‘If you can’t something nice . . ‘ goes the old adage. Of course, in the political hurley-burley such sentiments are the first casualty. That, and truth. And never more so when it comes to public sector employees. Remember the row over driving tests? The poor driving testers came under a barrage of abuse. Even the Labour Party leader during a nationally televised Party Conference speech chimed in, labeling them a ‘vested interest’ with no right of veto over modernising public services. Wow, those testers must have been up to no good.
Waiting lists for a driver’s test averaged out nationally at 30 weeks in 2006 with some centres such as Carlow coming in at 10 months. This was – and still is – a dire situation. Who was to blame? Why the public servants, of course, namely the testers. The Fianna Fail government – acting in an alert and responsible manner – proposed to outsource some 40,000 – 50,000 tests to a private agency to clear up the back-log but were prevented. By whom? Why … those same public servants who resisted ‘modernisation’, fought a rearguard battle to preserve their little monopoly and didn’t care about the massive inconvenience they were causing to the public. Eventually, however, their opposition was broken by public outcry and that same alert and responsible government was allowed to proceed with outsourcing. Victory for common sense, defeat for vested interests.
Do we get the picture? Not until we have a read of the recent Comptroller and Auditor General’s report on public sector performance. And surprise, surprise, a different picture emerges.
In 2002 the current rot set in. The introduction of penalty points, new restrictions on learner drivers and the rise of people wanting a license saw waiting lists dramatically increase. The Comptroller was critical of management’s failure to plan for these eventualities. There was no model to project the resources needed to meet the demand. Even today the planning model operated by the Road Safety Authority is of ‘limited value’. In effect, the Government introduced measures which it knew would impact on waiting times.
Applications for tests increased by nearly 40% between 2000 and 2003. It doesn’t take a high-priced management consultant to tell you that such an increase would result in increased waiting times without a corresponding increase in resources. So what was the Government’s response? It ruthlessly enforced its public sector hiring freeze.
This should have been wholly irrelevant to the testing unit as it was supposed to be financed 100% by testing fees. But by 2005 there were eight vacancies left unfilled. When the Unit attempted to recruit ‘temporary’ testers, the Department of Finance arbitrarily capped the number at ten. However, when a similar crisis was emerging in the late 1990s, 29 ‘contract’ testers were employed while all permanent vacancies were filled – resulting in the end to the crisis at that time. But the Government wasn’t through.
Testing fees haven’t increased since 1991. The Department has stated it won’t increase fees until the service has been improved. This begs the question, why didn’t they increase fees in 2001/02 when performance targets had been met? If they had, then there would have been more resources available to hire both permanent and temporary staff to meet the significant increase in the years following (oh, I forget, the hiring freeze wouldn’t have let them anyway). So this is the logic: we’re not going to increase fees to reinvest into the service, we’re not going to hire more testers despite the increased demand, we’re not going to increase fees until the service improves. Does anyone get this logic?
Crunch time came. At first, things went well. The Government and the testers’ union IMPACT agreed a bonus scheme and new productivity arrangements to increase the number of tests (including working into the evenings and Saturdays). It was also agreed that, despite the hiring freeze, a number of new posts would be created. This would have substantially reduced the waiting lists within two years. So why didn’t it happen? Because the Government insisted on ‘outsourcing’ up to 40,000 tests and wouldn’t proceed with the agreement unless they got their way on this.
The union resisted this as it constituted outsourcing of core activities – which is not allowed under partnership agreements. Both parties went to a civil service arbitration board – which is the normal procedure in such disputes. The Arbiter ruled in IMPACT’s favour. That should have been the end of it but the Government decided to sod all this. They refused to accept the ruling and continued to demand outsourcing despite the fact that had they filled the vacancies and proceeded with the agreed productivity deal with the union, they wouldn’t have needed outsourcing.
All this constituted a massive U-turn by the Government. In 1999 they had filled vacancies and hired temporary testers and massively reduced waiting lists at the time. Even a consultant’s report they commissioned recommended that the testing unit should remain a public agency with increased investment and fees. But Fianna Fail was becoming obsessed. From beginning to end the Government made a mess of the testing service – starving it of resources, failing to plan for increased demand, ignoring normal industrial procedures, etc. Now they needed a scapegoat.
Right-wing allies in the media facilitated and went all macho on the testers but that’s only to be expected. What wasn’t expected was that the Labour leadership would have bought into this tabloid union-bashing. In effect, they let the Government off the hook. Instead of focusing the issue on the real causes behind waiting lists, they targeted the testers too (and some people in Labour wonder why most trade unionists don’t vote Labour). At least Labour's Transport Spokesperson, Roisin Shortall, nailed it on the head. Unfortunately, her stance was not embraced throughout the party.
Hopefully, in this Dail Labour won’t let Fianna Fail off the hook. Hopefully, they won’t take the mistaken view that bashing public servants is a good tactic to win votes. Hopefully, they will use these ‘crises’ to inform people about the need for planning and investment in public services. If they do, they might yet turn their fortunes around, start winning votes among trade unionists, and, in the process, be seen to be championing the interests of the victims of Fianna Fail mismanagement and ideological obsession: the people waiting weeks and months for a driving test.