Wednesday, 1 June 2005
Ceisteanna — Questions.
Question 5: To ask the Taoiseach the projected cost to his Department of the impending payment of the final phase of the benchmarking award; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [15900/05]
I propose to take Questions Nos. 5 and 6 together.
The cost of the next phase of the benchmarking award to my Department, payable in June 2005, is estimated at €150,000. This increase has been calculated in accordance with Department of Finance guidelines and all staff under the grade of Assistant Secretary level are eligible to receive the benchmarking increase.
Under the terms of Sustaining Progress, the pay increases recommended by the Public Service Benchmarking Body, and payable from 1 June 2005, are conditional on delivery of real and verifiable outputs in relation to modernisation and flexibility. The key mechanisms for monitoring overall progress in this regard are reports on action plans prepared by individual Departments and offices, a general review by the Department of Finance and verification by the Civil Service performance verification group. I understand the performance verification group has completed its deliberations and has concluded that the progress achieved warranted payment of increases from 1 June to the grades concerned in my Department.
Will the Taoiseach consider carrying out a survey of attitudes in the public service regarding morale, job satisfaction, the potential for advancement based on performance, the——
I understand that. Will he carry out a survey in his Department on job satisfaction, morale, the potential for advancement based on performance, the promotion of less talented individuals based solely on seniority and recognition of work well done? Will he concede that, to an extent, benchmarking has failed to deliver the reform that rewards talent, improves morale and cherishes innovation? In respect of his Department, does the Taoiseach consider that acuity recognition should be inherent in the benchmarking system? In other words, if persons who are generally in the category where benchmarking can be paid, and depending on the seriousness of their sense of responsibility, there would be a relative award for that. It is striking that in the health area, where nurses in surgical wards, for instance, deal with life and death issues and work under pressure every day in terms of making decisions, the structure of payment across the board is the same. For example, if persons with very responsible positions in the Taoiseach's Department make a mistake, the Taoiseach or the Government could be seriously embarrassed. Will the Taoiseach agree that there should be that kind of acuity recognition and does he believe the benchmarking system should take account of that? I have put the question in that way because I am restricted by the Ceann Comhairle's vigilance in preventing me from asking about the public service in general.
In terms of what has been happening in the whole modernisation process in the public service, surveys are being done now and people involved in that modernisation process are giving their views. Staff are involved in the change of structures, work practices and the preparation of the various documents across Departments. In my Department I am aware there is satisfaction and an engagement with this process. It is far better than it was some years ago. Looking at the strategic management initiative from the outside and all the issues that came out of that, it is working in the Civil Service and people are engaging in the job they are doing and preparing the action plans. In terms of benchmarking the merit award system, which has been examined, seems to be very difficult to operate. My Department is just one part of a workforce of 30,000 people. Even though it has been used in small amounts the merit system is not a system that works well. Benchmarking is far better than the old analogue system. In the old system if one person received an award eventually all others would receive the same award, whereas in benchmarking one examines individual grades. Under the performance verification groups it does not follow that all grades will get the same increase.
In the case of people working in intensive care the Deputy will be aware that there are allowances for people with nurse's duties, allowances for experience and allowances for additional courses and qualifications. If these do not apply benchmarking can identify this grade as one with more responsibilities and with work that involves matters of life and death, and payments can be made on that basis. The last time around the difficulty with benchmarking was that in similar institutions some people received an increase of 15% or 16% and others received nothing. We are going to see more of that and I think it is good. The case has to be made for grade and area responsibility.
I am in favour of the process being as open as possible as this avoids problems and arguments and the situation where I or anyone else have to defend the decision. The only argument made against this was that information on comparable grades was received from a considerable amount of people in the private sector, perhaps 25,000. As benchmarking was carried out across an enormous amount of people there was reluctance to put this information in the public domain for reasons of privacy. That was the reason given as to why the information could not be delivered.
My question arises from the new review announced in April. I understand the Government asked for an interim report in June if any anomalies were found that would have to be addressed. Does the Taoiseach expect a report this month, and have cost implications of such a review been included in figures in his Department? Is there a way to answer questions on productivity in a definite way? Can specific, agreed increases in productivity be indicated? Will the interim review be published this month?
In my Department there is no difficulty. In other Departments I think there are areas of difficulty. In my Department I can point to an area of productivity. In the period of benchmarking we have had to take a 4% cut in salary and a 4% cut in numbers. The Department will achieve the target and additional functions and work will have to be taken on in a number of areas. That work has been done, I am assured, with no diminution in service.
People have taken on extra work, and have changed functions and responsibilities. This has taken place across the public service. Now there is far more engagement with the public and with clients and there are different means of access. It is working well. In other Departments, about which I cannot talk, there have been extraordinary productivity gains, which unfortunately do not get into the public domain. This may be the fault of the Department or of the system but there are excellent examples. When these see the light of day, in fairness to civil servants, it will show that significant productivity increases have taken place in many of these areas.
Does the Taoiseach think the abandonment of the pay determination system and its replacement by benchmarking has been, and will be, a success? I was going to ask him about the point he mentioned, if there have been gains through modernisation, flexibility and productivity. One reads little enough about these in the public press and it would be advisable that this matter be ventilated in public, given the importance of the services provided by the Taoiseach's Department, the Civil Service and the wider public service. Does the Taoiseach see the interim report confirming that the 4% reduction to which he referred has been achieved across the area specified in the original agreement?
The answer to the last question is yes. Within the figures the MAC of my Department has the flexibility to try to rearrange things, seeing as the presidency came within the period to which the Deputy referred. In terms of achieving the bottom line figures, as has to be done in the report to the Department of Finance by every Department, this has been achieved. At the same time there are always new issues and work practices.
The other question across the Civil Service is that productivity has been quite extraordinary in many areas. I have many examples and Deputy Rabbitte is correct in saying that this information does not see the light of the public domain. In fairness to the public service I have seen issues in the Department Social and Family Affairs, such as turning around claims, and in other Departments and there has been a large gain. The beneficiary has been the public and this is what it is all about.
As the Deputy will recall from both our previous lives, I never liked the analogue system. I thought the system was like a sausage machine, rolling out the system and on it went. There were no benefits for anyone and what one person received the next person received and on it went. The only confusion was what round and what claim one was on. I am not saying benchmarking is perfect but it has the potential to examine grades and responsibilities where a good job is being done and where people are genuinely trying to make productivity changes.
As we all know there are always better ways of doing things and the people who know that are the people doing the tasks. If they consider it and if there is an incentive they will see a way of doing it. We can get rid of many things that do not need to be done. This is now being challenged in the system. Just because an Act passed this in House in 1942 why should people be doing a particular thing in 2005? If one stops and thinks about it they should be doing something else that is more useful, such as some of the things we talked about earlier this morning. The new system allows for this and there needs to be a challenge to the system so some section is not merrily continuing to do something for the sake of it when it is useless to do so. Nobody wants to be doing that job and benchmarking allows for that in an extraordinary way.
I will give one example, using disability benefits. From staff organising revised procedures the number of cases processed in three days was increased from 3% in 2003 to 29% in 2004 to 32% in 2005. With a bit if imagination, when the staff were left to it, they were quickly able to find huge productivity. That is the success of benchmarking and there are many examples, both in my Department and other Departments.
Approximately, how many civil servants in the Department of the Taoiseach are in the lowest grades? To what extent, if at all, has benchmarking impacted on their circumstances? Does the Taoiseach envisage a further benchmarking process after the final phase of the current benchmarking arrangements has been paid?
Staff of all grades have benefited from the various increases given from 2001. Although I do not have the breakdown of figures for my Department, all staff benefited to a certain extent. The benchmarking process has worked well for them all, including people in lower grades. The benchmarking group is due to meet again later this year, at the end of this process, and its report is due in the first half of 2007.