Many commentators are fond of framing their comments about public servants by reserving particular contempt for so-called ‘backroom’ staff or ‘pen pushers’. Received wisdom suggests that the public sector is composed of a gigantic swathe of extravagantly paid clerical and administrative staff with nowhere to go and nothing to do, while a tiny army of ‘frontline’ staff do all the work for next to nothing. It is a cartoonish vision of public servants which has served to divide workers almost as effectively as the wedge that was driven between private and public sector workers, most notably in the early years of Ireland’s economic collapse.
Commentators are rarely, if ever, challenged when they make such claims. Is that because we’ve all become accustomed to the claims and feel there’s no point in challenging them? Or could it be that we’re afraid that, somehow, the claims might be true? Either way, almost anyone can take to the airwaves and make sweeping claims about the composition of the public sector, demand that the clerical/admin ‘deadwood’ be discarded and offer this as the sole solution to all of the problems. It’s the kind of lazy analysis that fills up newspaper columns and radio panel analysis, particularly on a Sunday. There are a handful of well known professional opinion givers for whom this is a staple. Throw in a few figures, the odd statistic, you can begin to make the case with very little evidence. Urban myths and apocryphal tales grow from such humble beginnings. It’s easier to believe they are true, and sometimes that tips over into conventional wisdom.
And so it was disappointing to hear the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Brendan Howlin, claim this week that the HSE has identified ‘at least 1500 administrators who are surplus to requirements.’ I’ve heard this figure floated before but never confirmed. I’d heard it before the massive reductions in health staff over the last four years. I’d heard before the imposition of the recruitment embargo in health. I’d even heard it before the economic crash ever happened. Was it possible, after all this time, and despite everything that had happened, that some 1500 people were still somehow hiding out somewhere in the HSE?
I went to talk to our national secretary for health, Louise O’Donnell. Was there something in this? Louise confirmed to me what I’d already suspected. The claim was entirely at odds with the union’s day to day dealings with health management and the experience of our members on the ground. Louise wrote to the Minister to outline the crucial gap between the claimed surplus and what we’ve experienced in the health service, along with a sincere offer to address the whole issue constructively if the surplus does exist. Many members around the country contacted the union to ask where exactly the alleged surplus is? We’ve asked the same question of the HSE on numerous occasions over the years, but it has never been answered.