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24-11-1999 Address by the Taoiseach at a Conference for Public Sector Union Officials and Activists


It is a great pleasure to be here today with you at this conference focusing on Partnership in the Public Service. As we are negotiating on a successor to Partnership 2000, the conference is extremely timely and I congratulate the National Centre for Partnership on taking this initiative

Social Partnership has played a large part in our success as a country in recent years. To sustain and enhance that success, it is essential that our Public Service is organised and equipped to contribute effectively; that it is flexible and able to respond to the changing environment. Partnership, as the vehicle to modernise our Public Service, will play a vital part in this process.

Partnership in Public and Private Sectors

Useful lessons can be drawn from the experience to date in both the private and public sectors. Partnership in the private sector is a relatively straightforward concept. Management and employees accept that they have a common interest in ensuring the competitiveness and prosperity of companies. They then set up agreed structures and procedures designed to enhance competitiveness to their mutual advantage.

In the best private sector partnerships, there are fora where employees are consulted about company strategy, have a right to an input into programmes for change and are stakeholders in the business through share ownership or other forms of financial participation. And, of course, they frequently participate in the share ownership or the ‘profits’ of the organisation in which they work.

Partnership is a somewhat more complex process in the public service. By their nature, most public service organisations are monopolies and the concept of competitiveness has to be translated into a different environment. Indicators of progress and efficiency in the public service are more often related to "quality" rather than "quantitative" change – quality customer service, quality education, quality medical care within the available resources. Progress on these quality issues depends much more on people and processes rather than simply on systems and strategies.

While in the private sector the stakeholders are clearly identifiable and easily rewardable, it is again more complex in the public service. Public servants wear several hats – their ultimate employer is the taxpaying public of which they are a part; they are the providers of public services but they are also part of their own ‘market’, their own customer base.

These are important issues in the context of the development of partnership in the Public Service in the future. The Government as employer, wishes to see our own staff benefit to the full from the opportunities created by a modern dynamic and competitive society. Public servants deserve to work in an environment which develops their capacities and skills. They deserve to be properly rewarded for their efforts. It is increasingly clear that this cannot be done by a continuation of past patterns and practices. The public service must be a dynamic and modern sector. It must embrace change and new business processes just as our competitive enterprises have done. The best way of doing this lies in the Partnership approach.

Strategic Management Initiative

The progress made in Ireland on public service modernisation and the challenge for the future was set at the launch of the current phase of the Strategic Management Initiative in July of this year. In making the announcements of future proposals, I said:

"A number of key themes have taken root in our modernisation process.

These include the development of the focus on quality service, the ongoing change from a culture of secrecy to a culture of openness, and the important recognition of the need to invest in people in order to improve the capacity of the individual organisation to deliver".

"The objective now is to build progressive organisations which can respond quickly to change, which will attract dynamic people to work in them and which will provide a rewarding work environment for these talented people".

"It is up to the management, unions and staff of individual organisations to take the framework of initiatives which has been developed and to make them into an action programme which best responds to the business environment in which they operate. This is where the Partnership Committees are important in the delivery of this".

One particular issue I addressed was Performance Management.

"The Performance Management system has been under discussion with the civil service unions for some time and is nearing agreement. Based on role profiles and competencies, the performance management system offers an exciting opportunity to put in place modern Human Resource Management strategies, and in particular to ensure that vital aspects such as training are integrated in a way which clearly develops and encourages people to achieve the goals of the organisation."

I want to see the Performance Management system starting quickly and I believe that an early resolution can be found to the current obstacles, through a positive attitude from all sides.

Partnership in the Wider Public Service

The strategic work has been done and the partnership structures have been developed, not just in the civil service but in other sectors. Local Government and Health Services employees are embarked on nothing less than a revolutionary change in organisational culture and methods of service delivery brought about by legislative change and a more strategic approach to service delivery.

What we are about is building progressive organisations which can respond quickly to change, and managements, unions and staff of individual organisations are working out action programmes which best respond to the business environment in which they operate.

This is still at a very early stage and some organisations are much more advanced than others. The leadership role is very important in this context. If this initiative is to work, senior management will have to devolve a good deal of authority and decision making powers to public servants working in teams on the ground with community organisations and client groups. These teams in turn will be making decisions and developing initiatives on the basis of agreement and consultation with local client groups without referring them upstairs for approval.

The parameters within which autonomy can be exercised are not clearly defined or understood in too many public service organisations. We have been putting in place the building blocks to achieve this through Strategy Statements, business planning, customer services initiatives and the development and operation of performance management systems will allow us to complete this important process.

What is in it for Public Service Unions ?

Public Service Unions are entitled to ask - what is in it for our members? Leaving aside the issue of remuneration, the process of continuous change and modernisation represent huge threats in the minds of many public servants. People are worried about increasing workloads, increasing stress, the growing complexity of the working environment, new demands on them, new skills to be acquired and applied and some may fear that they may not be up to it. There are concerns about traditional career opportunities disappearing as old structures are dismantled and reformed.

It is in addressing these problems that public service unions have the most important role to play, whether through Partnership Committees or similar arrangements.

If "apprehensive" organisations are to be transformed into "learning" organisations in which people feel secure and comfortable with the challenge of their work, then management and unions have to work continuously on agreeing action in the following areas:

(i) Life-long learning. This is something of a cliché but it should be more easily achieved in public service organisations. Not only must every organisation and every public servant have access to training and upskilling, but the training programmes should be relevant, discussed and agreed. There in no reason why public service unions could not be involved in delivering part of some training programmes as well as helping to design them.

(ii) Support Systems - including counselling, advice, conflict resolution, a system to assist people to transfer to different parts of an organisation or indeed different organisations within the public service where career changes may be a good option both for individuals and the organisation. Support systems should also help to identify problems of work overload and identifying solutions before they develop to crisis point.

(iii) The organisation and design of the workplace. Issues which arise here and which must be addressed include the appropriate structures to deliver, the devolution of authority and responsibility and a greater emphasis on teamwork.

(iv) Investment in People: The people who will deliver change in the end are managers at every level - in too many public service organisations even Chief Executives are not trained in managing complexity and change. They may say they do not have enough time, or they are of the old school and only pay lip service to the latest fad believing that it will go away. We need to move away from the traditional administrative role, and develop a new managerial role that embraces the concept of the manager of resources and the achievement of value for money in this process.

Reward/recognition Issues

I want to turn my attention now to reward/recognition issues. We still have to solve the problem of how to reward genuine improvements in performance in the public service. One area, which is being worked on at present, is gainsharing.

Gainsharing is a reward system that directly translates increases in employee productivity into rewards (gainshares) for the employees who contribute to these increases. It can employ any number of means to measure productivity, from outputs and outcomes to cost savings and service standards.

In the private sector, gains from better performance are measured and distributed to the three stakeholders - employees, shareholders and customers.

Fitzpatrick Economic Consultants in their recent report to my Department and the Department of Finance have recommended that gainsharing should be seen as part of an overall reward / recognition strategy in the public sector also.

I see gainsharing as being an important first step in this process because it focuses individual and team behaviour on organisational performance. Its introduction can help prepare the ground for the further development of team and/or individual performance by creating confidence in the concept of variable pay reward and a clear link to performance.

The effectiveness of gainsharing will depend on the clarity and strength of its relationship to the organisation’s larger goals and values. By this definition, I believe that gainsharing must be viewed as an intrinsic part of the integrated performance management process that we are developing under the SMI for each sector in the public service

In the public service context of the future, gainsharing will provide the initial means to begin to reward behaviour that is focused on the organisational objectives and to modify current behaviours that are largely grade or task focused. Key to this flexibility will be the ability of gainsharing to ‘kick in’ at a number of levels. In this respect, I can envisage gainsharing operating at any combination of sectoral, organisational and business unit levels.

I am aware that the social partners are addressing this important issue in the overall context of a successor agreement to Partnership 2000 and look forward to a positive outcome to these deliberations.

In conclusion I would like to thank the National Centre for Partnership for organising this very timely conference.

As you know these issues are currently being discussed in a number of fora. The challenge facing all of us is to deliver a modern public service for a modern economy with taxpayers as our clients which also sees public servants having interesting and rewarding work, fairly remunerated.