Tuesday, 11 February 2014
Public Sector Reform: Statements
I thank the Seanad for giving me the opportunity to update the House on public service reform issues. In planning and delivering reform I have always said we are willing to listen to good ideas from all sources and very much look forward to hearing the views of Senators on the comprehensive reform plan. I will be meeting the Joint Committee on Finance, Public Expenditure and Reform next week in a similar context.
Since the publication of the first public service reform plan in November 2011, I am pleased to say we have made good progress in reducing costs, improving productivity, the online delivery of services, the development of shared services and putting in place the structures to reform public procurement, property management and many other areas. We have been implementing these reforms at a time of increased demands on public services. For example, the numbers in receipt of jobseeker's payments, of full-time enrolments in education and medical card holders have all increased significantly since 2008. Notwithstanding these increased demands, we have maintained service provision, while reducing staff numbers in the public service by more than 30,000 since 2008. The cost to the Exchequer of public service pay has fallen from €17.5 billion in 2009 to €14.1 billion last year, an extraordinary reduction. New working arrangements have been introduced, including longer working hours, new rosters and standardised arrangements for annual leave and sick leave. We have also been removing barriers to the redeployment of staff to priority areas across the public service.
This has been achieved in an environment of industrial relations stability. The Croke Park agreement and, more recently, the Haddington Road agreement have been key enablers for many of these changes. The role public servants themselves have played in our ongoing recovery should not go unrecognised. I am very happy to underscore and recognise the work of public servants in that regard.
The Government is committed to building on the success we have achieved to date. We cannot become complacent. We remain in challenging fiscal times and reforming our public services is a critical component in meeting the challenges. Doing more with limited resources remains as relevant now as ever. One of the challenges we face is convincing the public that the public services it pays for are worth the investment, particularly given all the other pressing needs facing the State and citizens. I strongly believe that effective public governance can contribute to Ireland's competitiveness and the attractiveness of its business environment for investment and the creation of employment. Efficient public services affect taxation levels and the State's funding requirements.
Last month, I launched the Government's new public service reform plan, setting out our ambitious programme for the next phase of public service reform to 2016. I forwarded a copy to each Senator. I published at the same time a progress report on the Government's first reform plan, which was published in November 2011. Since then, considerable progress has been made. Let me give the House some specific examples. PeoplePoint, the Civil Service-wide human resources and pensions shared services centre, has been operational since March of last year and is now servicing 15,000 employees across 13 different organisations. PeoplePoint will be fully operational by next January, at which time it will provide services to 40 organisations, with estimated savings of €12.5 million to follow annually.
Other shared services projects are progressing well in the Civil Service and across other sectors. We have undertaken a major review of public procurement and are now implementing a radical overhaul of our public procurement approach, with a target of €500 million in savings over the next three years, including a budgeted €127 million in procurement savings this year.
An action plan, setting out a broad range of measures to deliver efficiencies in the State's extensive property portfolio, was published last summer and is currently being implemented. We have issued over 500,000 public service cards to date. They are currently being used for social welfare payments and the free travel scheme. We are considering extending the card to cover a greater number of services. We envisage that it will be possible to issue a further 900,000 cards during the course of this year.
The Office of Government Chief Information Officer has been established within my Department to build on the Government's strong performance on e-government and maximise the potential benefits of digitalisation and open data to deliver services and information in more efficient and innovative ways. The Government services portal, gov.ie, now includes quick links to more than 400 information and transaction services, including those relating to Revenue, social welfare, higher education grants, motor tax and property registration. A number of customer-facing online services also have been launched. These includefixyourstreet.iewhich allows the public to report non-emergency issues to their local authorities andintreo.iethrough which employers and jobseekers can access all existing information and services regarding support, training and entitlements.
A series of public expenditure reforms has been implemented to bring greater structure, scrutiny and openness to budgeting. The Government is also making good progress in implementing a comprehensive programme of political and legislative reform aimed at enhancing openness, transparency and accountability. The publication of important financial and performance data on my Department's Databank and Ireland Stat websites was another important step in this process. These are just a small number of examples and further details of the achievements in delivering reform are set out in the progress report I circulated to Members last month to accompany the new reform plan. The new public service reform plan outlines the key cross-cutting and sectoral reform initiatives that will be implemented in the next three years. It also looks further forward to address the broader ambition for reform towards 2020. The first phase of the Government's public service reform programme focused on ways to consolidate and reduce costs because that was a necessity when the Government took office. It did so by taking out duplication and waste by focusing on shared services, better procurement, rationalisation, reducing staff numbers and improving expenditure controls. The next phase of reform will continue to drive reduced costs and greater efficiency but will also have an increased focus on citizen engagement and improving outcomes for service users, the economy and society as a whole. Implementation of the reform plan will be delivered through a focus on service users, increased efficiency and greater openness, underpinned by a strong emphasis on leadership, capability and delivery.
The Government is committed to driving greater use of alternative service delivery models. This will include considering innovative approaches to funding services in return for delivering specified outcomes such as social impact investment which the Government is exploring. The Government must measure the impact of public spending in deciding how and whether to fund these services. Of course, moving to alternative methods of service provision does not alter the fact that the Government is accountable to the public for the overall performance of public services. The State will retain an essential role in deciding how and to what extent services are funded and in regulating the behaviour of service providers.
In recent years the habits and behaviour of citizens and businesses have changed as the introduction of consumer technology such as smartphone, tablet and smart television technology has spread throughout businesses, homes, schools and other public service organisations. In the same way that the private sector has started to exploit the new digital world, the public service also is adapting to this new environment. The Government's digital strategy will drive improved performance and effectiveness of public services. It will consider how new digital opportunities and trends in technology can be harnessed to deliver a new genre of services. Where appropriate, a mandated "digital by default" approach will be adopted. As part of a new public service information and communications technology, ICT, strategy, the "Top 20" transactional services across the public service are being identified and prioritised for digitalisation. A new data sharing and governance Bill will address how public services operate in the new digital world and under what circumstances data can be legitimately and securely shared. Sharing data will increase efficiency and ensure citizens are not asked for information time after time that is already held in other parts of the public service system. I hope the public service card will be a great advantage in this regard, in that one will not be obliged to fill in one's name, address and PPS number each time one accesses any service.
We need to radically change how we engage with citizens and customers. Public service organisations will consult with their customer bases to identify areas where priority action is required to enhance service delivery. They will also ensure that their information and transactions are more accessible. The public service must simplify the language it uses when communicating with citizens. Alongside this, there must be a renewed focus on improving both internal and customer-facing business processes.
As well as changing how we deliver public services, we will continue to focus on increasing efficiency and productivity. This will include a greater use of shared services across all sectors of the public service. For example, the creation of a new single payroll shared service centre for the Civil Service will consolidate and integrate payroll processes and practices from 18 current centres now delivering payroll services to three payroll centres, which will deliver an estimated €5.6 million in annual savings. We determined that there should be three centres because of the physical infrastructure that is already in place, but they will be integrated into one singe payroll provider.
There will be more efficient and effective public procurement, with targeted savings over €500 million over the next three years.
The implementation of the Government's property management action plan will deliver efficiencies and a more integrated approach to the management of the State's extensive property portfolio. Until very recently, we did not even have a snapshot or a proper inventory of all the premises occupied, rented or owned by the State sector.
As I have already mentioned, the Haddington Road agreement will act as a key enabler for the delivery of the next phase of the Government's reform programme. The agreement will deliver an additional €1 billion reduction in the cost of the public service pay and pensions bill by 2016. It should be noted that core pay reductions in the Haddington Road process were confined to the better paid within the public service, commensurate with its leadership role across the system. This poses its own challenges in recruitment at senior levels, and is something we might have to talk about into the future. However, ensuring the pay impacts were fair and progressive across the broader public service was critical in securing consent to the changes we have made. It is remarkable that every public sector union that balloted, and they all balloted, formally endorsed the Haddington Road agreement.
The agreement also provides for a total of 15 million additional working hours across all sectors of the public service. These additional hours will help to deliver long-term and sustainable increases in productivity, while also helping to improve the provision of services to citizens, but it is imperative that managers at delivery level fully utilise the capacity of the Haddington Road agreement and those 15 million additional hours that are now available.
As reform efficiencies are realised, some of the savings made will be reinvested in services. That is something I underscored in launching the reform plan. I call this the reform dividend, and this reform dividend will serve to underpin and help sustain the reform agenda beyond the current crisis by identifying and tackling waste and inefficiency. We will use this dividend to invest in areas that work best for the citizen. In essence, I am saying that savings we make from shared services, better procurement and all of the efficiencies can be redeployed to some extent - for example, by reopening recruitment to the Garda Síochána or providing this year more special needs assistants, resource teachers and so on. We are moving from back-office efficiency to front-office proper provision.
We are also progressing our legislative programme to improve public governance and rebuild public trust in the administrative and political branches of the State. This will include the introduction and implementation of lobbying regulation, which is coming down the track shortly; the enactment and implementation of a reformed Freedom of Information Act - I hope to be back in the other House shortly on Report Stage of that legislation; participation in the Open Government Partnership - I am very pleased that we will be hosting the European segment of the Open Government Partnership here in May; enactment and implementation of legislation to protect whistleblowers - as Senators will know, very useful debate and amendment took place in this House on that legislation; the continuation of the comprehensive programme of statute law revision, which is well under way; and further strengthening of the ethical framework for officeholders and public servants underpinned by legislation - a consolidation Bill is being worked on by my Department on that score. We have already radically reformed our local government structures through the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government.
The Government has also established the Constitutional Convention. Previous debates about our Constitution have been confined to the Oireachtas or its committees. This innovative format will see this Government present to the people the most radical reform of our Constitution since it was first endorsed by the people. The people will in their wisdom, approve or reject proposals for change. That is their prerogative but they will have been asked and their stamp will be borne out on the State's institutions.
We must ensure that we have the capacity and capability to deliver reform. A high performing and accountable leadership cadre at the most senior levels of our public service is crucial in supporting economic recovery and driving effective delivery of services to the citizen. Leaders and managers across the public service must have a clear sense of what needs to be achieved and they must have a strong focus on performance, delivery and results. Traditional policies and practices must continue to be tested to ensure that they firmly underpin business and organisational requirements. In doing this, performance management systems must support managers in getting the best from staff. The delivery of Ireland's ambitious reform plans will require a strong emphasis on implementation and governance. This is led by the Cabinet committee on public service reform, which will provide strategic direction and hold senior managers to account for the delivery of this plan.
The renewal of the vision and strategy for the Civil Service is another core part of our public service reform programme. Every day, civil servants perform many complex roles to support the Government and serve the public. These include advising on key policies, implementing major projects and programmes, delivering frontline services, representing Ireland's interests abroad and supporting regulation and oversight across a number of sectors. We sometimes take this support for granted but the creation of an impartial and non-partisan Civil Service remains one of the great achievements of this State. No institution of State is perfect and the Civil Service is no exception but I believe it played a key role in securing the continuity of this State as the previous Government imploded during its final months in office. Despite this, however, we have never before as a State placed due emphasis on giving civil servants a role in developing their own organisation. We have never asked them for a view on where the Civil Service should go and what it should become. As we look to the future, we must ensure the Civil Service is a strong and capable organisation that is equipped to address current and future challenges and bolstered by a work force that has the skills, capacity and tools to meet those challenges effectively.
The Civil Service renewal programme is identifying a clear vision for the Civil Service in the future and setting out practical and specific actions to make the vision a reality. We are looking at a range of areas where capacity and capability needs to be developed to meet the new challenges that we now face. These include leadership, change management, policy formation and implementation. This programme is being driven by a task force of civil servants and supported by all heads of Departments and offices. The focus over the coming months will be to discuss the future of the Civil Service with those inside and outside the system. In order to harness their knowledge and experience, every civil servant is being given the opportunity to give his or her views on what the Civil Service does well and what needs to change, and to participate fully in the renewal process. As well as participating in this process online, a series of town hall meetings are taking place across the country to brief civil servants on the issues being addressed and to seek their input and ideas. By gathering ideas from every office and every grade, I am confident that we can build a vision which is strategic but also motivating, and more important, builds on the long and proud tradition of an independent and impartial Civil Service committed to meeting Ireland's needs now and into the future. The initial feedback from this process has been hugely encouraging.
Hand in hand with opportunity goes accountability. Last month - separately from the reform plan, because it is very important in its own right - I published a consultation paper on strengthening Civil Service accountability and performance. This extensive publication and associated public consultation will assess how greater clarity, certainty and common understanding on the key issue of who is accountable to whom and for what in the Civil Service can be arrived at. It is important that we know what specific responsibility falls on a Minister and what specific accountability and responsibility falls on a particular civil servant in order to avoid the systemic failures we have seen so often in the past. We must have a much more accountable system of governance.
An independent panel on accountability, chaired by Professor Kevin Rafter of Dublin City University, has been established to manage and oversee the public consultation process, review submissions received and develop recommendations by the end of May. In addition, the panel will engage with key stakeholders within the political system and the Civil Service. We need to harness the potential of the Civil Service to learn from its successes and failures at both an individual and an organisational level.
I acknowledge the commitment and dedication of the Civil Service and the wider public service in delivering real and sustainable reform, reducing costs and improving services. As we embark on the next phase in the reform programme, the public service of the future must be more innovative, better integrated, more strategic and more customer- or citizen-focused. Achieving these goals will not be easy, and many challenges lie ahead. I remain convinced, however, that my fellow public servants will once again show their commitment to the reform process as we build a new public service that is better for citizens, businesses, public servants themselves and Irish society as a whole.
Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire go dtí an Teach. Our public servants are dedicated, committed and conscientious. At various points in the history of the State, as the Minister pointed out, they have kept the country going. One calls to mind, for example, the change of government in 2011. The change from Cumann na nGaedheal to Fianna Fáil, which took place at a much more delicate time in the history of the State, saw the public service, particularly the Garda, playing a tremendous role in keeping the country on an even keel. They have always done that.
The Fianna Fáil Party recognises the huge sacrifices that have been asked of public servants in recent years, as outlined by the Minister. Those sacrifices were, unfortunately, necessary, although many of them were opposed by the Minister when he was in opposition. Most of the measures were implemented with a focus on higher earners and with proportionate reductions across the public sector. That has been acknowledged subsequently in various economic reports. There is no doubt that the Civil Service has paid a high price. That process began under the Croke Park agreement and by way of the financial emergency measures in the public interest, FEMPI, legislation - it might more accurately be called the pay cuts legislation - that has been introduced since 2009.
Notwithstanding these sacrifices, there have been outrageous attempts by certain commentators and media elements to denigrate the role of public servants. In fact, it has been a constant theme of discourse in this country that civil servants are somehow lazy and ineffective. In my experience, that is not the case. Many civil servants are among the hardest working people in the country, providing vital services upon which citizens depend. In many cases, those services are not available in the private sector. I had a case recently in which a person required a medical card not for financial reasons but simply because the service that was needed could only be obtained from the public sector by those with a medical card. In many such life-and-death situations, it is the public sector that steps in to provide the vital services.
We in Fianna Fáil do not accept that the nation must be divided into competing groups of public sector and private sector workers. On the contrary, we recognise that there is a mutual dependence between both groups of employees. The reality is that we in this country often do not treat our public servants very well. What I saw in a school I visited this morning is undoubtedly happening in other schools throughout the country.
It did not start today or yesterday. To see a head teacher or principal sitting in his office wearing his jacket is outrageous. We must do a lot more. It hit home when I saw the sacrifice that man was prepared to make, along with many others around the country, to ensure children are looked after and educated and that they can contribute socially and economically to the future development of the country. We do not treat our public servants that well. There is a necessary emphasis on change, reform and doing things better and more efficiently, but we must look after the people working there and make sure they are in a happy environment and that their work is appreciated. Often, there is too much emphasis on change and not enough on the actual work done by many of our public servants. There are lazy public servants and lazy private sector workers. That is not to denigrate one whole sector of society.
The sacrifices public servants have made over the past number of years have played a key role in reducing the deficit, which was always seen as the key to getting the economy back on track. Reducing public debt and reducing bank debt means investors are likely to have more confidence in the country and, eventually, banks will start lending again. The sacrifices of the public sector have been the key and it is worthwhile to keep reminding ourselves rather than looking for more change and cuts. It brings an element of unfairness to do so.
Any public sector reform should ensure State services are user-focused rather than producer-focused. Having said all that about how we must value our public servants, the bottom line is that they provide services demanded by the public. That is the key. We must examine items such as the results of changes in respect of waiting lists, accident and emergency unit queues, special needs facilities in schools, the time taken to process social welfare applications, the ongoing delivery of services by local authorities, and medical cards. In one case recently, a medical card was eventually given to a dying child on discretionary grounds. In another case I heard about today, the medical card of a child who may be facing amputation was rescinded. The changes and reforms in the delivery of public sector services are not working for everyone.
We support scrutiny of senior members of the public sector to hold them to account in respect of the advice they give and their performance. The Government is also keen to pursue that agenda and Fianna Fáil will support it. Policy choices are increasingly complex and it is difficult for the Government to make decisions. I faulted Ministers in the previous Government for becoming too reliant on the advice of public servants. Some Ministers in this Government have fallen into that trap, but there is a difficulty because the decisions are often complex. They depend upon a lot of research being done and Ministers depend on civil servants to do that. Going against the grain means risking the unknown. Ministers may only have a special adviser or their instincts on which to base the decision and, while they are entitled to do so, they are taking a risk. If the Minister goes against the Civil Service in making decisions, he is likely to receive media scrutiny on why he did so. The advice civil servants give is increasingly crucial because of the nature of complex decisions. The advice of civil servants must be subject to greater accountability, and we support changes in that regard. I do not think civil servants will have a problem with that.
Where I have a problem with accountability for civil servants is something that has become a feature of this Oireachtas. At the drop of a hat, when the latest headline appears in the newspaper, we are dragging public servants into committee rooms for the television. That is wrong and it should stop. Josephine Feehily and the Revenue Commissioners were dragged in here to explain issues set out in legislation. It was outrageous. A much better system is for civil servants, such as Ms Feehily and the Revenue Commissioners, to appear on a regular basis, once or twice a year, to explain what is going on. She should not just be dragged in for political purposes. She is not the only one.
In the interests of fair procedure for the citizen, the taxpayer and the public service, there should be a regular discussion at committees. This is already a feature of many committees, but the issues should be planned in advance and a timetable drawn up for all senior civil servants. They should not drag people in to appear before committees in pursuit of cheap headlines. Many of our colleagues, especially those in the Dáil, have been guilty of doing this in recent weeks. We support accountability but not at the price of fair procedure.
I welcome the Minister to the Chamber. Public services are essential to the functioning of our economy and society. A strong and effective public service is recognised as a source of competitive advantage for any country. The Irish public service has already made a major contribution to the national recovery and as the country enters a new phase after the conclusion of the troika programme the public service must continue to play a central role in our recovery.
Public service reform will remain a key element of the strategic response to our ongoing challenges into the future. Two years ago the Government's public service reform plan was published. A renewed wave of reform has been developed, building on the progress made, implementing the first reform plan and setting out an ambitious new phase in the reform programme. This new plan outlines the key cross-cutting and sectoral reform initiatives that will be implemented over the next three years. It also addresses the ambition for reform towards 2020. The plan is complemented by a progress report that sets out the strong progress achieved in the implementation of the current reform plan in reducing costs, improving productivity, increasing online delivery of services and greater use of shared services, to name some areas.
There are four key themes running through the new reform plan: delivery of improved outcomes, reform dividend, digitisation, openness and accountability. This new public service reform plan also addresses a wide range of other issues, including the implementation of shared services models, the evaluation of new business models for the delivery of non-core services, the reform of public procurement, property rationalisation, strengthening leadership and human resource management reforms. We need to address the culture of the public service to ensure it adapts to meet the challenges and opportunities that will arise in the coming years. In short, it needs to be fit for purpose.
We need to continue to ensure that our public service is exactly that, a service to the public. Many reforms are planned across the public service over the coming years that will improve how services are designed and delivered. This reform programme must be dynamic and responsive. This is why the first reform plan is being refreshed. We need to ensure that the culture of the public service adapts to meet the challenges and opportunities that will arise. This will support a public service that is better integrated, more responsive, more efficient and more focused on strategic goals and on our service users. There was a commitment in the first public service reform plan of November 2011 to create a public service of which we can all be proud, delivering flexible and responsive services to our customers. The public service has embarked on this journey. It is not complete yet, but the actions set out in this plan will build on the considerable progress made to date and take us much further along the road.
I welcome the Minister to the House and encourage him to continue to step up to the mark when it comes to reforming the way our public service does its business. I have a few questions for the Minister, in the first instance about the town hall meetings that are to act as a sponge for the people delivering public services. Some time ago I met in this town a director of services from a local authority who said that if he was allowed, or was able, to get rid of the people under his remit whom he needed to get rid of he could get rid of 20 of them and increase productivity by 20%. I imagine that is what the Minister will hear at town hall meetings. I hope that is what he will hear, but I do not know whether that can be achieved.
The theme running through this reform process is "doing more with less"; that is what every house in the country is doing, it is not only the public sector which is doing it.
With regard to procurement, there are projected savings of €500 million, about which I am slightly worried. In the process the small supplier, producer and provider is being blown from the water not only by multinationals but also by businesses from abroad. Small companies are not really at the races when it comes to these procurement deals. Will the Minister provide for clarity in that regard?
My final point is on quangos. I know there has been much integration of bodies, but could we have a breakdown of the quangos that have been amalgamated or abolished? What is the plan for quangos in the next year or two?
I hope I can say everything I want to say in eight minutes.
I called for this debate a couple of weeks and thank the Leader for finding time for it. I read the second progress report on the public service reform plan and was fascinated by how much was in it. One of the issues that immediately comes to my mind, given my experience of the private sector, is the length of time it takes to get something done in the public sector. There was an example today as Senator John Crown outlined his difficulty in getting through the legislation to ban smoking in cars where children are present. That process has been ongoing for two years and it has still not come to an end. Similar legislation was introduced in the British House of Commons a month ago and will become law this week.
My first experience of moving from the private sector to the public sector was in 1979 when I became chairman of An Post. I doubt the Minister was around at that stage. I remember breaking some rules without knowing it and discovered the embarrassment that could be caused for the Minister if something went wrong. A couple of years later I remember deciding that we should have stamps to mark St. Patrick's Day. I suggested to people in An Post that there be a special stamp. They said it was a great idea and that they would get to work on it right away. That was in January and there were to be samples by late March. I said St. Patrick's Day was 17 March and they said, "Surely you did not mean this year." That is a reminder of how long it takes to get things done. We produced the stamps, although we probably broke some rules in so doing.
The Minister has heard my suggestion before of a public website on which the taxpayer would be able to see where every cent of the money goes. I raise the issue all the time and it needs to be raised. The Government has set up the Ireland Stat website and the Minister of State, Deputy Brian Hayes, has argued that this has to be the type of information we seek. It does not, as it covers export statistics or agricultural products. I would like to see something along the lines of the US model, a single website on which we would be able to see exactly what money was required to run public institutions.
If that happens, it is good. We need to know what funds are going to charities.
It is coming up to six years since the collapse in 2008, but little has been done to tackle quangos. The Minister has argued that information is available, although he might be saying it will become available. If ir was available now, we would not have Deputies in the Dáil going through the charade of asking parliamentary questions, with the answers received via e-mail. When, if ever, will the Government create a transparent source of information for taxpayers? I thank the Minister, as he has said it is on the way. It took an interviewer's question to reveal the full amount of money Irish Water was paid to get up and running - over €80 million.
Perhaps on another day the chief executive, John Tierney, would not have revealed that to the interviewer. Is that a way to do business? We should not set up a new quango with new people. I was interested to hear Senator Sheahan talk about quangos. We could simply pass legislation that requires every Department and public institution to upload documents and figures on their spending and get the public to judge. Such online programmes are cheap and they are easy to use. They are simple to change into easy to read graphs for the public. The media does that job to an extent but we must move towards the public being an effective watchdog by virtue of being given access to all that information. We could come up with such simple legislation in the Seanad which would be an amazing contribution to society. I would love to hear the Minister’s views on this later.
I would like to see more public debate on freedom at all levels of society. People are too passive when it comes to the Government making laws. Politicians make laws which very often put more restrictions on people’s lives but the Government never seems to withdraw them. I hate to see a move towards the nanny state but the Garda is used by the Government to check tax on cars rather than concentrate on areas of concern such as burglaries or violence. The Garda Síochána has strayed from its original mandate of doing preventative policing because now we are getting gardaí to be tax collectors, as such. That is one example where the public needs to have more information. I will not get into a debate on the reports on the office of the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission but it is a matter that will get a lot of attention.
It is amazing to consider that the State still has 170 budget lines, and 11 independent agencies, responsible for the disbursement of the State's science programme. That is an incredible figure for a country of just 4.5 million people. One could ask whether we need such an amount of budget lines and agencies for that purpose. Perhaps one or two agencies would be enough. That is not good enough. We need much more action in the area. The Government may have effectively created a two-tier system whereby older civil servants keep their privileges and new entrants have nowhere near the same benefits. Coming from the business world I am aware that it is always very difficult if one has two people doing the same job and one is being paid a lot more or a lot less than the other. One example is that new doctors will be paid approximately 30% less than those already in the positions.
I saw that. That is all well and good, but as reported by the media, the salaries of consultants range from €147,000 to about €200,000, which as the Minister indicated, is more than a Minister is paid. The focus of attention should be on savings to the combined pay and pensions bill, not just the pay bill. Why are we not focusing on real reform of absenteeism such as sick days, payments of increments and the lack of any real dismissals in the public sector for under-performance?
We look forward to it. I am concerned that we would have real reform. Why do we still have a situation where there are more or less no dismissals for under-performance?
I am fortunate to have a granddaughter who grew up in France. She is studying in China at the moment. She has been there for some time but she goes back and forth. Her ambition is to become an ambassador or work in the French diplomatic service. One of our difficulties is that we send ambassadors to the Far East when they are in their 40s or 50s and they do not speak the language very well. I would love to think there are ways that we could train people up from an earlier age.
I wish to refer to some interesting ideas on public sector reform worldwide to see whether the Minister would be open to them. In France, the Government rightly identified that public service reform must be focused on what matters to people. They found that in general most people perceive Government services to be effective, based on just a small number of personal and professional interactions or what I call life events. How easy was it, for instance, to obtain a marriage licence or to register the birth of a child or for a business to open a new branch or office? As unfortunate as it is, claiming social welfare has become a life event, and the Government made it a key goal to increase public confidence by simplifying such interactions.
I am delighted that the Minister has grabbed hold of this issue and is getting somewhere, but I get frustrated, as I am sure the Minister does, at the length of time it takes to get things done. I encourage him to retain his commitment and enthusiasm and continue in the direction in which he is going in order to achieve what he has set out to achieve. I am delighted that we are having this debate.
I welcome the Minister back to the House; he is a regular visitor. Like him, I value public service enormously. There is nothing more important in a country than people working in the common good and setting aside the fact that they may achieve a certain level of earnings and no more. It is not like the private sector; it is a very particular job and important that the Minister has devoted so much time and commitment to reforming the public service. It is interesting that in the public arena we see reform only in terms of euros. We hear the figure of €3 billion and think "that's great." People tend to turn away, forget or not examine the great detail behind all of the processes that must be gone through in order to bring about significant change. It is not always about saving money, although that is welcome, obviously.
I welcome the Minister's commitment to plainer communication because the language of the document makes it quite hard to read. It is hard to see what is happening because, ironically, of the amount of information contained therein. In a way, reaching out to the public at large and talking about change are difficult because people are never very sure what it means. If we talk about processes and detail, they very quickly turn away, which is part of the dilemma we face. People shout at the Government and say nothing has happened when actually quite a lot has happened, but how do we bridge the gap between what people believed they wanted to change and what is actually happening within the Minister's Department and beyond? Plainer language - the sooner the better - would be a good start and a help in getting that message across. There is no point in doing it if people do not understand it. Perhaps we might develop an application for gov.ie. The website is very welcome and lays out clearly all of the things one can find. Obviously, we are still waiting for some Departments which have less information available than others, but it all takes time which, as Senator Feargal Quinn argued, is the frustrating part.
I have a number of queries on the plan. The Minister made reference to the saving to invest idea, which would allow for the hiring of new gardaí, new special needs assistants and so forth. Is there an indication of how savings will be arrived at or does it depend on a variety of budgetary factors across all Departments? Can the Minister say whether it will be 10% or 20%, for example? There is great cynicism around the tendency for Governments to promise a certain pot of money for, say, roads and then the money is pulled away at the last minute. People become cynical about so-called savings and the tightening of belts; they want to see the additional five or 50 gardaí. If there is a way of quantifying this, it would be good to know.
The Minister spoke about the public services card and the issuing of 500,000 cards. In the report reference is made to the potential to store biometric identification data on the card, which, I take it, means a step towards it becoming an identity card. I am assuming that, ultimately, we will all have one. It will start with those who are in receipt of welfare payments but will proceed beyond this. Am I correct in that assumption? On the issue of individual health identifiers, is that a separate system and, if so, does it need to be separate? Could it not be part of the public services card? What protections are in place for the card in the context of more and more information being stored on it?
We see all the arguments on how information in the electronic age can be extracted and how protections are harder to come by. One of the great issues in the debate about having an identity card is that of protection. If we are proceeding in that direction, we would need to be satisfied that, at all levels, protection is as much a priority as the delivery of the card and all that goes with it. The Minister referred to sharing data and I raise the same question about securing it.
In his speech, the Minister, as well as the report itself, referred to the innovative utilisation of the additional public sector hours. What does the Minister see as innovative use? Is he waiting for senior managers to come up with their own innovative uses? There was a reason for these additional hours. It was not simply a matter of the public sector saying "give us more hours". Tasks must have been identified that required extra hours.
The Minister rightly described the Haddington Road agreement as the largest productivity deal in the history of the State. How much of future activity will be sub-contracted? Will this be part of the way alternative models of service are delivered, an expression which comes from the report? The speed vans are one example of sub-contracting. We have seen the number of private firms providing such services mushroom in the UK and other countries. Does the report outline how these alternative models will emerge?
Legislation for the regulation of lobbying, an issue dear to the Minister’s heart, is not in the timeline but it is mentioned in the report.
Will the further strengthening of the ethical framework for officeholders and public servants be part of the new Civil Service accountability programme? I cannot see it in the timeline but I know the Minister is committed to it. In what guise will it come?
The Minister spoke about the preparation for universal health insurance. Again, the White Paper is promised for early 2014. Are we on target for that? There has been much criticism, wrongly placed, at the decision concerning free medical care for the under sixes and that this was a sign we will never see universal health insurance.
Property asset management is now a profession and will rightly be reformed with that view in mind. These are the details people do not want to listen to because it is about property, yet they are very quick to criticise State offices lying idle and how much it costs. People then are critical of moneys spent on managing these properties properly. Now an inventory has been done of State properties, are there other uses for properties not being used? Can charities, for example, use these properties rather than paying double rents?
Procurement has also become a profession. The Minister referred to hiring professionals and sharing skills that already exist. What is the cost of the Office of Government Procurement? I note not all Departments, such as Health and Education and Skills, are involved in the office. Is that because they cannot be or that they do not want to be?
The reform of immigration services is often raised in this House with many Members arguing such reform is more than urgent. Will the Minister give us some indication of where this will fit into the public service plan and the timeframe?
I welcome the Minister. Actions speak louder than words. He will have been in government three years, or 36 months, next month. It is not a very long time in the overall context when one takes into account reading into a brief, holidays, etc. What has been achieved must be celebrated and acknowledged. It is of international significance. We began in a programme with our reputation in tatters and costs running at enormous levels. Less than three years later we have our independent sovereignty, with no insurance policy, and have negotiated Haddington Road, which is significant in the international scale for what it has achieved. I would appreciate it if we could have silence. It is significant and has been recognised as that. It is living up to the commitments in the programme for Government and the commitments to society, because this country was and is broke.
We have a job of work that must be developed. Achieving efficiencies is part of that programme. Many advances have gone under the radar. Procurement has already been mentioned in this debate. This Minister, along with the Minister of State, Deputy Brian Hayes, has developed websites and the procurement process to a very advanced degree. There is probably potential for further efficiencies in procurement. I was on the local authority for a number of years before I came in here and we saw countless examples of absolute waste in terms of not using the purchasing power. We had a situation where local authorities were operating as individual entities instead of pooling resources. We have regularly heard of back-office efficiencies that can be achieved. It is grand to talk about them but it is another thing to actually implement it and achieve efficiencies. That means bringing many stakeholders on board. That process is well under way.
We have all heard about medical cards and had people into our offices talking about them. That process was centralised. There were teething problems but it is working. The medical card scenario was fragmented with community welfare officers all over the country. Similarly, we have saved millions of euro as a result of centralising third-level grant applications. Of course there were problems. We have all had people in our offices who have experienced problems. However, one cannot make an omelette without breaking eggs. I have visited the Student Universal Support Ireland, SUSI, offices. It is far better and the response time is significantly improved. The centralised system has been proven to work. If one was doing a desk-top study of what would and would not work, one would come up with the SUSI formula to save money and take advantage of that buzz-word "back-office".
It is a programme of work. It is work in progress. I am looking forward to another two years of achieving efficiencies as part of the programme of putting this country back on the right track to ensure the 400,000 unemployed people will decrease to 300,000 and lower. We must ensure that the people out there working their backs off in the private and public sectors to put this country together who have made the sacrifices will, as a result of the direction being taken by the Government and the two Ministers in the Department of Finance, see better and brighter days ahead. This country had a lot of waste and we will never be able to afford waste again. I commend the Minister on his ongoing programme of work.
I welcome the Minister to the House and I wish him well in his endeavours. The Minister stated the pay bill fell from €17.5 billion in 2009 to €14.1 billion, and we have managed to do the job with 30,000 fewer people on the payroll. This reform deserves credit. We had to do it, and we still have a debt to GDP ratio of 120%. When we lobbied our way into this situation we used to state as a percentage of GDP Ireland spends too little on whatever our favourite project was, but in cash terms we were not that far behind the countries we subsequently asked to bail us out. The GDP figure has a certain strange element in Ireland which is not present in other countries and we must watch out for this.
In retrospect social partnership may have led to a very large growth in the Taoiseach's Department to supervise the other Departments. Commitments were made to reduce it to a small Cabinet office, which it was in its heyday. Very powerful Taoisigh had one tenth of the staff which were there subsequently. It is not necessary to have this level of duplication.
I wish the Minister well with regard to procurement. He mentioned €500 million. Already I hear stories of it creaking and that someone going to a conference will stay in a certain hotel because procurement decreed it although everyone knows there is a cheaper hotel around the corner. Many services in Ireland are competitive. In the UK it was stated some of the procurement deals for the NHS could have been done by the matron going to Marks & Spencer and picking up the laundry. Opponents would state it is the re-introduction of a Russian-style retail operation with one great place in Athlone-----
I am glad to have the Minister's reassurance on this.
A series of public expenditure reforms have been implemented to bring greater structure, scrutiny and openness to budgeting and I support the Minister on this. He has made progress in his reports on getting outputs instead of the traditional budgeting, whereby spending more gives Ministers a speech to make when they are cutting the ribbon, when they will state they spent more than the previous Government. Did it accomplish anything? Is it why we have a debt to GDP ratio of 120%? Turning inputs into outputs is important, as the Minister stated, and he also mentioned improving outcomes. I support the Minister wholeheartedly. We must measure the impact of public spending which will give us the reform dividend.
On the capital side we must move to publishing independently-conducted appraisals in advance and not have alleged appraisals prepared by the lobbyists, beneficiaries and promoters. Robbing Peter to pay Paul usually has the support of Paul, and Paul's lobby group, consultants and beneficiaries, but it is not the point. We must consider these issues from the point of view of society overall. This type of scrutiny is more and more important.
I would like to see what went on at Irish Water as the last of the old brigade and not part of the new reform. Why did we not know everything upfront? We could have had a much more informed discussion on whether replacing 34 local authorities would lead to the benefits we all seek.
I am concerned that of late we do not see as much regulatory impact analysis accompanying legislation, stating what legislation is supposed to do and how to measure it. The memorandum on the Irish Water legislation did not include the financial statement.
There should be more cost-benefit analyses and output measurements.
The tax aspect should be included. I worry that we have guillotined the Finance Bill in each of the last two years. There are huge giveaways of money, hard-earned by collecting taxes, and we do not know whether the benefits to society of those loopholes and so forth are worth the costs. That should be brought under scrutiny. One can say the Seanad does not have financial powers and can only make recommendations, but even then our thoughts on tax loopholes have been curtailed. The recent concern in unlikely places, such as the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, OECD, and in the United States in President Obama's State of the Union address, is that part of the reason for the growth in inequality, which bodes ill for so much in society, is that people with enough tax lawyers and accountants can avail of those tax loopholes while the rest of us do not have that facility. Living in a society where inequality is increasing is not something to which many of us aspire. That must be examined.
I share the Minister's concerns about lobbying. Mr. Vito Tanzi, who had a high post in the International Monetary Fund, IMF, is concerned that not just Ireland but almost every country has developed a capacity to live beyond its means by borrowing. His list of things to beware of represent part of a public sector reform proposal. They include always listening to the beneficiaries rather than society as a whole, an entitlement culture and the power of lobbyists. The fact is that when we move into free trade, projects are proposed that claim to have a great multiplier effect. The fiscal council has said this is not the case - as this is a small, open economy, the money leaks out of the colander once it is poured in - but we still have lobby groups saying, "You have lost millions, Minister, but we will make you rich." The ease with which certain people got bailouts during the crisis must be reformed. There is also the use of "do nothing" options and avoiding asset bubbles. I am concerned that in the print media, in particular, there is a confusion of asset price increases with real economic growth and the type of real productivity this Minister is seeking in the public and private sectors. There are also the issues of regulatory capture or the capture of regulators, the fiscal termites who undermine the tax system by chomping away at it and the sheer complexity of government. We must simplify it.
I have always liked the Minister's visits to the Chamber to discuss this reform package. It is necessary to continue with the reform because there is still a debt-to-GDP ratio of 120%. I still think about matters such as the complaints about the high number of children per class. It is far more than when one divides the number of teachers on our payroll by the number of students who are registered. Have we diverted valuable teaching staff into doing administrative tasks and so forth? The same applies to health. We doubled the number of staff in the health service between the 1980s recession and the peak, from 55,000 to 110,000. With that massive increase in staff, why do we have unacceptable waiting times now? There must be an emphasis on the outputs rather than the inputs.
Separating the Minister's Department from the Department of Finance was a good idea, because they have different tasks. The reform agenda continues, and I look forward to the Minister's proposals on lobbying and whistleblowing.
Fairness was supposed to be at the heart of the Government's democratic revolution or reform, but the rhetoric of reform has not amounted to much.
The promise of change might have been squandered. I come from the perspective of a young person. The emigration figures point to tens of thousands of young people who had to leave for economic reasons and for those same reasons they will probably be unable to return. Public services have been undermined through cut-backs and the loss of numbers within the public sector means that those who are still there are under severe pressure.
The sale of State assets is not a measure of reform. The Minister and I have tic-tacked on the matter previously, and my colleague in the other House has tic-tacked on it also. If we had examined the assets more closely we could have utilised them better for the benefit of citizens. Apprenticeship and management mentoring programmes could have been provided. Commercial semi-State CEOs could work directly with the Departments of Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation, Education and Skills, and Social Protection as part of a jobs scheme. Filling State boards with political cronies does not amount to reform but I will not get into a debate on the issue. Reference was made to the Freedom of Information Bill, the Bill on whistleblowers and the regulation of lobbying Bill. There has not been any sense of urgency to bring some of those Bills to a conclusion and we have not yet seen the regulation of lobbying Bill.
The savaging of services to the young, the elderly and disabled has not been any kind of reform. I disagree that improving shared services, cloud computing and the limited introduction of the public services card is reform and it is a matter of concern that the Minister continues to refer to them as such. Such measures, and the introduction of Intreo offices, are due to modernisation rather than reform. Many of the achievements in the second progress report on the public service reform plan relate to modernisation as opposed to reform. Many of the reform measures relate to accounting which has meant fewer workers and those who still work have longer hours for less pay. I measure success in terms of reform of public services in another way. Access to basic services has decreased and waiting times have increased in many areas. Children must wait years before their needs are even assessed for counselling services, speech and language therapy and other fundamental supports. That has repercussions for access to other services. The lack of service provision will impact on educational attainment, yet there is no interaction between the Ministers for Education and Skills and Health. A co-ordinated response is required. The Minister, Deputy Howlin, could ensure they would engage in dialogue. That is an under-the-radar example of the crisis in the public service. We must improve social policy development and cross-departmental engagement across the public sector.
We must bring an end to the practice of political appointments which currently rides roughshod over standard mechanisms for appointments to State boards. Ministers still select those with whom they have a political relationship. It is irrelevant whether a former constituency manager has all the applicable skills for appointment to a board if he has not applied for the job. From the outset, such cases undermine the position of those appointed and that of the Government. Cronyism in all its guises must be rooted out in order for people to have confidence in public services and the public bodies they represent.
The Government must review its relationship with State agencies who deliver critical supports and services. I refer to the hands-off approach to oversight of the service providers. Reform should also harness the vast wealth of in-house expertise in the public sector. Infrastructure could come under the responsibility of a single agency by bringing together engineers and project managers who are currently dispersed across various agencies. Such an approach is worth consideration.
A nod to open government is insufficient. We need to see a real commitment on how data with a public interest is disseminated and how civil and public servants are trained and resourced to deal with requests.
I thank all Senators for their contribution. We need to have regular contributions on the issue as much of it is not “sexy” to use that hackneyed word because it is a process change, but it is fundamental. I take both elements of my job seriously. As Minister for public expenditure I have to reduce the full expenditure profile of the State to an affordable level. Senator Reilly said we do not have enough services. That is almost to pretend that we do not have the economic crisis we are working our way through. Every month of last year we borrowed €1 billion on top of the tax income to keep the services going. We promised those who are giving us the €1 billion that we would work towards a balanced budget and we are doing that.
Many positive things have been said and I wish to deal with the contributions in the order in which they were made. Senator Byrne fairly and rightly talked about the Civil Service tradition of service in the State going back to its foundation. He said it was loyal to whoever happened to be elected by the people. That is something we should not take for granted. I put it on record in the other House and I might have put it on record in this House previously that during the final social interaction with the troika, which took place in a relaxed frame when it was about to leave, the head of the troika said to me that of all the civil servants he had dealt with – he had dealt with many – the Irish civil servants were the most professional. He said they were much better than the Germans and several others. It is to our credit that the Civil Service is matter of fact and it provides an extraordinary service. Of course all civil servants are not perfect. In every aspect of life there are star performers and those who are not.
My Department is a small one in numerical terms. Last year we were involved in the Presidency of the European Union. We negotiated more trilateral meetings on the cohesion strategy than was ever done in any programme. We were involved in the sale of State assets. We negotiated the Haddington Road agreement. We were intrinsically involved in both the promissory note renegotiation and the exit strategy. Any one of those would be an extraordinary body of work. It is to the great credit of the staff in the Department that nobody who was working on those various teams had a beginning hour, an ending hour or saw a weekend as a non-working weekend. Everybody was there for as long as was required. I add my words of appreciation to Senator Byrne’s in that regard. He is correct also in what he said about the complex nature of current decision making by the Government. The easiest form of decision making is to say “Yes” to whatever is proposed by the Civil Service. To be contrarian is difficult because then one has to justify oneself because the decision is that of the Minister. We must have more debate about that. I do not know whether it is appropriate to invite in the chairman of the Top Level Appointments Committee, TLAC. We now have an outside chair and a majority of members of TLAC are outside members not civil servants. In the first annual report which it presented to the Houses of the Oireachtas, it indicated that one of its concerns about getting quality applications for top level appointments in the public service was a "gotcha" culture. The notion is not whether one is performing well on balance but whether one did something for which one could be caught. It is more than actual remuneration that acts as an impediment for quality people to apply for jobs.
Senator Sheahan referred to the town hall meetings and some of the proposals that were put forward.
Of the 30,000 plus staff comprising the downsizing in the public service, the local government sphere was downsized by 25%. I am not sure that too many directors of service would be able to find 20 people in order to say that they were surplus to needs. We have done remarkable downsizing in the local government sector. When one sees how they have stepped up to a task - as they have done in the areas affected by floods where hours of work do not matter and people just get on with doing a job for their communities - it has been a remarkable achievement to secure that level of downsizing and maintain a quality service. The town hall meetings that are taking place around the country will bring all public servants together and I hope very good ideas flow from the initiative.
Procurement was mentioned by a number of Senators so I shall deal with it on a number of fronts. First, I shall deal with a particular question that was asked. It comes up a lot and is now almost a default response - if we have efficient procurement we will squeeze out the SMEs. The situation is quite the reverse and there is no reason that SMEs cannot fully participate. The most recent data that I have shows that 63% of public service contracts were awarded to the SME sector in this country - that is 63% of the National Procurement Service contracts - and 25% of the contracts went to larger Irish companies. Let us add both so that means 85% of all centralised contracts go to Irish entities and 12% of contracts go to non-Irish companies which compares favourably with a variety of countries.
From the beginning we have been committed to collaboration with the employer and small businesses. We have discussed this matter with the representatives of the SME and have held a number of meetings. We have also had a meet the buyer engagement process where we bring small business in to meet Government procurers in order that they can be skilled, upskilled and work collaboratively to make large scale procurement offers where they do not, within their own encompassment, have a capacity to bid. I am determined to drive up the involvement of SMEs but we need to get value for money. The days of having five or six different organisations procuring the same product from the same company at different rates cannot be continued. In the past couple of weeks I attended a public meeting in the country but I shall not say where and the following issues arose. I was told: Sure, we always did a local deal. Our school bought whatever we had and we got a few bob from the local Christmas fund." That is not the way public goods should be procured, it must be done in a professional manner involving professional procurement techniques.
Quangos and rationalisation issues were mentioned. Let me be clear about the matter. The information is laid out on my Department's website. I produced the first service reform plan in November 2011. It contained two commitments and the first one was to implement phase 1 - the rationalisation of 48 entities which involved 100 bodies. All 48 will be delivered by the end of this year, except in two cases where we made the decision not to proceed and the first one was the national cancer registry. I took the decision not to reintegrate it into the Department of Health because I got very clear information that it was the wrong thing to do and that it should be an independent stand-alone cancer registry. In the second case - on advice from the transport sector and the European Union - we did not go ahead with the merger of the Commission for Aviation Regulation and the Irish Aviation Authority. Other than that all of the other promised actions will have been absolutely completed and a lot of them involved serious legislation, negotiation and redeployment. All will be completed by the end of this year.
The second promise that we made was to critically review 46 other measures. The review was carried out and published, I think, the year before last. We said that we would go ahead with the rationalisation of 25 agencies under the programme. Again, that involved a further 100 State bodies and all of the 25 actions will be implemented by the end of this year. The rationalisation programme, the killing of quangos or whatever phrase one wants to use will be completed this year.
Senator Quinn made a very thoughtful contribution. I am sorry that he is not here but he explained to me that he had to leave. Let me put it bluntly. We need to make ourselves aware of the issues. The Senator claimed that we did nothing about sick pay or leave arrangements. We debated changing the law on sick pay in the Chamber last year and we are now implementing the halving of sick leave arrangements across the entire public service after a year and a half of hard slog through the Labour Relations Commission and bilateral negotiations. When we do things please acknowledge them. We have also rationalised holiday arrangements. Let us remember the debates that we had when we discovered some of the more outlandish arrangements. We have consolidated leave arrangements across the public service as we build an integrated public service.
The Senator talked about providing a website displaying all of the data, and Senator Barrett also touched on the matter. I have given a commitment - and it is my big ambition regarding our delivery of our commitment to the new open Government programme - is to have open data. It is my ambition to have FOI requests, PQs and all of that made redundant by having all data accessible and I want to work towards that aim. Except, obviously, where there are security implications and so on but that would be the default position.
The Senator asked how many people would be dismissed. Bluntly, that is an odd criterion to use to gauge success. First, we are creating a new system of accountability that says what one is responsible for so that one knows what one is responsible for. It is very hard to evaluate somebody's performance if one does not tell them what they are to do, hold them to account and have a proper evaluation system. In cases where a person needs upskilling and retraining then it should be provided and that is before one reaches the stage of asking how many people one intends to fire. We need to have such a system.
Senator O'Keeffe talked about communicating change. It is important that we have a system of communicating what we are doing and that is why we are having a very dynamic communication within the public service conducted through the town hall meetings and communications at Department and agency levels. We are open to seeing how we can engage in the broader public debate. Certainly, that is needed on the accountability document. I hope that the expert group that I put in place under Kevin Rafter will provide new means to capture public involvement in that aim. She suggested that we provide an App. We have an e-government website, etc. and have sought ways to deliver it in as varied a manner as possible. We will also have a new e-government strategy this year.
The Senator asked a number of specific questions such as how much was the reform dividend. There is not a specific answer to that because I must ensure that we live within the confines of expenditure. However, it gives me the wherewithal to divert some of it to front-line services which is important.
The Senator mentioned a number of things about the public service card. Obviously the card will require security to ensure that personal data is protected. We will debate the matter because I must bring in new legislation on data protection. There are some ridiculous barriers which prevent people from acting freely in order to get information or gain access to services. Using a card needs to be broken down so that one does not have to submit the same set of information every time one goes online to the 400 plus public bodies that now operate a direct services provision.
The Senator also asked about the use of the 15 hours. The extra hours will do as follows - reduce paid overtime; reduce agency costs so that we are not buying in external work; allow management to maintain services against the backdrop of decreasing numbers; facilitate reductions in staff numbers where that is possible; allow management to undertake further reform initiatives; improve services where we see a need; extend opening hours for public offices, call centres and so on; address peak demands by redeployment into those areas; and increase the output of Departments in terms of additional projects that we can undertake. That has already been negotiated and will, hopefully, be delivered but I am saying that we are dependent on engagement at middle management level to ensure that happens.
I am not accountable for every service. I am not going to tell the House what is happening in the health service or what is the position on universal health insurance and so on. I will let members ask the Minister for Health about these issues, although we want to drive all of them in an efficient manner.
The Senator mentioned the consolidation of ethics legislation which is within my remit. We have said we will look at the current suite of legislation governing ethics in the public sphere to have it updated and modernised so as to incorporate best practice in one integrated Act. We are working on this within my Department. We have had the FOI legislation in the other House; the register of lobbyists Bill is coming; the ombudsman Bill has been completed; the Houses of the Oireachtas (Inquiries, Privileges and Procedures) Bill 2013 has been passed and the open data programme is on the way. A lot is happening on that front.
The Senator also mentioned property management. That is an area in which we need to make advances and that has been taken by the scruff of the neck by the Minister of State at my Department, Deputy Brian Hayes, who has done remarkable work in examining the property portfolio. Unfortunately, we have discovered that long-term leases have been taken out on many offices that are no longer decentralised. That was not the wisest course, but we are working towards getting ourselves out of the process.
I thank Senator Martin Conway for his acknowledgment of how far we have come in a mere three years. We have made remarkable progress. I do not think there is another country that has made as many significant reforms in public administration in an atmosphere of industrial calm, which is to the credit of workers in the sector.
The Senator also talked about procurement. I think I have answered most of the questions in that regard. Having looked carefully at how the private sector conducts procurement, it is much more keen. We have to ensure we get value for money for the euros that are hard-earned and paid into the tax purse. Senator Sean D. Barrett also raised the issue of procurement and mentioned a Russian-style retail operation. It is professional procurement in line not only with international best practice but also best practice in the private sector. I would happily arrange for anybody who is interested to meet Mr. Paul Quinn, chief procurement officer, at the Office of Government Procurement and his professional team who do a splendid job.
On the measuring of outputs, the mantra is almost that, rather than the old-fashioned way of measuring inputs, the more inputs we have the better. It does not matter what the outputs are; by definition, the more inputs and money we spend the better, as opposed to what we are getting for it. We need to get away from this.
Of course we need to have robust capital assessment. As the Senator is aware, we are integrating the National Development Finance Agency with the Railway Procurement Agency and the National Roads Authority to have a critical mass not only of engineering but also financial competence to evaluate infrastructural investment. The legislation is being prepared and the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport will introduce the first phase during this session.
The Joint Committee on Finance, Public Expenditure and Reform has an ongoing oversight role not only when the Finance Bill is going through but also to check that we are getting what was promised. That should not be an event, rather it should be a process.
Senator Kathryn Reilly mentioned promising change. Any objective person will read the two reports and see that change has not only been promised but has also happened. This has been acknowledged internationally by the OECD and the Open Government Partnership. That is the reason we are introducing the next wave of open government in Dublin Castle in May and I am sure the party of which the Senator is a member will be represented. Hundreds of thousands of people are no longer leaving the country. There are now more people at work in this country than there were three years ago. We created 65,000 net new jobs last year and have reduced the rate of unemployment from a peak of 15.1% to 12.3%, although it is still too high. When we went into government, the absolution prediction of everybody was that the rate of unemployment would exceed 500,000. We have turned this around and will work might and main this year to reduce the number significantly. We have set the target of achieving full employment by 2020. That is our objective.
The Senator mentioned the sale of State assets and said the proceeds should be spent in a different way. While we have not yet received any money from the sale of State assets, I have pre-spent some of it. It will be recalled that I spent €200 million in the budget, of which some €50 million was for county roads - not too many people thought county roads did not need another €50 million; €50 million was spent on new schools - that was not an extravagant or wasteful use of it; €50 million was spent on the retrofit of local authority houses to provide local authority tenants with decent insulation and jobs across the country.
The Senator said we had savaged youth schemes. Last month we launched the new Child and Family Agency. We have anchored responsibility for children and youth affairs in a Cabinet Minister for the first time. We have done all these things at a time of economic crisis and, not to be overtly party political about it, at the outset of our period in government the leader of the party of which the Senator is a member said our strategy should be to tell the troika to go home and take its money with it. The problem is not that we would be cutting services but we would have no services because the country would have collapsed. Nobody would have invested a shilling here and after a few months we would not have had the wherewithal to pay any public servant. It is very hard to take criticism when that was the strategy which demonstrably and objectively would have been ruinous for the State. We have worked our way through it and made remarkable progress, but we still have some way to go and, please God, we will get there.
The Senator referred to public service appointments. This morning the Cabinet made an appointment, about which the Senator will be pleased, that of the new Coimisinéir Teanga. It was done by way of an open appointment process. I understand there were 21 applicants and a fair and open process was used to determine who was the best candidate. I did the same in appointing the Ombudsman. Previously the position of Ombudsman was not open to public advertising. A robust and talented pool of people applied for the job and I think the best of them was appointed to the position. That is the change we have brought in making these appointments.
I thank Senators for their inputs. I am conscious that there is a huge number of issues to cover. I will be happy to come back periodically to report progress and, equally important, I am happy to receive inputs from Members on things that could be done that we are not doing. I thank the Seanad for giving us the time to have this debate.