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Departmental Staff Data

Dáil Éireann Debate, Tuesday - 10 November 2015

Tuesday, 10 November 2015

Ceisteanna (1, 2)

Micheál Martin

Ceist:

1. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach the number of staff in his Department who work on www.merrionstreet.ie; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [19229/15]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Micheál Martin

Ceist:

2. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach the number of civil servants and non-Civil Service staff working for the Government information service; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [19230/15]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Freagraí ó Béal (7 píosaí cainte) (Ceist ar Taoiseach)

I propose to take Questions Nos. 1 and 2 together.

There are 14 members of staff in my Department who work in the Government press office, compared with 18 members of staff who worked there under the previous Administration. The staff of the Government press office comprises three non-established civil servants; nine civil servants, two of whom work on www.merrionstreet.ie; and two temporary contract staff, non-established civil servants. Staff in the Government press office are contactable around the clock to respond to media queries. Two members of the Government press office staff work on www.merrionstreet.ie and both are at executive officer level. Through www.merrionstreet.ie, they provide a factual news service on the work of the Government and its agencies both at home and all over the world via the Internet. They maintain website content via video, audio and all modern media platforms.

The two questions relate to www.merrionstreet.ie and the Government information service. The Taoiseach will remember that at one stage he promised to reduce the number of staff operating in the Government information service by a third. Of course, that is another broken promise in a long list of them. A wider concern is the increasing politicisation of this area and the Government information service in general. The Taoiseach is not the only member of the Government fond of telling stories, with the Army at automated teller machines just the latest one. As the election gets closer, it is important that the abuse of the system does not get entirely out of hand. The Taoiseach has a responsibility in that regard.

The Taoiseach's Government sees spin as central to everything it does and the Taoiseach's first letter to the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Howlin, was to ask for money for Fine Gael's press officer to take charge of selling messages on the economy in the Department of Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation. The concern with www.merrionstreet.ie is how it has gone from being quite a broad service to one which is increasingly political. A good example of this relates to materials in Operation Thor, as this supposedly major initiative amounted to less than €28,000 per Garda district per month, with some districts losing money because of overtime restrictions. Nevertheless, the Taoiseach's Department is spending public money making claims which simply have no link to reality.

Will the Taoiseach explain what measures, if any, he has in place to prevent the abuse of Civil Service media and advertising resources over the next three months? That is a very important point, given that we are on the cusp of a general election. If media monitoring is one of the roles, why was Mr. Cliff Taylor's article in The Irish Times on 22 August not picked up? This relates to a previous issue, the obstacles that are presenting in the release of documentation to the commission of investigation into sale of assets by IBRC. The article outlined the legal concerns being experienced by the inquiry into Siteserv and other deals but we were told by the Taoiseach's Department that the Taoiseach was only told about these concerns last Friday, when the judge formally wrote to him.

We are not getting back into that.

I know but this relates to the media monitoring role. In many ways it is extraordinary that somebody did not pick up that article in August and alert the Taoiseach to the issue at the time. Of course, if there had been more proactive media monitoring, the Taoiseach would not have been in the dark, as he allegedly has been for a number of months about those core issues.

With regard to the last point, the office of Government procurement under the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform recently completed a market research process, including but not limited to consultation with both buyers and suppliers within the very niche area of media monitoring. Based on the findings of that research, it is now finalising documentation with the intention of publishing a request for tender this month with a view to having a central contractual arrangement for the provision of media monitoring services to the public sector.

Staff numbers in the information service are not down by a third but they are down to 14 from 18. I am very conscious of the Deputy's comment regarding the abuse of public service time or personnel in the interests of party politics. I note that www.merrionstreet.ie is a useful resource for members of the public and journalists, providing access to parliamentary activities such as Leaders' Questions, which the site posts on its YouTube, Facebook and Twitter platforms. That means the Deputy features regularly on www.merrionstreet.ie, along with Deputy Adams. The site carries content from European Councils and meetings, as well as featuring the work of agencies like IDA Ireland, Enterprise Ireland and the Irish Coast Guard. It makes content available regarding major Government events, such as the budget, as well as commemorative events such as the 1916 Rising commemoration and the national day of commemoration. The website team provides live video coverage of budget press conferences and other major press conferences, and that is available to media organisations.

The site is staffed in the main by young people who are very active. It has had 158,000 users in the past 12 months and over 500,000 page views. The Twitter account has gained 300 new followers per month and the Facebook account has a considerable number of "likes" and so on. The staff have been able to deal with many issues that used to cost much money. I am looking for a figure.

Do not look too far, as you were only asked how many people worked there. I want to get on to other questions, some of which go back to matters from last May.

In addition to other duties, staff of the website have largely taken over photographic duties in the Department of the Taoiseach and also covered many events across Departments. As a consequence, photography costs in the Department of the Taoiseach have been reduced by 85% from €83,398 in 2008 to €12,709 in 2014. This practice also resulted in significant savings across other Departments.

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