Assistant secretary general in the Department of Employment Affairs
Assistant secretary general in the Department of Employment Affairs, John Conlon completed the Diploma in Corporate Governance at UCD Smurfit School in 2015.
Tell us something about your career to date
I have been in the Civil Service since graduating from NUIG with a BComm in 1986. Initially, I worked in the Department of Finance for over 20 years, laterally in the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform. I was promoted to principal level and had a wide range of jobs, including press officer, looking after public expenditure and working in equality.
Since 2013, I have been an assistant secretary general in the Department of Employment Affairs, which is the biggest civil service department in Ireland, employing around 6,500 people and managing around €20bn in funding. We look after both social welfare and Ireland’s public employment service.
What prompted you to do the Diploma in Corporate Governance?
As an assistant secretary general in a government department you are a member of a management board, so there you have a lot of corporate governance responsibilities. I felt the programme would help in relation to these and also in terms of executive management issues like risk, governance and protective disclosures.
And I’ve always been a big believer in lifelong learning and have availed of many opportunities to study over the years – on top of my primary degree, I have a bachelor of law from NUIG, a master’s in law from Trinity College Dublin, and an MA in public management in the IPA.
What was your experience of doing the diploma?
One of the big attractions for me was the networking opportunity of 30 people from a wide variety of backgrounds. And I did find that as well as the learning from the tutors and lecturers, you benefit so much from talking to your peer colleagues who work in many diverse areas and have different but also similar challenges. Learning how other people deal with issues such as risks, protective disclosures, whistle blowers, etc, was a very important element of the programme for me.
We were put into groups for dissertations and tasks and, over the course of the year, I worked closely with eight or 10 people so we were able to engage quite purposefully.
If you were to pick out one key takeaway from the programme, what would it be?
The diploma reinforces the view that governance has to be a standing item on the business requirements agenda. If you’re on an executive management team or a board and you’re not regularly dealing with governance issues, there’s something seriously wrong. The programme reaffirmed my approach in that regard, and the learning from other people on the course was also very useful.
So, for me, the takeaway is to have governance on the day-to-day business agenda to make sure you deal with things like risk on a very regular basis.
Are you on other boards or do you plan to be?
I’m not planning it at the moment, because I’m busy enough in my role – it’s a big department and we have a big job here – but it is something I’d like to do at some stage.
But I’m certainly using the diploma, both as a member of the management board and in my day-to-day work. For example, my division looks after the funding of a lot of community employment schemes and local development companies that are providing outputs on our behalf to clients of the department. How that is overseen is important from my perspective as an executive manager, as is getting my teams to be more conscious of our responsibilities in relation to funding, financing, corporate governance requirements.
What are some of the main challenges for boards and how has the diploma helped in this regard?
As a government department we deal with a lot of law on a routine basis – codes of practice, governance and company law are very important to us.
The challenges for big departments with executive boards are very similar to those of company boards. In my department’s case, the challenge is to make sure that all the funding we send out to local development companies and charities is done in a way that complies with the relevant codes of practice and corporate governance.
In facing these challenges, I have found the networking aspect of the Diploma in Corporate Governance to have been a very useful and powerful outcome: if I have a problem I have a group of people to talk to and I have tapped into that network once or twice.
Would you recommend the course?
I have done so already. One of my colleagues has completed the diploma since I did mine and it’s something a lot of new members of our management board are asked to consider.
For organisations like ours that are involved in funding other organisations, this is part of our armoury.