodies – ESB, Aer Lingus, Bord na Mona, IDA, Coras Tractala, Bord Failte, Foras Taluntais – were in the vanguard. As long as they were ‘good news’, welcome evidence of the state’s commitment to modernisation, they could enjoy the autonomy their position at one remove from the ‘court’ allowed them.

A few middle ranking civil servants in line departments did seek to take up the challenge national development posed for the civil service. They sought to equip themselves (and the civil service generally) with the knowledge and skills the new role demanded. Beginning with the journal Administration in 1952 they succeeded in establishing the Institute of Public Administration in 1957. Despite the indifference of most civil servants, the zeal of the founders together with the lukewarm support of the department of finance was sufficient to launch the Institute’s educational, training, publishing and research programmes. The Institute posed the question ‘how the civil service could be transformed into a proactive, competent, driver of national development?’ There was sufficient interest in this question among the political and administrative elites to prompt the formation of the Public Sector Organization Review Group in 1967. In 1969, under the Chairmanship of Liam St John Devlin, they published an ambitious report. Drawing inspiration from Swedish arrangements and concepts from management thinking, the report provided a blue print for a new model of the civil service. This was to solve two problems: poor coordination with consequent inadequacies in the deployment and control of resources and a lack of innovation in policy formulation. The solution followed the lines of the multidivisional structure, then a major theme in management thinking. Policy formulation was to be separated from execution. The former was entrusted to the Aireacht or head office, the latter to executive units. The Aireacht would, with the help of new staff functions, set goals for the executive units and monitor their performance. The gap between the structure proposed and the culture, motivation and competencies of the civil servants was large and there were no proposals for closing it. Few civil servants had expertise in the staff functions. They had been formed as administrators, not managers. Furthermore, even if this gap could have been quickly closed, problems remained. The implementation of the report would have radically changed the senior civil servants scripts as the model was transformed from court to modern (machine) bureaucracy. While politicians were prepared to replace national independence with national development in their conversation with the electorate, they showed no willingness to change their conversation with senior civil servants. So the Act concludes with no significant change in the relationships between ministers and senior civil servants.

Evaluating Act 1

How are we to evaluate the Act? It would be mistake to suppose that nothing happened in regard to civil service. A question was put on the agenda and if the answer was not acceptable, the question remained pertinent. Indeed, the failure to find a workable answer provides the material for the next act.

The fact that the question was raised by civil servants is also important. The Institute of Public Administration stands as a symbol of the question’s legitimacy. Its at best modest achievements (at least judged against the aspirations of its founders) reflect the ambivalence of the administrative elite’s attitude to the question. The low level of support and resources they provided for the Institute suggests that while they could not deny the validity of the question, they worried about the implications of taking it seriously. Courtiers who seek to instruct their Prince on how he should conduct his business lose, if not their heads, their power and influence.

Act 2: Fiscal Crisis

A state committed to national development through proactive engagement in the economy and that relies on a civil service that PSORG had found to be poorly coordinated and with little policy-making capacity is bound to run into trouble. It did and the trouble was a fiscal crisis. The pursuit of national development ran into difficulties as oil prices increased and the global economy went into recession. Governments attempted both to satisfy the electorate and overcome the difficulties by running budget deficits. This, it was supposed would prime the economy, decrease unemployment and win votes. It did the last but failed with the first: the national debt grew and economic growth declined.

Proactive states create an environment in which interest groups thrive and multiply. Governments listen to them. However, as groups compete for government policies that assist them increase their share of the national product, the result can be a decline in that product that leaves everyone worse off then they might otherwise have been. It is akin to a prisoner’s dilemma in which the most rational course for individuals leads to suboptimal results. The Irish case provides a good example. Efforts to resolve the fiscal crisis floundered as interest groups felt impelled to protect their members. Political parties found it difficult to find a rhetoric that would successfully aggregate interests, upon whose support they relied, in some version of the national interest. If the rhetoric of national independence with its high ideals and sense of historical grievance, had failed to produce economic development, the rhetoric of state-sponsored national development with its economic panaceas, now proved incapable of sustaining it.

Scripts changed under the pressure. The role of the civil service came under scrutiny and the relationship between interest groups and the state changed. With regard to the former, while Devlin was not formally abandoned, the focus shifted. The 1985 white paper Serving the Country Better was far more concerned with efficiency and effectiveness than it was with the civil service’s capacity to advise on what was worth doing efficiently and effectively. The emphasis shifted from structure to behaviour. Civil servants were encouraged to see themselves as managers, responsible for the deployment of resources under their charge. To allow this they were given control over administrative budgets, to encourage it merit pay was introduced for senior civil servants. In the white paper, we see the beginnings of a move from public administration to public management. Those concerned to investigate and reflect upon what civil servants did and should do once inhabited that remote island on the archipelago of political science, public administration. Now it was deemed that civil servants had lessons to learn from how the private sector managed its businesses. These were best learnt where they originated, schools of management.

Top level appointments committee (TLAC)

It is not surprising that the dissatisfaction with the managerial capacities of civil servants, manifest in Serving the Country Better, extended to concerns with the performance of secretaries-general. The career path that led civil servants to the top positions did not, it was believed, deliver the ablest candidates. A Secretary-general was appointed on the basis of ‘seniority subject to suitability’. He was from among the department’s assistant secretaries, the most senior of whom (longest in the post) was first considered for the post, if not necessarily chosen. Assistant-secretaries were likewise chosen from among principal officers. Once appointed, a secretary-general served until she, or he, reached retirement age. These arrangements produced secretaries-general whose experience was restricted to service in one department, many of whom continued in office after their ambition and enthusiasm had been worn down by the daily grind. Or, so it was believed. The system was transformed. Competition replaced seniority and the term of office was fixed to seven years. A top level appointments committee comprising secretaries-general and an outsider conducted the competition which assistant secretaries from across the civil service could enter. TLAC recommended one name to the government for appointment. In 1987, the incoming government made a significant change to the scheme. Henceforth, TLAC was to send three names forward to the government for its consideration.


The most significant change was in policy-making. The way ministers and their civil servants spoke to interest groups changed with the introduction of the rhetoric of partnership. While the rhetoric of national development is above all associated with the civil servant Whitaker and the politician Lemass, the new rhetoric was promoted and implemented by Dermot McCarthy, secretary-general to the Department of the Taoiseach and his Taoiseach Bertie Ahern. The difficulties encountered by the Irish state were not unique. They were found in most western European states. In the United Kingdom, in particular, they prompted a change in how the role of the state was perceived. The New Right, with its emphasis on the market, replaced the post-war ideal of a mixed economy that steered economic growth and sponsored social welfare. That state won support with its claim to advance the well-being of the nation. The New Right state replaced that claim with the promise of maximising the opportunities of its citizens. This was to be accomplished by freeing up the market so that its benign discipline could work to best effect. Those unlucky enough to find themselves excluded from the market were to be ‘empowered’ by training and encouraged by incentives to re-enter it.

The disengagement of the state from dealings with interest groups was a central tenet of new right doctrine. It took a particularly dim view of trade unions who had come to see themselves as collaborators with the state in pursuit of a fair society. They expected that their positive role be respected by the state as governments sought to handle the enduring conflict between capital and labour. The New Right recognised no such positive role. Trade unions were ‘rent-seekers’, defenders of the status quo and a major obstacle to the modernisation of the economy and production.

Ahern and McCarthy promoted a different path away from the welfare state. Ahern chose not to engage in war against civil society. Rather than standing up to interest groups, challenging their authority and imposing needed reforms, he changed the rules of engagement. The task of mediating between interests and the national interest was taken over from political parties and entrusted to government who, with the aid of civil servants, negotiated important aspects of public policy with interest groups. Partnership rescued interest groups from the prisoner’s dilemma and allowed the pursuit of policies to address the fiscal crisis. It did so by providing a framework in which groups were obliged to identify their interests in the context of shared problems. The over riding problem was no longer national development but the finding of policies that would maximise the opportunities of all interests.

Evaluating Act 2

The fiscal crisis revealed weaknesses in the capacities of both government and civil service to identify and pursue the general interest. We learnt of the latter in Act 1. In this Act, the problem of the failure of political parties to aggregate interests in competing versions of the general interest takes centre of the stage. While partnership addressed this problem, the white paper changed little in the civil service.

TLAC, as amended, did have an important impact on the civil service. The introduction of competition encouraged aspiring secretaries-general and assistant secretaries (who were also selected by TLAC) to develop the managerial and strategic competencies that would win them a place on the list of three going before government. It also encouraged them to avoid any actions might win the displeasure of their minister who could have a say in who on that list should be appointed. Independence of mind was no longer quite the virtue it might once have been.

Ireland was not the only state to practice neo-corporatism. However, its version had two distinctive features; the inclusion of a social dimension alongside the economic and its dependence on personal interaction within an undeveloped institutional structure. It demanded the adroit use of political power guided by the administrative expertise of the Department of the Taoiseach supported by NESC. It was fully compatible with the dynamics of the court. While it changed ministers’ scripts in their dealings with interest groups, it allowed those scripts dealing with the public service and the public to remain intact. However, as partnership expanded its scope both, at national and local levels, these scripts also came under pressure.

In constitutional theory and political practice, the Dail is the central arena for proposing, defending, amending, and justifying policy. It is where public opinion speaking through its representatives passes judgement on what is in the public interest. Partnership shifts deliberation from this public arena to closed meeting rooms where civil servants mediate among conflicting interests. Discussions done, compromises made, consensus achieved, the Taoiseach presents the agreement to the Dail for rubber stamping.

It could be argued that this changes little. In an executive dominated system, the opposition is less concerned to change the governments mind than to inform the electorate of its failings. The Dail’s deliberations are more ritual than real. Serious policy discussion takes place between ministers, their civil servants, their cabinet colleagues, and party members with attention to the representations of interest groups. All partnership does, it could be argued, is to bring interest groups more actively into this conversation. But it does more: it changes the form of the conversation. The voices of ministers, the civil servants who are not directly engaged and party members are diminished. Partnership entails a depoliticisation of policy-making. Problems of interest aggregation that party politics fails to handle are passed over to civil servants in the Department of the Taoiseach.

Partnership changes and extends the civil servants script. Discussions on those areas of policy that are on Partnership’s agenda take on a novel form. The contributions of senior civil servants are no longer filtered through the Minister but are offered directly in negotiations and reports to implementing committees. The authority of the Department of Finance and that of individual ministers is diminished. Policies are justified in the partnership forum where civil servants can speak with a measure of autonomy and seek the support of social partners in overriding the concern of the Department of Finance. As they report to their minister the phrase ‘but minister, Partnership has agreed…’ enters the script.

As civil servants sought to contribute their expertise and defend their version of the national interest in these circumstances, the value of a strategic perspective becomes clear. To defend and advance your interests, it is necessary to be clear about what they are, how they relate to the interests of others and how changing circumstances impact upon them. As this act ends, the stage is set for major changes in the policy-making and implementation script. Would partnership succeed in finding the general interest where political parties had failed? Would the civil service modernise?

Act 3: The Celtic Tiger

The economy that had not grown between 1980 and 1986 grew by more than five per cent per annum between 1986 and 1996. Social partnership worked. The fiscal crisis had been acute; the prisoner’s dilemma had been obvious. Partnership had provided the framework in which a bargain that traded wage restraint for tax cuts could be struck. This positive experience encouraged the development of the partnership model. Its importance as a mode of policy-making increased. Both its scope and reach extended. The agenda of partnership negotiations grew longer. In 1998 representatives of the unemployed, women’s organizations and the community and voluntary sector joined the social partners. In 2009 groups interested in environmental issues joined. The partnership model was deployed at community level where public agencies and local interests were drawn together to tackle problems of social exclusion, economic stagnation and drug abuse that welfare bureaucracies had found intractable. Innovative solutions were sought close to the problem. Citizens were drawn directly into the policy process. A new model of democracy could be discerned, replacing the ‘party-democracy’ whose weaknesses had contributed to the 1980s recession.

In 1994, the Taoiseach, Albert Reynolds announced the ‘Strategic Management Initiative’. Departments were instructed to prepare ‘strategy statements’. A group of secretaries–general were to monitor the exercise with the aid of outside experts. They were to report on what further steps were needed to strengthen the services capacity for strategic management. The initiative was prompted by a number of senior civil servants. While they could claim that civil servants were not responsible for the extended fiscal crisis of the ‘80s – it was the politicians who had decided to borrow money with which to buy votes – they were aware of inadequacies in how the inevitable cuts were decided. These were ‘across the board’. They had to be: in the absence of a clear strategy it was difficult to assign priorities and calculate consequences. Furthermore, the absence of capacities for the management of human and financial resources made it difficult to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of the operations of departments. Ireland was unlike other European states where NPM was championed by politicians hostile to the civil service that they saw as a powerful interest group obstructing modernisation. Here it was championed by some civil servants who were worried by the politicians’ inability to transcend the local and act on the basis of the ‘big picture’.

As their predecessors had in the 1950s, these civil servants recognised that new circumstances called for new styles of management. The School of Management in Trinity College was invited to develop and deliver a MSc course in Strategic Management for assistant-secretaries. The course required group projects as well as individual dissertations. The first cohort of students decided to form one group that would visit Australia and New Zealand who were recognised to be in the forefront of efforts to reform the public service. In preparation they interviewed a number of senior politicians and civil servants, including the Taoiseach Albert Reynolds. He was much taken with their endeavours and backed them with the SMI.

The group’s project was published as a special edition of Administration (Byrne, 1995). This provides a useful guide to the ideas that underpinned the SMI. These came from the New Right’s response to the malaise that afflicted the politics and policies of Western Europe. The New Right’s prescription for a retraction of state activity proved more difficult to implement than theory had suggested. Attention moved from what the state did to how it did it. New Public Management became an important component of the New Right programme. Not surprisingly, given its sponsor, NPM was drawn to explanations of organizations and organizational behaviour based on the rational decision-making of self interested individuals. The individualist assumptions of economics had migrated into sociology The interest previous theorists had shown in norms and values embedded in institutions were abandoned as explanations were found in incentives and how they were generated and pursued in ‘games’. This Public Choice frame cannot comprehend the behaviours within a court. And the extent to which it guided actions, it undermined the relationships that held the court together. The senior civil servant was no longer seen as a trustworthy servant, proud to loyally ‘advise assist and sometimes influence those set in authority over them’. He was an agent with his own interests that were at odds with the Minister’s. The problems of asymmetry in power and information that attend all ‘principal-agent’ relationships were severe. Their solution was to be found in a contract whose terms would protect the principal from exploitation by the agent. The problem was, essentially, one of performance management. The trick was to specify goals for organizations and ensure that their employees were motivated to work towards them. Strategy statements were key. Organizations could be held to account for their successes and failures in achieving them. Units within the organizations could prepare business plans detailing how they would contribute to the strategy. These could provide the basis for work plans against which individual performance could be measured.

These ideas were deployed in the report of the group monitoring the SMI, Delivering better government. (Department of the Taoiseach, 1996). The Public Sector Management Act (1997) provided the legislative underpinning deemed necessary for the reforms. For the first time, the relationship between Minister and secretary-general was given legal definition. The secretary-general was responsible for preparing a statement of strategy for the Minister’s approval every three years. He was responsible for assigning responsibility for achieving different components of the strategy to those reporting to him. He was responsible for the appointment, promotion and dismissal of staff up to the level of Principal Officer.

Evaluation of Act 3

At the end of Act 2, we saw dire circumstances produce radical innovations in the rhetoric of policy-making. Ireland had decided to move away from the British (and large state) policy-making model and adopt, albeit in a novel form, the neo-corporatism typical of small European states. For those who expected to see the methodical working out of the implications of this, Act 3 must be a disappointment.

It is the most confusing of the Acts in which, in post-modern fashion, the plot loses consistency. In one part of the action, the Taoiseach, and his secretary-general orchestrate partnership. In another the Minister for Finance and his department continue with the old script. They watch with dismay as Partnership’s territory expands and their influence declines. Some civil servants are committed to public sector modernisation. Their efforts receive political blessings but attract little political interest. They complicate the plot by adopting a framework of reform that originates in the New Right agenda. They did not have the authority to accomplish the radical reform of the political administrative interface that came with NPM. Politicians (government and opposition) found no cause to consider it.

At first glance their modernisation programme appears not only compatible but supportive of the Partnership model. It provides for the strategic perspective that we saw was needed for effective civil service participation in the partnership. However, NPM and Partnership are interested in strategy for different reasons. NPM is concerned with control. It values strategy statements as a means of reasserting political control over inefficient and ineffective bureaucracies. Partnership needs departments that are capable of taking a strategic perspective on their activities. This equips them to engage with their partners in seeking innovative solutions to social and economic problems. It is not clear that NPM concept of strategy would provide this perspective.

Act 4: Fiscal Crisis – again

This Act has just started and it is too early to discern its shape and direction. However, it is useful to consider the contribution of Act 3 to the problems it must tackle. As we have seen the economic successes that accompanied that Act masked the incoherencies in politics and policy-making. New Right thinking directed some actions; others were conducted by Partnership that was antithetical to it, the resulting contradictions and conflicts were handled by old style politics and its court. The question is how much did this incoherence contribute to the crisis? The question can be rephrased: if one or another approach had been consistently followed would the crisis have been so bad? Suppose that partnership had been seen for what it was – a new model for democratic government – rather than a pragmatic tactic and efforts had been made to shape the culture and provide the structures it required. Suppose a consistent New Right stance had held sway changing public expectations of the state and reforming the public service. Suppose that things had carried on as before, the government neither changing its mode of engagement with interest groups nor reforming the public service. The last seems the least likely possibility. It was an option no western democracy pursued. Partnership and the New Right are plausible, if flawed options. The chances are that if either had been pursued consistently, a somewhat better strategic capacity, an ability to see beyond tactics would have been in place to provide some warning of the dangers that overwhelmed us. This is so even if the case that the New Right’s ‘light touch’ regulation contributed to those dangers is sustained.

It is disturbing, then, that insofar as a direction can be discerned in this Act, it is towards the past. Partnership has been abandoned, the cuts backs in public expenditure are not motivated by New Right thinking, the rhetoric is of ‘national regeneration’ and the proposals for civil service reform repeat prescriptions that have, repeatedly, failed in Ireland and elsewhere.


I have argued that to understand the civil service, its strengths and weaknesses, and how these contributed to the present crisis, we need to combine considerations of structure and culture. The concept of genre helps here. The story of the civil service plays out in four acts as ministers and civil servants adapt their scripts to take account of changing circumstances. When new things have to be said and done, the roles come under stress. We saw this in Act 1, when the project of national development called for new styles of management. We saw it in Act 2 when a prolonged fiscal crisis showed how poorly politicians handled their task of identifying the general interest among the clamour of particular interests. We saw it in Act 3, where as the economy boomed quite different scripts were deployed to handle interests and modernise the civil service. Though seriously challenged in all three Acts, the dominant genre was that of the Court.

The importance of its contribution to ensuring that the essential ‘aristocratic’ element remained subservient to the democratic element in our mixed regime must be recognised. This makes its weakness in the face of the new circumstances of our democracy all the more worrying.

We have urgent need of enquiries analyzing where partnership succeeded and how it failed, the limitations of the NPM prescription and above all an examination of how our democracy has changed to make the court genre obsolete. It is to this last that I turn in Part 2.

Works Cited

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