Accountability in the civil service needs to improve, but should not turn into a culture of blame, according to one the country's top officials.

Speaking at the annual conference of the Association of Higher Civil and Public Servants, Secretary General of the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform Robert Watt, who oversees the civil service, said it was important that staff should be able to put their hands up when things go wrong.

He stressed that it would be inappropriate to speak about the CervicalCheck controversy involving the Health Service Executive and the Department of Health.

Mr Watt said it was not for him to comment while colleagues were appearing before Oireachtas committees, and an inquiry had also been established.

He noted that civil servants were held accountable through parliamentary questions, freedom of information requests and appearances before Oireachtas committees, where they had to account for their actions.

However, he said there were other aspects of accountability, including where something goes wrong, and there could be suggestions that relevant personnel should retire or resign.

Asked about the difference between accountability and a blame culture, Mr Watt said that organisations that perform well are those that recognise and learn from failings.

He said it was important to develop a culture where people were not afraid to put their hand up or be open about something that did not go well, and that would lead to a much more effective organisation.

However, he rejected suggestions that such an approach would lead to a culture of impunity where no civil servant would be punished - even for serious wrongdoing or error - as consequences for egregious failure could not be removed.

Asked whether accountability in the civil service was as good as it should be, Mr Watt said there was always scope for improvement.

Asked about restrictions on political party membership and activity for civil servants, he said there were no plans to move away from the current position for mid-ranking or senior public servants, but there was scope for a discussion on whether a blanket ban for all grades was appropriate.

Defence of PeoplePoint system amid union criticism

Mr Watt also ruled out abolition of the streamlined human resources PeoplePoint operation, as demanded by unions who have described it as a failure, but acknowledged that it had shortcomings which would have to be addressed.

Unions have derided the system for errors including overpayments, underpayments, and delays in processing pensions, promotions and leave requests.

The AHCPS, which represents 3,000 higher grade public servants, called for its abolition, describing it as a "failed model".

General Secretary Ciaran Rohan said that, while PeoplePoint had been set up to create efficiencies, and to give better customer service, it was not succeeding to do either.

He noted that there had been over payments and data breaches, adding that the fact that it was functioning at all was down to the dedication of the staff based there.

PeoplePoint is a central element of the Government's shared services strategy.