Before I deal with the Bill, I would like to intrude on the proceedings of the House, which I have witnessed for the last few minutes, in regard to the request for a debate on economic and monetary union. I will be happy to facilitate this House if it wants to have a further discussion on the matter.
I draw Members' attention to two matters. First, they should have received the recently published document setting out the Government's up-to-date position on the issue and the preparation which is taking place as we speak. Second, there will be a launch on Monday, 17 April, outlining the next stage of preparation required for the process and for the conversion to the single currency.
It might be useful if such a debate were to take place after 17 April. I am in the hands of the House in relation to that matter, but from my point of view the more the discussion about the issue the better.
This Bill forms an essential element of the strategic management initiative, SMI, which is itself the product of an ongoing process of administrative research, analysis and discussion both at political level and particularly within the public service itself.
In moving this process forward, my central aim is to equip this country with the best possible structures and systems of public administration as we enter the new millennium. The success of this process of public service change and development will impact on all citizens who depend on the public services, not just civil servants and Ministers. Moreover, I have moved quickly from the publication of the Bill to bring these legislative proposals before the Oireachtas because I believe that the issues which they address transcend partisan interests and go to the core of constitutional democracy.
I have had the privilege of serving the citizens of this country in Government on a number of occasions during my political career. Now, within this Government, I have been charged with the primary responsibility for bringing this Bill before the Seanad today. In preparing these proposals I have tried as far as possible to think through and formulate the crucial sections of the Bill from a parliamentary perspective, because we, as parliamentarians in this House and in Dáil Éireann, collectively provide the basic principle on which is based the very idea of responsible public service.
It is a fundamental principle of our democracy that those who organise and deliver services to the public, to the citizens of this country, are accountable to that public through us, the Members of the Houses of the Oireachtas. This concept of the democratic responsibility and accountability of members of the Government to Parliament underpins all that we hope to achieve by means of this legislation. The importance of this concept is reflected in section 3 which explicitly reaffirms that notwithstanding any assignment of functions in the Bill, a Minister is in charge of his or her Department of State. The section further provides that members of the Government are responsible for the administration of their Departments as provided for in the Constitution and the Ministers and Secretaries Acts, 1924 to 1995. Put another way, this section reinforces the fundamental role of Dáil Éireann in calling Ministers to account publicly for the stewardship of their Departments. There are no other institutions under the Constitution which exercise such power over the Executive authority with regard to actions carried out by, or in the name of, the elected Government.
As in any open and free society the news media, whether television or the press, can observe, comment on and criticise any action of Government. In recent years we have seen how effective judicial tribunals have been in exposing certain aspects of major issues of public interest and importance. Moreover, the Freedom of Information Bill will bring a new dimension to openness and transparency in the government of this country. Notwithstanding the importance of these factors in ensuring that government of the people is conducted for and in the interests of the people, there are no other constitutional mechanisms through which the Government and individual Ministers can be brought formally to account politically other than within the Houses of the Oireachtas.
Of course, the accountability of the Government to the Dáil has been a fundamental element of our democracy since the foundation of the State. This is enshrined in the Constitution. Yet while the theoretical basis of ministerial accountability continues, the growing complexity of modern government has changed the practical character of this accountability. At first, Departments of State were relatively small close-knit organisations: a Minister could know personally all of his — it was almost invariably his in those days — higher civil servants and most, if not all, of the other officials in his Department. Ronan Fanning's history of the Department of Finance points out that in 1924 the entire staff complement of the Department was fewer than 60 people. If the approximately 60 people employed at the NTMA are included, that figure is close to 600 today, representing a tenfold increase in numbers. This illustrates the extent of growth and change. Thus the fact that, as now, a Department of State has no autonomous capacity to act and every action must in law be done in the name of the Minister, created little difficulties for the public service.
The scale and variety of public services have increased exponentially since the 1920s and especially over the last quarter of a century. Think for a moment of how many demands on Ministers and officials arise directly or indirectly from our membership of the European Union. The range and extent of matters for which an individual Minister is now theoretically and legally accountable has become so vast as to make the process of accountability almost unreal. All of us who serve in the Oireachtas, whether Seanad Éireann or Dáil Éireann, are aware of this fact. The notion that every Minister can even know about, let alone direct and manage every action, every day in his or her Department is absurd. This dichotomy between legal requirements and practical reality creates enormous difficulties for us in trying to do our jobs as parliamentarians. Issues of importance become personalised; personalities become more important than facts. To allow the unreality of Parliament's role in this regard to endure would be a disservice to democracy and the integrity of the Houses of the Oireachtas.
The Public Service Management Bill addresses this crucial issue. It does not in any sense remove the Minister from the process of accountability. Rather it amplifies and augments the structures of central government to ensure that the process of accountability is more focused and is, accordingly, made more realistic. It does this by creating, for the first time in law, a statutory basis for the structures and arrangements of management within Departments of State and the other offices of central government.
Arrangements for the better administration of central government may seem less than glamorous or even pedestrian. It is not a topic which offers a visible payoff to any political practitioner — other than the distinguished Members of this House, including its Leader, whose other careers shape that interest — or a matter on which one would be willing to take political risks. However, I cannot over-emphasise its importance. Few would question the fact that the fundamental issues at stake — of authority, responsibility and accountability of Ministers of the Government and their officials — have thrust themselves forward repeatedly during the lifetime of the present Dáil.
It is no exaggeration to say that this Bill is the most important legislative provision affecting the administration of central government since the original Ministers and Secretaries Act of 1924. In that sense, the Bill is already a historic departure from previous approaches to public service reform. Those who are familiar with earlier initiatives to reorganise the institutions and improve the performance of the public services in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s will recognise the same themes of structures and systems, efficiency and effectiveness, authority, responsibility and accountability, recurring throughout all aspects of the strategic management initiative as were addressed 20 or 30 years ago. A key factor missing from those earlier, incomplete attempts at public service reform was a legislative dimension. A recognition of the importance of legislation and a willingness to bring forward the specific proposals contained in this Bill marks off the SMI as a qualitatively different process from the approach adopted during previous unsuccessful phases of administrative reform.
Let us make no mistake about it. There are those who do not wish reform to touch their official lives. There are others who regard it as a passing fad, to be sat out until a Government changes, and there are those who have seen the coming and going of enthusiastic Ministers. Reluctant travellers along the road to reform need to be jolted out of their lethargy and complacency. We mean business, not just in Government but on all sides in Dáil Éireann and Seanad Éireann. That is the message that we as parliamentarians must convey to the wider public service system to ensure that once an Administration, or indeed a Minister, moves, the enthusiasm to complete the SMI will not be diminished. Nothing would provide a greater disservice to the nation if we as parliamentarians were to allow that impression to gain currency. That is not to say that we cannot have substantially different points of view about the merits of the legislation or the mechanisms that are being put in place. However, to convey an impression that the principle was the property of one group or party or collection of parties in either or both Houses would be counter-productive to the interests of all parties in both Houses.
The importance of the legislative dimension of the reform process has two aspects. First, bringing the collective wisdom of the Oireachtas directly into the process of administrative reform and development creates certainty that action will be taken to carry forward this important process. Vesting this process in law gives the changes we want to see an impetus missing from earlier phases of reform. The new law is not merely intended to fulfil a declaratory function, although this can in itself be an important factor. The proposed legislation will empower the agents of change and development within the public services to achieve the lasting improvements we demand.
The second crucial aspect of the legislative phases is that the Bill will provide a statutory basis for a new management structure in the Civil Service. The present arrangements for the administration of central government set out in the Ministers and Secretaries Acts, address the organisation of the public services at what might be called a "macro level". The existing legislation, based on the 1924 Act, is primarily concerned with the division of responsibility across the public services and the institutional arrangements to organise the various branches of administration.
The Public Service Management Bill is primarily concerned with the micro level of administration — what happens within individual Departments of State and Offices and how the various tiers of administration relate to each other. Much of this so-called ordinary business of the Civil Service is at present conducted on the basis of administrative arrangements rather than on a statutory basis. The provisions of the Bill are designed to give this dimension of the process of governance a legal foundation which will knit into the existing macro framework and establish the new arrangements firmly within the body of administrative law.
Given the importance of this legislative dimension, I have taken care to ensure that the specific proposals contained in the Bill meet, as far as possible, the precise needs of this phase of the SMI process. To this end I was greatly assisted in preparing this Bill by the members of the advisory group established by the Government last year. This group included the programme managers of the leaders of the three parties in Government, the senior legal assistant in the Office of the Attorney General and experts from my Department and other key areas of the Civil Service. The recommendations of the advisory group were taken into account by the Government in approving the final form of the Bill, especially in relation to the core constitutional dimension of the legislation.
In particular, great care was taken to preserve the right balance between the democratic accountability of the elected representatives of the people serving in Government and the achievement of the highest standards of administrative effectiveness and efficiency of officials. I am satisfied that the proposals contained in the Bill fully respect the provisions of the Constitution in relation to the administration of Departments of State and the collective responsibility of members of the Government to Dáil Éireann.
Within this constitutional context the various sections of the Bill give effect to the arrangements for the new management structure for the Civil Service which were described in detail in the White Paper, Delivering Better Government, published in May of last year. The objective of this new management structure is clear. Its purpose is to put in place a framework which will enhance the management, effectiveness and transparency of operations of Departments and Offices and increase the accountability of civil servants.
You do not need to be an architect to know there are certain fundamental rules which must be observed in relation to any new structure. Rule number one is that the ground must be carefully prepared and a solid base laid. The Public Service Management Bill is, in a real sense, the foundation in legislation for the new management structure in the Civil Service and for the organisational and administrative changes which will flow from this structure. Moreover, the Bill opens the way for further significant legislative proposals in related areas.
This brings me to another equally important architectural precept: you have to get the sequence of construction right. When building a house you do not generally try to put the roof on until all the supporting walls are in place. Some criticisms of this Bill suggest to me that certain commentators have yet to learn this basic lesson. Those who look for a grand redesign of all aspects of the public service in this legislation and criticise the supposed absence of more farreaching changes miss this fundamental point. This Bill is presented not as a once and for all restructuring of the public services but, quite explicitly, as the first in a series of public management Bills, each of which will address specific phases of administrative reorganisation and development.
A further principle of good architectural practice, equally applicable to public service management, is that you do not tear down the structures inherited from previous generations just for the sake of it. In building anew, it is always wise to try to preserve, strengthen and extend whatever has served well in the past and stood the test of time. One commentator was dismissive of the Public Service Management Bill because he could not find any provisions for the repeal of the Ministers and Secretaries Act, 1924. Let me put this as plainly as possible: the 1924 Act is not repealed because there is no need to repeal it. Rather, the Public Service Management Bill amends the 1924 Act and builds onto the existing body of law the additional provisions needed to put in place the new management structure for the Civil Service.
There is one further analogy with architecture appropriate to this Bill: in designing a building a good architect would try to ensure that it is capable of providing all of the functions required of it, that it is accessible to and meets the needs of present and future users and that it is in sympathy with the environment within which it is constructed. The same principles apply to this legislation. The Bill will make it possible to put in place new arrangements for management within the institutions of central government. It meets the needs of Irish citizens and the Irish economy and seeks to extend and strengthen the positive aspects of Irish public administration. Quite emphatically, it is not intended to impose on this country a pattern of administration devised elsewhere.
At least one commentator has proposed that we should have gone towards what was described as the New Zealand model of public service reform. While I have respect for the choices made by the Governments of other countries, I do not believe that all of the reforms implemented in New Zealand are directly applicable here. While we may have much to learn from the models of administration adopted by other countries, we must be careful to ensure that the appropriate changes are put in place so as to allow for the continuation of the strong economic performance, social progress and political stability enjoyed by this country in recent years.
I want to turn now to deal briefly with some of the specific provisions of the Public Service Management Bill. Most of the definitions used in the Bill are either self-explanatory or are dealt with in the explanatory memorandum. However, I would like to draw the House's attention in particular to the term "outputs" which is defined for the first time in legislation. This concept, which is derived from both economics and organisation and management theory, is crucial to the way we address objectives, performance and results in the delivery of public services. My intention is that the strategy statement provided for in section 5 should refer specifically to "outputs". This is needed, I believe, in order to ensure that the business of a Department of State is conceived in terms of the services actually provided to citizens.
The more familiar, traditional approach to determining what the public services do is to describe particular services in terms of the resources absorbed in providing them. In order to have this reference included in the Bill it was necessary to provide for a definition of "outputs" as those goods and services which a Department actually delivers to citizens who constitute its customers and clients as set out in the definitions section.
My concerns in this regard again arise directly from the increased emphasis we want to give to realistic means of ensuring democratic accountability. Existing arrangements under the Comptroller and Auditor General Act allow public representatives, through the Committee of Public Accounts, to focus on the inputs side of public services. Accounting officers appearing before the Public Accounts Committee are required to give a detailed account to the effect that public money has been spent for the purposes for which it was voted and that value for money is being obtained. By building the concept of outputs into departmental strategy statements, which must be laid before the Oireachtas, I hope to ensure that a better balance of accountability is created.
Sections 4, 5 and 9 of the Bill address the core issues of the assignment of authority, responsibility and accountability to Secretaries, the assignment of powers, duties and functions down through the various levels within Departments and Offices and the strategy statement. The various functions for which Secretaries/Heads will be assigned authority and responsibility and the arrangements for assigning responsibilities down through the organisation, are set out in detail in the Bill and in the explanatory memorandum. The strategy statement is the single most important element in the overall framework. Each such statement must be prepared for each Department by its Secretary -now to be designated Secretary General. This statement will set out the specific objectives, outputs and strategies, including use of resources, of the Department. Consistent with the provisions of the Constitutions and as provided for in section 3, the determination of policy and the allocation of resources will remain matters for Ministers and the Government.
The Secretary General will be required to prepare and submit a strategy statement to his or her Minister at least every three years. The Minister may then approve or amend it. The approved statement must be laid before both Houses of the Oireachtas within a specified time limit. The purpose of this provision is to ensure that strategy statements are unequivocally in the public domain.
These strategy statements, which must be regularly updated and revised, provide the framework within which civil servants will carry out their duties and functions in the administration of central government. By giving management and staff in all Departments and Offices a clear and consistent understanding of precisely what is expected of them in their jobs, it is my hope and expectation that greater initiative and endeavour will emerge at all levels and grades across the Civil Service. In addition, provisions for laying strategy statements of every Department and Office before the Oireachtas will provide Members with a regular and complete declaration of the objectives and outputs comprising the business of the public services. Most important of all, the general public will be given valid and accessible standards for judging levels of quality and performance in the delivery of the public services.
One of the changes I am proposing in the Bill is the replacement of the title Secretary by that of Secretary General. This change resulted from my personal observation of the hoops that a civil service chief of an Irish Department had to go through to explain his place in the existing scheme of things to counterparts from other administrations. I was in Tokyo with the Secretary of the Department of Enterprise and Employment, Mr. Kevin Bonner, for a meeting with the Japanese Minister for Industry and Trade. The Secretary explained who he was to the interpreter and the interpreter thought he was the Minister's personal assistant. When the Secretary explained that he was the permanent Secretary, the translation given by the interpreter provoked quizzical looks from the Japanese. Permanent Secretary had been translated into Japanese as "everlasting typist". That experience confirmed my belief that titles in the public service are important. They should be, as far as possible, self-explanatory and, given the continuing interaction of our officials with their European Union counterparts, comparable with internationally recognised nomenclature. I regard this change as more than cosmetic. It is my intention to follow it with changes in the archaic and somewhat mystifying titles which abound in the Civil Service to the confusion of the public and which in themselves give no clear indication to their holders of how their functions compare with responsibilities in other organisations. It would logically follow that Assistant Secretaries would be retitled as Assistant Secretaries General and the grades immediately below them as Directors and Assistant Directors, but I intend to pursue with the Civil Service unions the question of appropriate titles accurately reflecting the position and responsibilities of their holders. Their participation in that element of the restructuring is important.
The creation of a high-performance, results-oriented Civil Service is central to the structure set out in Delivering Better Government which we published last year. The day-to-day work programmes of staff in Departments of State at all levels needs to be underpinned by an effective performance management system across the Civil Service. The Human Resource Working Group set up under the strategic management initiative has been given responsibility for the design and development of such a system which will fit the complex environment of a modern Civil Service. One of the leading consultants in the field, Hay MSL (Ireland) Limited, has been engaged to assist in this development. There will be extensive consultation with management and staff at all stages of the design and development process. I am anxious to move as fast as possible on this phase which I want to see fully completed by the end of this year.
I am confident that these measures will open up the organisation, role, functioning and operation of Departments of State to public scrutiny to a degree never seen before in the history of this State.
Before moving on, I want to refer briefly to the assignment of responsibility in relation to appointments, performance, discipline, and dismissal of staff below the level of Principal or its equivalent, to Secretaries General and Heads of offices. This represents a significant change compared with the Ministers and Secretaries Act, 1924, and is a major new initiative in an area which will inevitably raise serious questions of human resource management and industrial relations. Until appropriate amendments to the Civil Service Regulation Act, 1956, are made, this change will not be brought into effect. My intention is to bring forward proposals in this regard in the near future which, together with the measures specified in section 4 of this Bill, will renew and update long standing systems of staff management in the Civil Service. The purpose is to establish more realistic and commonsense arrangements which will win the acceptance of both management and staff.
The changes will, of course, make significant demands on managers in the Civil Service and those over whom they will exercise authority. In this regard, I again want to assure all civil servants that any arrangements made giving effect to these proposals will ensure that the principles of natural justice and constitutional justice are fully observed in each individual case. There is no reason why employees should have any fears about the assignment of authority in respect of appointments, performance, discipline or dismissals to Secretaries General. My purpose is to introduce a more rational and effective means of dealing with those rare occasions when a resort to the ultimate sanction of dismissal becomes necessary. It is most certainly not my intention to diminish the rights of employees in law or in terms of natural justice. These changes are intended to ensure that the exercise of authority in relation to these sensitive areas within the Civil Service is at least equivalent to the best practice in these matters whether in the public or private sectors.
I have great pleasure in commending the Public Service Management Bill to the House.