Ministers are responsible under the Ministers and Secretaries Acts for the administration of their departments.  Technically the ministers themselves are the legal incorporation of the department.

The ministry is an office of which the particular holder is holder from time to time.  The effect is that every act and decision of the government department is technically that of the Minister.

In practice, most decisions are not made by ministers.  They are delegated to the secretary general and downwards to the various officers of the department.

The minister is politically responsible to the Dail for the affairs of the department. The desire not to cause a minister embarrassment assists in ensuring an emphasis on equity, impartiality and precedents,

Civil servants will usually accompany ministers when they undertake departmental business.The civil service prepares the relevant speeches for use by the Minister in the Dail.


Public money cannot be spent unless approved by the Dail.  The responsibility for the administration of public finance and the collection and expenditure of revenues is vested with the Departments of Finance and of Public Expenditures. Policy disagreements between departments may be ultimately resolved at Cabinet level.

In early October the Ministers for Finance and Public Expenditure (who may be a single minister) present the annual budget.  This sets out plans for expenditure, tax and other receipts.

The Department of Finance and/or Public Expenditure must approve the financial aspects of every initiative.  Ultimately initiatives which involve expenditure must be approved and agreed with those departments.


The civil service assists in the preparation and formulation of policy and carries out existing policy and functions. It examines all aspects of issues and problems and advises the minister as to the alternatives which are open.

The civil service may recommend a particular option or course of action or set out reasonable alternatives.  The government minister usually follows the advice or chooses one of a number of options presented by his or her civil servants.

Civil servants must implement policies and laws irrespective of whether the minister follows their advice or not.

Legal Basis

The State must have a legal basis for actions.  This extends to all activities of the government.

Laws come from a number of different sources.  Most commonly, laws originate inside government departments with memorandums in relation to the proposal.  Bills are prepared by the Attorney General\’s office\’s parliamentary counsel/draftsman service.


Civil servants are now heavily involved in EU decision-making functions. Representatives of national governments are involved in decision-making structures in European bodies including certain standing bodies and high-level committees.

EU decisions typically commence with initial discussions between EU directorates seeking the views of national departments. A draft regulation may be circulated to the Member States.  The committee of permanent representatives known as COREPER and seeks to resolve conflicts between the States on draft proposals.

Social Partners

The Department of the Taoiseach was involved in the overall negotiation and implementation of the former social partnership agreements.  Historically, secretaries of the government have also been chairpersons of the National Economic and Social Council.

Social partnership agreements focused on income, taxation and competitiveness policies. Partnership programmes attempted to coordinate long-term and national interests. The negotiations in each case were preceded by a framework agreement under the auspices of the NESC. Substantial parts of government expenditure and budgets are agreed in the social partnership process.

Ethics in Office

Ethics in public office and standards in public office legislation require disclosure of matters by ministers and civil servants. The ethics in public office legislation requires senior civil servants to make statements in respect of their personal interests which could influence them in the performance of public duty.  A code of standards for civil servants has been published.

It is a criminal offence to accept any money or benefit in return to showing favour or disfavour in relation to any governmental decisions.  Gifts may act as an inducement and are generally prohibited.

Public and Civil Service

The Civil Service is appointed under the law to serve the State and various offices of State such as the ministers/  departments. Civil servants are appointed with the approval of the Minister for Finance.

Civil servants hold offices. Most civil servants work in government departments. There are many hundred civil servant grades.

A small number of civil servants are civil servants of the State.  They include persons working in the HouseS of the Oireachtas.  Most civil servants are employed by the government departments and serve the government.

The public service is a much broader category than the civil service, including local authority employees, employees of state-sponsored bodies, health boards and other State agencies.

Civil servants work under Ministers, who are elected politicians.  The civil service does not change with changes of government.   Civil servants are the permanent service of the State.


There are three broad categories.  The general service grades perform general duties from routine clerical operations to advisory and managerial works.  Departmental grades apply only in some departments.  Technical officers perform specialised work and possess qualifications related to the work concerned.

Within the above categories, there are numerous grades.  Some grades may be limited to individuals who hold a particular role. In some grades, there are a large number of people.

The broad groupings are as follows: secretary-general, deputy secretary, assistant secretary, principal officer, assistant principal, higher executive officer, administrative officer, executive officer, staff officer, clerical officer, services officer, services attendant, technical and professional grades.

When persons move grades they get a statement setting out their new responsibilities.  Those in general grades must undertake any work assigned to them.

Broad Functions

Clerical officers are equivalent to administrative staff.  Their work may include more routine work, recording, checking accounts, payments, following relatively established practices and issuing more routine letters.

Executive and higher executive officers are middle management.  Many civil servants enter at executive officer level.  Historically,  leaving cert holders were recruited.  Increasingly graduates have entered at this level. Executive officers deal with more complex issues such as preparing briefs, analysing material, accounting and unusual matters.

The higher executive officer is at a higher level to the basic grade.  They make more difficult decisions which are exceptional or non-routine decisions. Many engage in complex casework.  Some are involved in monitoring existing positions and measures. Some are involved in overseeing State-sponsored bodies, implementing legislation or considering matters in connection with new legislation.

Administrative officers are usually involved in critical analysis and research over a range of activities. They may draft briefs for government ministers, analyse policy and undertake statistical work.  They may be involved in the development of policies in areas.  The greatest number are assigned to the Department of Finance to work on management of the economy, budgetary policy and financial resources.

Senior Grades

The grades from assistant principal upwards are the higher civil servants. As officers move up the grades the policy role expands and their executive role diminishes.  They are involved in formulating policy, examining proposals for change, offering alternatives to ministers, preparing legislation, organising projects, schemes or large blocks of work.  They are responsible for the administration of the State and execution of policy.

The principals are responsible for large blocks of a department’s work.  Assistant principals may work putting forward proposals in their respective areas.

Assistant secretaries are similar to principals but have a higher level of responsibility, usually in a broader field.  Irish ambassadors are generally assistant secretaries.

Secretaries General

The secretary-general is the chief adviser to the minister and is effectively managing director of the department. The secretary general may advise the minister, but many decisions are ultimately that of the minister.   All matters for consideration by the minister on which views and directions are sought are submitted first to the secretary general.  He is personally responsible for overall management.

The secretary-general is responsible for monies as accounting officer of the department.  He or she is responsible for the overall internal audit, financial control, risk management. He must be satisfied that there are arrangements for monitoring expenditure of the amount voted by the Dail.

The secretary general must present accounts to the Controller and Auditor General and the Public Accounts Committee.  The secretary-general attends the Public Accounts Committee to answer questions and explain matters.


Recent changes have provided more devolved and flexible structures giving secretaries greater managerial responsibility for matters relating to appointments, performance, discipline and dismissal of civil servants below principal officer level.

Strategy statements must be prepared by the secretary general of the government department specifying its objectives, outputs and strategies.  This must be approved by the relevant minister who lays it before the Oireachtas.  Annual progress reports must be prepared on implementation.

Secretaries-general are heads of the government departments and are responsible for managing the department, implementing policy, achieving agreed objectives, accountability for finance, advising on policy, appointments and discipline and cross-departmental issues. Secretaries-general are accountable to the Public Accounts Committee and other Oireachtas committees.

The Public Service Management Act was designed to increase the service performance and service delivery of government departments.  Although ministers remain primarily responsible, the secretary general may be assigned significant responsibilities and accountability for specified functions.

The secretary-general can assign responsibilities and accountabilities to civil servants at other levels.  Civil servants can appear before parliamentary committees and be examined in relation to the responsibilities.  Due to the level of public accountability details of decisions are documented in detail.

There has been a trend in government agencies and departments to use outside consultants.  They are sometimes used because of a lack of in-house skills in the relevant department.  The use of consultants has been controversial.

The public service management legislation allows ministers to assign responsibility to civil servants for cross-departmental issues.  Historically cross-departmental co-ordination has been poor.  Attempts have been made to improve coordination between departments.



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Draft Articles; The articles on this website are in draft form and are subject to further review for typographical errors and, in some cases, updating and correction. It is intended to include references to the sources of materials and acknowledgements in the final version. The content of articles with [EU] in the title and some of the articles in the section on Agriculture are a reproduction of or are based on European or Irish public sector information.

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