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COVID-19 Crisis Blog: Leadership in a Time of Crisis Reflections on the Role of the Machinery of Government

25 March 2020 - As we navigate a national and global public health crisis with the spread of Covid-19 Coronavirus, we hear from our research and policy fellows, and members of our research community in a new weekly blog which reflects on these new societal challenges. In the first Blog, Ms Mary Doyle, a former Government official and a Public Policy Fellow at the Trinity Long Room Hub shares her thoughts on the role of the public service during this pandemic.

Mary Doyle, Public Policy Fellow at the Trinity Long Room Hub

So began the address to the nation by the Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, on St Patricks Day 2020. The address - so well crafted and delivered - was a masterclass in communicating important messages clearly, calmly and coherently while also providing confidence and reassurance to a country facing a challenge the scale of which has not been encountered in many generations.

This is a difficult balance to achieve and, listening to the address, I thought about the national effort now being required to address the Covid19 pandemic. Central to that effort is the role of the Irish Public Service to mobilise and align the resources of this country in the face of this crisis of this scale.

And that effort requires huge courage and skill. The Irish Public Service is a large and diverse system made up of many different actors and actresses. In our much cherished system of parliamentary democracy, it takes its role and mandate from our Constitution and from legislation which has been put in place by our democratically elected Oireachtas.

So how does Government organise itself in the face of a crisis given the breadth and complexity of the response needed?

In line with the doctrine of collective Cabinet responsibility, Ministers, Departments and Agencies provide the overall structure within which the work of Government operates. The Ministerial Heads of Departments provide political leadership while the executive role of the Heads of Departments and Agencies is provided for in legislation including the Public Service Management Act 1997. Because I worked for so many years in the Department of the Taoiseach, I must admit to being focused most strongly on the mobilisation effort which takes place at the centre of Government and which is largely invisible outside of the system. But this work is a vital piece of the overall machinery servicing as it does the operation of the Cabinet, its Subcommittees, Senior Officials Groups in managing the flow of information and decisions and communicating effectively. A Cabinet Subcommittee of Covid19 has been established in the Department of the Taoiseach acting as the vital nerve centre for managing the national response.

And think about what this means in practice for politicians and policymakers. It means managing a complex array of information, identifying the key issues, getting the right people in the room to inform decisions. Thinking about how best to manage conflicting objectives, to consider unintended consequences. Deciding on the pace and the sequencing of decisions. And then communicating these decisions and ensuring that the implementation machinery is in place.

The central departments of Government - Taoiseach, Finance and Public Expenditure and Foreign Affairs - all have a particular role to play in this process. They provide the central space for collective decisions - they are very often the “glue” in the process. By way of reassurance, I can say that the Irish Public Service has become very skilled at acting together to address grave challenges - in the highly impressive response to the implications of Brexit, in the Action Plan for Jobs, the Action Plan for Education and now Action Plan for Covid19 we see a very sophisticated “whole of Government” response.

We can see this most immediately now in the heroic efforts taking place within our health system where the Department of Health and the HSE are leading and mobilising every available resource to effectively double the size of the system in the shortest possible timescale.

And, of course, every Department is engaged in supporting the national response. Consider the recent decision to close schools - by any measure an enormously difficult decision which required clarity of thinking based on the best available advice. So in coming to that decision, consideration would need to have been given to, for example, the compelling health case to do so, identifying who needed to be consulted, how to manage timing, how to manage the exams process, how to continue to educate children when they are at home. The list is endless and behind every question I can tell you there will be some individual or team working in the Department of Education and Skills to figure out the answer!

So behind the carefully crafted messages is an entire machine working on behalf of the people of Ireland. And that machine is made up of people - ordinary people like the rest of us trying to keep the show on the road who very often in the current circumstances are having to balance work and childcare. They are heroes too like those in the frontline and upon whom the frontline depends.

The Taoiseach in his address rightly identified and praised the range of people who are working on behalf of us all. So to my colleagues in the Irish Public Service can I say how proud I am of them . They have rare and precious skills built on a solid foundation of education and honed in the life experiences of handing difficult and complex issues. I wish them well as they continue to serve the nation.

Mary Doyle is a Public Policy Fellow in Residence at the Trinity Long Room Hub. Ms Doyle retired from her role as Deputy Secretary General in the Department of Education and Skills in 2018.   She joined the Department in 2012 where she had responsibility for Higher Education Policy, Funding and Legislation later taking responsibility for Further Education also.   She worked for many years in the Department of the Taoiseach, acting in a variety of roles including corporate affairs, arts and culture  and economic and social policy roles.   She acted as Secretary to a range of Cabinet SubCommittees including Infrastructure, Social Inclusion, Health and the Economy and chaired the Senior Officials Groups which supported these SubCommittees.   She also worked in the Departments of Health and  Department of Children during the course of her career.   She is currently a Board member of Science Foundation Ireland and of The Wheel. 

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