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Wednesday, 5th August 2020
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Gamekeeper turned poacher? A career civil servant turns independent business consultant Back  
Don Bergin was well known as the public face of the Department of Finance dealing with the IFSC during its important years between 1992 and 1997. Subsequently he went on to handle such matters as the state bodies area and the privatisation of Eircom, and was the head of the PPP unit in the department during its formative years. Having spent 25 years working in the civil service, he took early retirement from the Department of Finance at the end of last year, and is now an independent business consultant.
Q - What do you miss from your civil service years?
‘You don’t just walk away from a job that you’ve lived with for so many years without feeling angst at the prospect, and then when its done, you would need a heart of stone not to miss the aspects that make us human, the camarardrie of daily contact with friends and colleagues that you’ve worked with’ .

Q - But you can maintain contact with people?
‘Well yes of course, but its a funny experience walking in the doors of the department these days. Now I might be asked to sign the visitors book.

I think in general that even for maintaining informal contact, some sort of structure is required, like regular get-togethers between existing and former staff, and such a structure does not exist. Maybe this will prompt one’ .

Q - And what about the work, do you miss being at the centre of things in the department that is reputedly the most powerful in the civil service?
‘Yes, you do miss work that was always very topical, and although no one in the department thinks that they have a lot of power, looking back, people do exercise significant influence, though the system of checks and balances ensures that no one person ever gets bigger than their boots.

But the bureaucracy does have its downsides as well. People on the outside get frustrated with delays and apparent inefficiencies and lack of commerciality in the system. Well, even some civil servants get frustrated at times not so much with the necessary checks and balances and high standards of corporate governance which are a hallmark of a service with the highest ethical standards, but with the sometimes rigid hierarchical structures which have a tendency to stifle imaginative and innovative ideas at birth.

But overall, the country is well served with high-minded and dedicated public servants. For a variety of reasons, I’m not sure if the public service is able to attract quite the same calibre of people these days, and I think that could be a problem for the future, though the recession may change things there as well’ .

Q - Are there any areas where you feel you were able to make a difference?
‘I was quite happy with my years dealing with the IFSC, which was different from the usual work in the department which can have a negative orientation in that it usually involves saying no to proposals. The IFSC area had a direct developmental role, which called for a different, more open and flexible mind-set. I think in general that this developmental type role could perhaps be given a bit more emphasis these days.

On specifics, it’s easy to forget now, but the IFSC tax regime was due to end in 1994. I thought we could get an extension to the time limit and negotiated directly with Brussels on an extension, which was ultimately successful. Without it, the IFSC would have been stunted or even still-born. In fact the extension was afterwards pulled back by the commission on the basis that the decision I got was too generous.

But I do think that the key to that success, and to the successes we seemed to be able to obtain in Brussels in other areas, was to negotiate on a low key professional basis, with no hype, just persuasive argument, well researched and backed up by independent reports’ .

Q - Any other areas where you feel you made a difference?
‘Well in the Public Private Partnerships (PPP) area, I was involved in heading up the PPP unit in its formative stages. I had another job at the same time, and I wanted to have a separate unit established.

I had to fight a hard battle internally at official level to have that separate unit established and properly staffed. Without such a unit, I felt the initiative would go nowhere. Now that unit is one of the more significant areas of work in the department, with part private sector staffing.

But these are examples of particular events. Most of the time is spent as part of the overall departmental team on the everyday tasks of dealing with the annual budget, or the departmental estimates of expenditure campaigns, or particular areas such as government procurement. These are the bread and butter of the department’s everyday existence’ .

Q - What about dealing with ministers. You must have dealt with quite a few?
‘Well yes, but I would not want to get into detail. I can say that they were all extremely capable in perhaps different ways, and pleasant to deal with’ .

Q - But there must be little anecdotes of your experiences that you could divulge without naming names?
‘Well okay, but this is actually a harmless little story about a former Taoiseach who found himself out of office. He sought extra resources for secretarial services etc, and I was sent to see exactly what he wanted and to make recommendations on the matter.

I walked into his room in Leinster House. The first thing he said in his gravelly voice was ‘ I feel like a swimmer who has just come out of the water, and all his clothes have been stolen’ . The phrase stuck in my mind as an apt summing up of the position after someone has lost the panoply of support services that the loss of office entails. Needless to say, he got most of what he was looking for’ .

Q - So what are you doing with yourself now?
‘Well I had the idea that as an independent consultant I would work with others to act as part of a team on which I could bring my particular skills and experience to bear. This approach has worked out very well, and I am working with others on a number of consultancy assignments which might be described as relating to the public service in one form or other, and I am also acting as a non-executive director on the boards of a number of companies’ .

Q - How does your day now compare with when you were in the department?
‘It really is quite different, much less structured. Before, I went into the department and, while there is a certain amount of new work one could and did initiate oneself, the more common experience is one of reaction to unfolding events.

You tended to work through the issues of the day. A lot of the time, you acted in a fire-fighting capacity, dealing with issues which arise and which have to be dealt with immediately.

Now it is a case of self-starting and self-motivation. If I don’t initiate finding work myself, no one is going to come calling on me offering it. It is almost a complete contrast with before.

The work of the department was ongoing and certain things such as the budget happened at certain times, and you had the security of a whole network of staff supporting whatever needed to be done.

Working for myself, I feel a bit like that swimmer whose clothes have been taken, you have to be managing director down to teamaker. Thank God for modern communications which make this way of working a lot more doable now than it would have been in the past’ .

Q - So how would you sum up, is it better working in the private or public sectors?
‘Well, in a sense I made the jump not just to the private sector, but also to being an independent operator, like a double whammy effect, but I haven’t looked back, not yet anyway.

Comparisons are odious, so I’m not getting into a checklist of where one scores as against the other. My day is less structured, but perhaps more exhilarating.

In general, I do think that at a certain stage, many private sector people would benefit from working in the public sector, and vice verse. Each sector has qualities which the other could learn from.

There used to be exchange schemes to facilitate this type of arrangement, which seemed to fail for lack of response. But previous efforts seem to have been a bit half-hearted, and it is not perhaps surprising that they went not generally availed of.

In the department, I was instrumental in bringing in accountants and legal staff on two year assignments, but these were one-sided arrangements for particular areas, as for the PPP area, and the state bodies section. It is interesting that the department, the individuals themselves and their employers were all very happy with the arrangement. This suggests that a more focused approach would yield beneficial results all round.

For me, I feel I’ve made my contribution to the public sector, now I’m ready, willing and able for anything the private sector throws at me!’

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