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Last month’s Spring Statement was not just an exercise in self-congratulation by a Government only one year away from a General Election. It was also a dangerous sign of a Government willing to take its foot off the gas and let the country slide into the overspending and auction politics that got us into the mess we are in.

In fairness, the Government deserves some self-congratulation. It inherited public finances that were out of control and, through focus and sacrifice (ours), it has steadied the shape and brought us back to relative solvency and job creation. Granted it inherited an imposed programme from the EU Troika and a lot of the early heavy lifting was done by Fianna Fail but this Government persisted with the savings and yes, even the austerity that was necessary to see the recovery through.

Which makes it all the more puzzling that the Government is in danger of immediately blowing the improved public finances and that for short-term electoral gain, they would risk our historic and still precarious recovery.

Minister Brendan Howlin said that he will be prudent but he seems to be endorsing completely the wrong approach by saying that after years of austerity people are asking:’What am I going to get back?’.

It’s not about ‘getting something back’, Minister – it’s about staying solvent and competitive and keeping focused on job creation. Only last week, the National Competitiveness Council said that we are already losing our edge and slipping down the Euro scale on those factors that support job creation, including wage restraint.

Howlin even risked public anger by confirming that politicians would also benefit from pay hikes as he begins the process of reversing public sector pay cuts imposed during the recession. “Ministers, politicians or anybody else – I’ve always said that we are not going to segregate out people,” he said.

This is ridiculous: giving the gains of our hard-won recovery, not to hospitals and schools where they are really needed, but to the pay packets of public sector workers, including our already over-paid politicians.

And this is the other alarming part of this week’s announcement: the incredible sense of entitlement displayed by many of those work in Government and the public sector, an entitlement which Minister Howlin seems to be endorsing.

Granted, public sector workers took pay cuts and endured hardship like the rest of us. But let’s keep things in perspective. The first pay cut was actually a pension levy, a contribution to the sort of rock-solid pensions that private sector workers could only dream of. And under the Croke Park and Haddington Road agreements, public sector workers endured pay cuts which were nothing like what was happening in the private sector, where people were facing huge cuts and job losses.

The lack of job losses is the key bit. Joan Burton claims that Ireland was unique among the bailout EU countries in that there were no strikes. But why would there be, with the Croke Park deal ensuring absolute job security? By contrast, even the left wing Greeks have had to fire Civil Servants which Greece could not afford. But nothing like that happened here. Instead, tens of thousands of private sector workers lost their jobs and emigrated. Always remember that: the people who could balance out this debate have emigrated and are gone – in their thousands.

And yet despite these advantages, the public unions have been clamouring for the immediate reversal of the pay cuts they have had to endure. And they want this done ahead of tax cuts for the wider public. Where is the sense of community solidarity, given that it is the working poor who have had to pay more in taxes to pay for precisely these public sector advantages? There is a double injustice here.

But the trade unions are in world of illusion. They act as if we never had the crazy policy of benchmarking, where unsustainable pay rises were given to civil servants in every boom time year. Imagine if we did that reverse, when we went into a crisis?

The language is one of entitlement. The trade union leaders say things such as that the pay cuts were monies ‘borrowed’ by the Government and now they want them back. They also talk about the ‘extra productivity’ they had to endure and ‘increased efficiency’, as if these weren’t good things always to be welcomed. Joan Burton speaks of the ‘huge changes’ in work practice. But most people I know who work in the public service, or deal with it, see no huge change. Burton’s first example, incidentally, was of ‘IT changes’, as if it was the 1980s again!

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No wonder that under the performance review carried out last November (under the Haddington Road agreement) only an incredible 0.75% of public sector workers received a score of less than 3/5 or 60% !  It’s hardly credible.

All of this shows a fundamental misunderstanding of work itself. The unions talk of achieving ‘efficiencies’ and ‘productivity’,  just as they talk about how hard many public sector workers have had to work in recent years, as if this was such an onerous demand. But surely all employees should work hard, not just as a goal for their employers, but for themselves and for their sense of fulfilment and well-being, which itself increases productivity

I have worked in both sectors. I worked in a Government Department with outstanding and hardworking people but also with slackers and clock-watchers, who put great effort in dodging work and evading responsibility. And they were always the most miserable of workers and the most unfulfilled, spending time bitching about management and fellow workers. I also worked in a publishing company, full of driven, hardworking sales people. They had no security, no fall-backs and no time to waste on coffee breaks and mandatory sick days.. But they were invariably content -ambitious, and full of adrenaline and drive. They relished challenges as well as risks. And they usually felt that the greater the risk, the bigger the reward which is why they would not begrudge those risk takers who made lots of money.

And this is what we want in the public service. Not a piecemeal, enforced and grudgingly accepted work culture, but one that is organic and real, and rewards achievers, and not everybody regardless of their performance. It should also be a work culture that engages people and gets them involved, bringing out their best talents and making them feel appreciated. Instead of a culture which shuns initiative and cooperation and actually creates the ennui that breeds indolence and inefficiency.

And the private sector doesn’t always get this right either. A masterclass in how to do it was shown by Southwest Airlines in the US, which became the model for low cost airlines, including Ryanair. It has a hardworking culture, but also one that is highly efficient, productive and with a very low turnover of workers. It retains a respected and thus contented workforce. Interestingly, when Ryanair emulated this model, it focused on the hard work bit and neglected the second ‘positive’ part – until recently.

If only our public sector bosses could instigate this. But one despairs that our Labour party Ministers ever will. On the Clare Byrne Live show, Lucinda Creighton of Renua ably took on that master of entitlement, SIPTU boss Jack O’Connor on the issue. But during the debate, the Labour Junior Minister Aodhan O’Riordain tweeted that ‘anyone expecting more productivity in the public sector doesn’t know what they’re talking about.’

But this is a ridiculous comment. Does Aodhan really think that a Government department, or service, could not do with more efficiency and productivity?. Surely all such institutions, organisations and businesses should be looking for more excellence. Ironically, O’Riordain is a big sports fan. Could he really imagine a Premiership boss, or GAA coach, telling his players that it would be unreasonable to ask them to improve any more or to work any harder?

Sadly, what this really shows is the disconnect between those who come in, temporarily, at the top of our public service, leaving the old work practises and benefits unchallenged, as well as the sense of entitlement. Even more sadly, this sense of entitlement is one that the rest of us have to pay for, both in the quality of service and in the taxes that we pay.

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