Thursday, 26 November 2009
Question 8: To ask the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food if, in view of the rationalisation of local agricultural offices he has considered the possibility of providing field staff with a localised docking station within existing State owned premises as an access point for information technology purposes to maximise productivity; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [43581/09]
The Government approved my plan for a reorganisation of my Department's local office network last July. The plan involves reducing, from 57 to 16, the number of offices from which the Department will operate district veterinary, forestry and agricultural environment and structures support services in the future. The decision to close some 40 offices was made only after we had completed a detailed study of the Department's operations at local level. Decisions were made in respect of the overall strategy and against a background of major changes in the Department's operating environment in recent years which were brought about by the impact of the single farm payment, benefits derived from substantial investment in information communications technology and significant reductions in the incidence of disease.
Improvements in business processes, information technology and communications will allow the Department to provide to all of its clients, the full range of services from the 16 enhanced offices set out in the plan. Departmental staff will be relocated to the enhanced offices, where appropriate, or redeployed to other areas of the Department or to other Departments or agencies. Where particular arrangements which would benefit service delivery and operational needs are identified, they will be considered on the basis of an agreed business case.
I support in principle the endeavours being made by the Department to rationalise its office network. I am anxious to ensure that what emanates from the process in this regard will involve the most efficient and sustainable use of resources. In that context, I recently met staff who are involved with the rationalisation process. I was informed that under the proposal to close down operations in Kilkenny and transfer them to Waterford, staff from the Kilkenny area will be obliged to travel to Waterford each day in order to obtain their work schedules. Some of those whom I met suggested that if a docking station were provided at the offices in Kilkenny that are still owned by the State, field officers would be able to download their work schedules, maps and other essentials and would not be obliged to travel to Waterford each day. These officers would also be able to input any data obtained as a result of their field trips at that docking station. This would mean that the Department would obtain more for less in respect of its field staff.
The proposal being made in this regard seems logical and it would lead to a more efficient and better use of staff resources. Will the Minister consider this proposal not just in the context of Kilkenny, but at other locations where it is proposed to have staff travel long distances to work? I am not referring to keeping offices open to the public, but to facilities at which staff could download what they need in order to complete their work without being obliged to travel to other locations.
I welcome Deputy Creed's support for the rationalisation of our office network. He made that support known on previous occasions. When he refers to docking stations, I presume the Deputy is referring to making facilities and technology available at existing offices. Senior management in the Department has been involved with the personnel in all of our offices in respect of the restructuring and rationalisation of the network. Naturally, a practical approach will be taken in the context of dealing with particular issues. We want to minimise the necessity for people to travel.
As the Deputy stated, a large proportion of the work of these officers involves being out in the field and they work with members of local farming communities in the areas to which they are assigned. Even though the location of head offices may change, many staff will continue to work in the geographical areas for which they currently have responsibility. All of these matters will be dealt with on a practical basis as the rationalisation process continues.
Drumshanbo, Navan, Enniscorthy and Waterford have been identified as the locations for the first four enhanced offices. The human resources division and other divisions of the Department are working with the personnel at all of the offices affected in the interests of putting the new structures in place as soon as possible. The arrangements in this regard will, in the first instance, be discussed with the relevant personnel. It is vital that the staff involved will be made aware of what is proposed.
-----and the Minister's reply indicated that it is proposed to transfer operations there to Fermoy. Having consulted some of the staff in Mallow, it transpires that major issues have arisen with regard to the move to Fermoy. How definitive is the decision this regard? What consultations took place in respect of retaining the staff in Mallow and transferring operations to a larger premises there?
I do propose to be helpful because there will be no need for me to pose a further supplementary if I intervene at this juncture. I understand it is proposed to close the offices at South Mall in Cork and at Mallow and to transfer operations to Fermoy. In light of staff concerns and the geographical area involved, it is absurd to ask-----
The Deputies who represent Cork East and Cork North-West have made adequate proposals on what they see as the optimum location for the enhanced office in their region. Management at the Department is involved in discussions with the officials in all the local offices to ensure that the rationalisation will result in the creation of the number of enhanced offices to which I referred earlier. I am firmly of the view that, where possible, departmental offices should not be situated in city centre locations.
I accept that. It is because offices should not be situated in city centre locations that a decision was taken to transfer operations from South Mall in Cork. Where possible, we should ensure that the service is brought out to local farming communities. However, I accept that this cannot always be done.
Perhaps I might discuss with both Deputies the particular issues relating to location of the office for the north and east Cork areas on another occasion.
I am sure Members share my view that there should be as much co-location as possible in respect of the offices of the Department and Teagasc. We are intent on taking this route. It is often the case that a person who goes to a departmental office to access a service or seek advice may also have business to conduct with Teagasc. In that context, I want to encourage as much co-location as possible in respect of our offices in order that efficiencies might be obtained. Progress is being made in that regard.
I support Deputy Creed on his point on the need to utilise premises that are available for field staff. The obvious situation is where the Minister promised to keep open the office in Ballybay, which is the most important centre for the export of live cattle. It is important that people get to their place of work in time so that live exports happen on time. I hope this can be facilitated and that staff will use Ballybay as a base rather than having to travel to Cavan.
I tabled this question in an attempt to be helpful. Whether it is Teagasc or county council offices, State offices in one guise or another should be used to maximum efficiency. There should be no demarkation whereby an officer of the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food cannot use the IT available in a local authority, Teagasc or another State-funded facility such as a social welfare office to assist in efficiencies. That is what I suggest, particularly in Kilkenny, but I am sure it will have much wider application and will result in greater efficiencies. Will the Minister bring this specific issue to the attention of those handling the issue in the Department?
The use of technology has changed our ways and means of doing business and will continue to change them. In the past, far too many statutory agencies, be they Departments or local agencies or authorities standing alone in isolation in the provision of services to the public in general. There can be greater utilisation of public services by all Departments and agencies.
I assure Deputy Crawford that I will ensure there is a very active and busy office in Ballybay because there is a huge amount of activity in the poultry and pig industries in that area. Naturally, there will be particular areas of work that will be delivered from Ballybay to the farming community generally and not just that in County Monaghan