Dublin City Council CEO Owen Keegan’s Time Is Nearly Up, so How Will His Replacement Be Picked?

Dublin City Council Chief Executive Owen Keegan has been in the role since September 2013. The longest anyone can stay in the post is 10 years.

In the coming months, the Public Appointments Service will kick off the recruitment process to find his replacement, through an open competition

Anyone can apply, but it is likely that the job will go to someone with experience as a chief executive of a local authority in Ireland.

By law, the appointment of the chief executive is a “reserved function”, meaning that it is something decided upon by councillors. But councillors say that in reality they have little choice but to give the appointment the nod.

If councillors refuse the nomination they have to state their reasons, says Labour Councillor Dermot Lacey. “In this world of litigation it’s not likely to happen.”

He would like to see a process that includes councillors’ views on what the city needs, and more participation in the recruitment process, he says. “We have no say in pushing for what Dublin city wants.”

What Is the Process?

The Public Appointments Service recruits senior public servants.

Its role is to run an “open and transparent recruitment process to identify top-quality candidates for public sector roles, with independent and merit-based selection,” says a spokesperson.

The public appointments service requests a job specification from the council and further information from the Lord Mayor, in the form of a “key challenges questionnaire’ which is completed by a subgroup of the Corporate Policy Group, they said.

Once it has all the information, the Public Appointments Service advertises the vacancy, says the spokesperson. After that it will convene a selection panel, shortlist applications and carry out preliminary and final interviews.

“Following clearance stage, a recommendation letter is issued to the Cathaoirleach (chairperson/Lord Mayor) in respect of the successful candidate,” she says.

A spokesperson for the Department of Housing says it is up to councillors to decide whether to “appoint the recommended person as Chief Executive, not to appoint the recommended person as Chief Executive; or to seek additional information from PAS in relation to the recommendation”.

However the councillors’ sign-off is more of a formality, says Lacey. “We will be given a name and told we have to approve it.”

Councillors would need to have a very serious reason to reject someone who has won a competition for a job, he says, and if they did refuse the appointment it would still go ahead 30 days later.

Independent Councillor Damian O’Farrell says similar. He abstained from the vote when Keegan was appointed, he says, because he didn’t feel he had sufficient information to make a decision.

“I didn’t know who he was,” he says. On that occasion, as he recalls, councillors weren’t provided with Keegan’s CV or any background information.

O’Farrell doesn’t think it matters whether councillors reject the nomination. “We can be bypassed anyway,” he says.

But it should be different, Lacey says. There should be an opportunity for councillors to contribute towards the recruitment process from the beginning, including suggesting the competencies that are needed, he said.

A councillor and a member of the public should be on the interview board, he says. “I’m sure all the people on it will be very fine public servants.”

But he expects that the person appointed will be inclined to do what the Department of Housing and Local Government want them to do, rather than what councillors want, he says.

Who Is in the Running?

Before taking up the role as CEO of Dublin City Council in 2013, Keegan was chief executive of Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council for seven years.

Before that, he worked in Dublin City Council, first as director of traffic, and later as assistant city manager.

Keegan also worked as an economist in the private sector, including for Davy Stockbrokers, as well as in government departments and at the Economics and Social Research Institute (ESRI).

Lacey says he thinks it is likely that some of the chief executives in the neighboring councils will apply for the job.

The Dublin City Council job is a promotion for a chief executive from another council. “There is a certain career trajectory,” he says.

Council CEOs are paid differently, and the Dublin City Council CEO is the highest paid in Ireland, with a salary of €196,486 as of 2019, according to a Department of Housing report.

Council chief executives in Fingal, South Dublin, and Cork county councils and were paid €168,213 in 2019 while those running Cork City Council and Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council were paid €159,075.

Staff working directly under Keegan as assistant chief executives in Dublin City Council could also apply for the top job, says journalist Frank McDonald.

“Richard Shakespeare is seen as something of a protégé of Keegan’s, he might throw his hat in the ring,” says McDonald.

The job is technically open to people working in the private sector too, he says, although it’s likely to go to someone with an understanding of how local government works.

“The tendency in Ireland would be to appoint someone who knows how the system works,” he says.

That isn’t necessarily a good thing, in McDonald’s view. “You can learn to just live with the system, which clearly doesn’t work, and accept its limitations,” he says.

Most other countries have more power devolved to local government, he says.

The appointment of a new CEO raises questions about the future of Dublin. “It obviously ties in with the issue of whether there is going to be a directly elected mayor,” he says.

The people of Limerick voted in favour of having a directly elected mayor in 2019, but they still haven’t had elections there to pick someone for the role, he says.

The citizens assembly on the idea of a directly elected mayor for Dublin, concluded in October and voted in favour of recommending a directly elected mayor for Dublin.

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Author:

Laoise Neylon: Laoise Neylon is a city reporter for Dublin Inquirer. You can reach her at [email protected]

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