I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."
I have great pleasure in presenting the Public Service Management (No. 2) Bill, 1997, to Dáil Éireann today. It is the single most important legislative initiative affecting the structure of the public service in a generation. There are those who might be forgiven for thinking that the question of change and development in the management of the public services is rather esoteric and best left to Ministers, their civil servants and, perhaps, a few obscure academics. Yet there are few issues which, in their practical effects, have a greater impact across a wider spectrum of our economy and society than the quality and delivery of public services by the institutions of central Government.
Let us reflect for a moment on the importance of the institutions of central Government to the basic realities of life and work. Take for example, the vital role of the Department of Finance, where I am Minister of State. In co-operation with other agencies, including the Central Bank and National Treasury Management Agency, and among a wide range of duties, the Department of Finance ensures the day to day achievement of Government monetary and financial policies. These are manifested in the stability of the exchange rate of the Irish pound, correspondingly low interest rates and inflation, overall control of Government spending and a sustainable configuration of Government borrowing and debt. The Department of Finance also has direct responsibility for public service management and development and is the lynchpin at official level of the new management initiative across the Civil Service.
Government social policies on health, education and welfare make huge administrative and organisational demands, as do the regulatory and supervisory functions of the branches of the public services administered by the Departments of the Environment and Transport, Energy and Communications. How many farmers can be unaware of the functions of the Department of Agriculture, Food and Forestry and its many responsibilities, such as its role as an intervention agency with the European Union? Moreover, the fundamental prerogatives of Government in defending the external integrity and interests of the State and internal security and order are given effect through the administration of the Departments of Foreign Affairs, Defence and Justice. One could choose many other similar examples.
The Bill will, in essence, provide a structure for high performance management in the Civil Service.High performance management is the key to the successful delivery of quality services, whether private or public. In turn, high performance in public service management and value for money in the delivery of public services can only be assured where highly skilled and well motivated staff are working under the guidance of a clear and consistent strategy using effective and efficient systems of administration. Moreover, these fundamental components of good administration must be brought together within a framework which integrates these various factors. This framework must give coherence to the objectives of the diverse elements of governmental organisation.
There must be a structure at the heart of the public services which is fully in sympathy with our open, democratic and parliamentary system of government. At the same time, it must employ best practice in organisational and management techniques to serve the citizens of this State who are the clients and customers of the public services.The new management structure to be put in place by means of the Public Service Management (No. 2) Bill meets these needs. Getting this structure right is not easy; neither is it a once and for all task. It demands ongoing commitments at both political and official levels. On balance, we have not done so badly in this regard. Notwithstanding some well publicised difficulties in recent years, this country has been well served by our public services.
The Ministers and Secretaries Act, 1924, embodies the basic statutory provisions affecting the organisation of Departments of State and the responsibilities of Ministers to Dáil Éireann. That this Act has remained broadly unchanged for more than 70 years is a tribute to the wisdom and foresight of those courageous men and women who founded this State. Working with their civil servants under enormous pressures, they crafted the 1924 Act which brought coherence and order to the administrative mess inherited from the British. It reorganised the complex mix of "Irish" departments, sections of UK departments, offices, boards and commissions through which the British governed this country into the basic departmental pattern with which we are familiar today. Although the Ministers and Secretaries Act was drafted and brought through Dáil Éireann in those bitter days during and immediately after the Civil War, the structure and organisation of the Irish public services in 1924 facilitated and supported the democratic and peaceful transition of political power less than a decade later. One does not need to be a lawyer to see how many of the arrangements for central Government in the 1924 Act are exactly mirrored in the 1937 Constitution.
The scale and complexity of Government has increased exponentially since the foundation of the State, especially over the past 30 years. It is time for change. We must be prepared to manage the changes which need to be made within our own sphere of influence and control. We must do this because it is certain changes in the wider world which affect us but arise beyond our power of direction are happening apace. For example, the changes arising from the opening up of the Irish economy have made huge demands on the administration of central Government. The response of the Civil Service to the growing importance of our relationship with the institutions of the European Union is an example of successful change and evolution in the core areas of the public service.
The milestones of European integration loom large in any review of this country's development over the last quarter of a century: accession to the Common Market in the early 1970s; founding membership of the European Monetary System in 1979; negotiating the Single European Act in the 1980s and removing the remaining restrictions on trade within the European Community; designing and managing the implementation of two Community support frameworks under which Ireland has received crucial investment funding from Structural Funds; playing a key role in designing the Maastricht Treaty and, more recently, moving towards full participation in economic and monetary union.
Adapting to the changes brought by these fundamental building blocks of European law has been among the major challenges faced by Irish political leaders and the Civil Service over the past 25 years. The success of the Civil Service in meeting these challenges is indicative of an underlying strength based on competence and flexibility in all Departments of State and offices and at all levels of the organisation. Irish civil servants have made a major contribution in the negotiations at Council working groups on key EU directives, whether on tax law, environmental policy and employment and social policies.
The management of the Presidency of the European Union by Ireland has been recognised widely as highly productive and successful, notwithstanding our limited resources compared to larger member states. During our most recent Presidency last year, the zeal and dedication of officials across the Civil Service which contributed to achieving the goals set by the Government for the Presidency programme was fully appreciated and acknowledged. I am confident the contribution of the Civil Service towards the building of economic and monetary union and the enlargement of the EU over the next few years will be no less competent.
In considering these successes I would not want to ignore the fact that real problems have emerged in relation to some aspects of central Government administration. Given the pace and magnitude of the changes in the environment affecting the public services, it would have been more surprising if difficulties had not arisen. Nevertheless, I remain confident the process of renewal in the public service is being built on firm foundations with respect to basic structures, administrative systems and the skill and dedication of the personnel involved. Much depends on how we respond to the evident difficulties and, in this respect, there are good grounds for confidence.
The new management initiative, known as the strategic management initiative, of which the Public Service Management Bill is an integral part, forms the cornerstone of the Government's response to the needs of public service reform and development. This process involves a critical self-examination of roles and mandates, analyses of strengths and weaknesses and, crucially, identification of clients and their needs. Following the formal launch of the document, Strategic Management Initiative, by the then Taoiseach in 1994, three key objectives were set for Departments and offices of the Civil Service: to make a greater contribution to national development; to provide excellent services to the public and other clients and to make best use of available resources. In essence, the strategic management initiative requires each Department and office, under ministerial direction, to take stock of what it is doing, to determine what it should do in the context of its mandate, Government objectives and client needs and to identify what steps or strategies it should pursue to that end. This process of searching self-analysis is intended to ensure ongoing improvements in efficiency and effectiveness in Civil Service management.
This is not a once-off exercise but an ongoing cycle of questioning what public service managers are doing, assessing how well they are performing, asking what changes should be made, setting and reviewing objectives and measuring their achievement. This new focus on a strategic approach to addressing management issues, in conjunction with work carried out a by a co-ordinating group of Secretaries, led to proposals for a major programme of change in the Civil Service. This was set out in Delivering Better Government which was formally launched by the Taoiseach in May last year. It sets down a framework for change within an overall vision for the Civil Service which embraces a series of interacting, interdependent initiatives which collectively will improve the management and performance of the Civil Service.
The fundamental objective is to meet the needs of Government and the public more efficiently, effectively and economically. Under Delivering Better Government, working groups, involving senior civil servants and non-civil servants, have been set up to develop initiatives in the areas of service delivery, openness and transparency, regulatory reform, human resource management, financial management and information technology.A working group was also established to advise on legislation required to underpin the change process. This group provided valuable assistance in drafting the Public Service Management Bill.
I emphasise the importance of this legislative dimension of the strategic management initiative. Earlier, incomplete phases of public service reform lacked the cutting edge of legislation. Legislation is important for many reasons but the primary benefit is that it provides a basis in statute for the assignment of authority and the creation of mechanisms of accountability within the structure of Civil Service management.
As Delivering Better Government states: "It has long been recognised that the existing structures and reporting systems promote a risk-averse environment where taking personal responsibility is not encouraged and, equally, where innovative approaches to service delivery have not been developed". Indeed, it is fair to say that long-standing practice has tended to demand detailed accountability from Ministers in relation to matters in which they may have no direct or immediate involvement. As a result, in some cases the mechanisms of accountability have come to seem almost detached from reality.
A main reason for this lack of clarity is that the role of civil servants under current law, including that of Secretaries, is inadequately addressed. This has given rise over time to a tendency for decisions to be taken at too high a level and for authority to become unduly centralised. This, in turn, has resulted in structures which do not always ensure optimal levels of efficiency and effectiveness. Under the provisions of the Public Service Management Bill this will be changed decisively.
When the new management structures being provided for in the Bill are in place, the ground work for making public service organisations more accountable, more efficient, more effective and more responsive to the needs of the public will have been laid. The purpose of the new management structure is quite explicit: it will enhance the management, effectiveness and transparency of operations of Departments and offices and increase the accountability of civil servants. At the same time the discretion of Ministers in relation to the administration of their Departments is virtually unchanged and the responsibility of Government to Dáil Éireann is preserved.
This qualification is needed to conform to the demands of democratic accountability of members of the Government as provided for in the Constitution. The Bill provides a legal basis for assigning, under a Minister, specified tasks to Secretaries of Departments who are now to be designated Secretaries General. These assignments will allow Secretaries General a greater degree of operational autonomy in the day-to-day management of Departments of State.
The matters which may be assigned to Secretaries General and other civil servants are dealt with in detail in sections 4 and 9 of the Bill. In essence, these core sections provide that Secretaries General will be given formal responsibility for the day-to-day management of the Department. This will involve implementing and monitoring policies, delivering the goods and services of the Department to its customers and clients and giving advice to the Minister in relation to the wider concerns of his or her Department.
In this Bill we are matching the needs of effective internal management in the Civil Service with the constitutional requirement that the Government be answerable to this House and that individual Ministers be "in charge of" their Departments. That has involved, in crucial sections of the Bill, a very careful balancing act between these two requirements. What will be done under those sections will be in the context of ultimate ministerial accountability to Dáil Éireann.
The Bill leaves three areas where the involvement of Ministers will be unmistakable. First, strategy statements will be drawn up in the context of policies set by the Minister. Second, strategy statements will be approved by the Minister with or without amendment and he or she will have the responsibility to ensure that they are adjusted to changing circumstances. Third, Ministers will retain in all assigned matters a power to issue directions in writing. These arrangements ensure that the Bill comes within the parameters of constitutional propriety where ministerial responsibility is concerned. They also identify the points within the administrative process in which the personal input of the Minister is required. The Minister will retain the full legal responsibility for what is done within his or her Department and will remain answerable to this House.
However, we hope that as assignments are made and publicised and other accountability mechanisms for Civil Service management come into play, the House itself may see its way to modify its Standing Orders in a manner which reflects the new structure, but that, I stress, is a matter for decision by the House, not by Ministers.
Strategy statements are unequivocally the key instruments in ensuring the success of the process of change under this Bill. They have a significance not just for civil servants, Ministers and Ministers of State. The strategy statements are also a means of empowerment for Deputies and a form of service guarantee for customers and clients of Departments and offices.
Strategy statements are important for civil servants because they will provide the basis for them to exercise greater initiative in the administration of central Government. Through the strategy statements, staff in all Departments and offices will have a clear and consistent understanding of precisely what is expected of them in their particular jobs. They will give Ministers and Ministers of State a clear and unambiguous account of how the policy objectives set by Government are to be achieved. Members of Dáil Éireann will have laid before them formal statements of strategy from every Department and office across the Civil Service. Together, these will form a comprehensive programme of objectives and outputs comprising the business of the public services.
Most importantly, the strategy statements will provide valid and accessible standards for judging levels of quality and performance in the delivery of public services to the general public. Under the impact of these strategy statements, the new management structure will expose the organisation, role, functioning and operation of the Civil Service to investigation and evaluation and to public accountability, effectively and democratically.
Under the Bill, a Secretary General will be responsible for examining and developing means to improve the provision of cost-effective services and ensuring that the Department's resources are used appropriately and with respect to value for money. These latter responsibilities are consistent with the functions of Secretaries General as Accounting Officers, who are required to appear before and account to the Committee of Public Accounts.
A further provision is the requirement that the Secretary General will make arrangements in relation to cross-departmental matters. This is a crucial provision in that it recognises a key structural deficiency in the way we address issues of major political importance and public interest which cut across the responsibilities of more than one Department. Matters such as the protection of children or the drugs issue have raised questions which can be resolved only through the closest co-operation between different agencies, offices and Departments. By giving these arrangements a basis in statute, this Bill will give greater focus and a renewed impetus to policies in these matters.
Subject to existing legislation, Secretaries General will also be given responsibility for appointments, performance, discipline and dismissal in relation to staff of their Departments below the level of Principal. These responsibilities will be exercised in addition to the functions which a Secretary normally exercises at present in the routine management of all staff in his or her Department. Section 9 of the Bill further provides that the Secretary General will assign responsibility downwards through the organisation to other officers or grades of officer in the Department.
The exercise of these responsibilities by Secretaries General and other civil servants will ensure that work done in the various parts of the Civil Service will be performed in a more focused way and in a manner which more clearly delineates the responsibilities of individual civil servants. I have no doubt that over time this new structure will provide better value to taxpayers for the amount of public expenditure allocated to running Departments of State. It will also provide the basis for a better standard of service to the customers and clients of Departments and offices. In addition, and no less improtantly, it will enhance the job satisfaction and, therefore, the performance of civil servants.
Why are we making provision for the appointment of special advisers? We are doing so because the Bill is concerned with how Departments and offices are managed. At the core of the Bill is the arrangement that Secretaries General will be responsible for the internal management of their Departments: staff in the Department will be answerable to them for their work. Without the specific provision under which special advisers are accountable to Ministers or Ministers of State, they would fall within the Secretary General's domain in that respect.
Given that the function of special advisers is to provide an independent and more politically focused source of advice to officeholders — a role which may require them to act as devil's advocate on proposals made by a Secretary General or his or her senior personnel — such a line of accountability seems inappropriate.
The changes introduced by this Bill will have resonances well beyond the core Civil Service and fit into a broader programme of development and renewal. Indeed, as Minister of State with responsibility for public service reform, I have been busy in other crucial areas. One area where real progress is already being made is in customer services in the commercial State sector.
As many Members will be aware, I launched a code of practice on 15 January this year which consists of a commitment by the State companies on customer service in a number of crucial areas. These include quality, consultation, information, choice and proper complaints mechanisms.
The code sets out basic commitments to be met by all of the participating companies who have subscribed to this code of practice. Each State company is different, of course, and their customers' needs vary. Thus, they are free to draw up their own customer charters to cater specifically for the needs of their customers provided they adhere to the fundamental principles set out in this code of practice. Both Telecom Éireann and the Electricity Supply Board, involved in the drawing up of this code, have since published their own customer charters.
My intention is that all the State companies will not only meet but surpass the requirements of this code. I know public companies have the capability to do this. It will mean public companies must take the issue of customer service as seriously as they take that of financial performance.Any company that takes its customer service seriously will perform well. In the private sector it is virtually axiomatic that good companies have high standards of customer service. It is all the more important in the public sector that customer service is afforded a high priority as, in most cases, the State companies are the sole suppliers of the particular service.
About this time last year I spoke here at some length on the subject of customer service in the commercial State companies and promised to return to the House a year later to update Members on developments in this area. I will take this opportunity to elaborate on some of the customer service improvements which have been introduced by State companies.
Aer Rianta has implemented the code of practice in full. Posters and brochures are well placed around airports. New "opinion meters", a computerised survey, are being placed in strategic locations around airports to gauge customer opinion and reaction to the service being offered.
The Electricity Supply Board published a new customer charter in February last — including service guarantees backed by payments to customers where the ESB fails to meet guaranteed service level. A customer complaints procedure and a national call centre are being developed by the ESB in addition to a major network renewal project in rural areas costing £230 million over five years to improve the quality of supply to some 150,000 customers.
Aer Lingus improved seating, gold circle parking in Dublin and the introduction of a premier service on continental European services. All were initiatives introduced in 1996. In addition, a new check-in at Dublin Airport for Aer Lingus commuters will open in July 1997.
Bord na Móna plans to launch a customer service charter in September 1997 and a code of practice has been implemented throughout the organisation. Bord na Móna intends to involve distributors in the formulation of a customer service plan for their retailers and customers.
The Bord Gáis Éireann code of practice has been implemented and improvements effected in all areas. Networks have been extended and its customer service programme strengthened by senior management appointments.
A national computerised customer database is in operation and a national telephone system networked for ease of contact. A directory of services is being drafted and its complaints and redress system is under review.
At present Córas Iompair Éireann is working on punctuality and reliability, cleanliness, customer comfort, information, communications, facilities for people with mobility difficulties and other problems. It is intended that specific targets be set in each area and performance subject to periodic — I suggest annual — independent audit.
Telecom Éireann launched a customer charter in May 1996 which included guarantees on line installation and maintenance with credits to customers for non-compliance by Telecom Éireann. Use of customer panels has been expanded and telephone support has been improved by the use of special access numbers. An appointments system for installation and repairs has also been introduced, in addition to which planned initiatives include the establishment of a fully integrated complaints procedure in 1997, a revamp of the customer charter and further development of the appointment system. I must re-emphasise the importance of these legislative proposals. As the House will be aware, the Bill has already been improved in a number of important respects in its passage through Seanad Éireann. I take this opportunity to thank Senators from all sides for their very positive response to the Bill and for the lively debate on its provisions and fundamental principles enshrined therein. One of the most significant improvements adopted in Seanad Éireann was that in relation to the limitation on the numbers of special advisers appointed by Ministers and Ministers of State under section 5. That provision had not been included in the original text but a very convincing case was made for it particularly in the course of Committee Stage in the Seanad.
The positive response of the Government to proposals for improving the Bill in this and other respects indicates that this Bill should not be seen in a partisan or adversarial light. Administrative efficiency and effectiveness concern Members in both Houses. Our citizens have a right to expect the highest standards of management in the operation of the public services. The specific provisions of this Bill, and the wider strategic management initiative of which these legislative proposals form such a crucial part, deserve all of our commitment and support. Collectively, the measures encompassed by the Bill will deliver the most positive and constructive changes in the conduct of the public services in a generation.
I commend the Bill to the House.