Sunday December 13 2009
LEX, that influential oracle from the back page of the Financial Times, gave Ireland a very British pat on the back last Thursday morning.
Lex likes Brian Lenihan; so much so that Lex approved his Budget, applauding the Finance Minister for meeting his targets.
After pouring praise on Ireland for showing an example toeurozone basket cases like Greece, Spain and Portugal, Lex conceded gleefully that the Irish "Government may be gored in the process".
Lex may carry clout in the markets, but the anonymous author was conceding that his judgement had a weakness: he speaks with all the cold objectivity of someone who does not live in Ireland.
Brian Lenihan passed the Lex test of cold analysis; he never fudged a single figure; he eyeballed the union leaders and won; he even made Taoiseach Brian Cowen blink the previous week when they both left the bearded brethren David Begg and Jack O'Connor marooned.
Lex was not the only outsider giving the thumbs- up to the minister's package. The mighty Goldman Sachs gave a second overseas giant's seal of approval to the Government's top performer.
Lenihan may have pleased the financial markets -- no mean feat -- but he missed a few overfed sitting ducks at home.
A lower paid public servant summed it up last Wednesday when I met him in the Leinster House corridors immediately after the Budget speech.
"Why the *!?#!," he demanded, as though it was my fault, "should I take a five per cent cut when FAS is getting an extra €56m?"
A good question.
The biggest failure of the Budget was its refusal to tackle Ireland's bloated quangos. This was the year to eliminate them. Instead, semi-state corpses emerged from the Budget graveyard pumped full of oxygen, after the most brutal Budget in memory.
How can the Government justify the further protection of Fas and CIE when employees on less than 30 grand are being clobbered, or when child benefit is being chopped?
Fas is guilty of wanton waste. Even after a small haircut, CIE receives a subsidy of nearly €300m a year. Where too were the necessary reductions in the funds flowing into Enterprise Ireland and hundreds of other quangos?
I found the answer very quickly when I raised the topic in the Seanad on Thursday morning.
Press the FAS button and you touch a raw Fianna Fail nerve.
No sooner had I criticised the lack of Budget action on the nation's superquango than the Soldiers of Destiny were lining up in its defence. The tribe circled the wagons.
One of Fianna Fail's finest, Senator Labhras O Murchu, rose to his feet extolling the virtues of the Fas schemes and the state agency's successful placings of participants in jobs.
Senator Mary White egged him on with the favourite Fianna Fail chorus of "hear hear".
Fianna Fail Seanad leader Donie Cassidy repeated the tribal response, by putting on record his blind faith in FAS -- spendthrifts par excellence.
Fas is a Fianna Fail protectorate. It is stuffed with Fianna Fail sympathisers. It played theBertie Ahern partnership game to perfection for years. Its board -- crowded with social partnership junkies from Ictu and Ibec -- was forced to resign recently. It threw taxpayers' money at problems. It built centres for this, for that, and for the other -- white elephants, monuments to government waste.
Some of the trainee centres are today virtually empty, extravagantly kitted out with state-of-the-art equipment, but unfortunately without trainees.
Fas should be dismantled and started again. An instant saving of €500m could be made from its billion-euro budget. Half-a-billion would pay a lot of children's benefits.
And €500m would allow many poorer public servants, earning less than €30,000 a year, to escape the cuts in public service pay.
Mysteriously, nearly a thousand quangos have flourished, recession-proof throughout the downturn. Together they had a combined budget of €13bn in 2006. Less than a third of that would have provided the magic €4bn.
Their future is secure. There is no plan for Fas reform. There is no real reduction in the Budget for politically controlled Enterprise Ireland. There is no strategy for the wretched VHI; the Dublin Airport Authority is untouchable; and what future is there for the ESB?
Irish Rail, a location of corrupt practices and massive waste merited no surgery. An Post, a source of semi-state sterility, is to be left to its own monopolistic devices.
Why have the quangos been spared while the weak have been savaged?
The answer is simple. Quangos are the network of government power. They are peppered with directors who reflect the political party of the minister making the appointments. They are outlets for naked patronage. To hell with the nation, save the quangos.
When was the last time a director of a quango resigned on principle? Ahem.
They have to be dragged, kicking and screaming from their comfortable perches and fat fees.
Few quangos hold open AGMs. The directors do not resign, merely report annually to the minister with the ritual sycophantic thanks for his "support". The annual mantra should more properly read a thanks for his "fees and patronage".
Wednesday was the time to cull the quangos, to require all directors to resign, to cut their numbers and halve their fees. Cowen and his Cabinet bottled it.
Perhaps the Cabinet is too absorbed with the threat of industrial warfare in the coming months. Perhaps they fear the opening of a second front?
The second front opened on Monday when the most lethal of all threats came from the gardai. Justice Minister Dermot Ahern was quick to tell them that any attempt at a strike was illegal.
The gardai need a swift reminder that they are privileged and well-paid, that they will not be allowed to break laws which they are paid to enforce. Their action is close to treachery.
Figures obtained last week show that gardai averaged €63,000 each (pay and overtime) in the year to June 30, 2009. Hardly poverty.
The men in blue should pipe down. There are far more deserving causes. Like parents, whose child benefit is being cut by €16 a month.
If the gardai think they can blackmail law-abiding citizens by threatening anarchy, they should be subjected to punitive, not piecemeal, pay cuts.
Dermot Ahern and the Department of Justice may need to make contingency plans withDefence Minister Willie O'Dea in case the gardai implement their threat.
In his mission to please global investors, Brian Lenihan funked the need to tackle the real source of profligacy at home -- the quangos. Instead, he cut some payments to the most vulnerable that could have been avoided.
Sadly, Lex loves the sound of hard-luck stories, relishing the sight of macho governments "being gored in the process". Such misery signals that the Government is serious and raises its stock above the softies like Greece, Spain and Portugal.
Lenihan's determination deservedly won the Lex seal of approval. His stature is enhanced. A pity he picked the soft targets.
Next year he should look at the €13m it takes to featherbed the quangos.
'The Bankers: How The Banks Brought Ireland to its Knees' by Shane Ross, published by Penguin Ireland, is in all good bookshops now
- Shane Ross
Public Bodies are organisations operating at national level established and funded by Government to perform a public function, under governing bodies with a plural membership of wholly or largely appointed persons. T.A.S.C. identified in excess of 450 Public Bodies in existence at the end of 2005. In their list they included executive bodies and advisory bodies, including temporary taskforces. "We excluded local and regional bodies which are the subject of a separate study. We also excluded executive agencies of Parliament, including sectoral regulators, internal departmental working groups and tribunals.
Our research shows that Public Bodies are core to our State system of governance and have long since ceased to be merely an adjunct to the main work of Government, conducted within the central civil service. Many are extremely significant in the public functions they perform, the scale of public expenditure they control and their sheer size as public sector employers. However, an absence of good information systems means that accurate assessment of their nature, scale and significance is difficult to establish.
Part of the State governance system since its foundation, they have grown significantly over the last forty years and very markedly in the last ten years. We find too that they have been developed in an ad hoc and unplanned manner and in the absence of any explicitly stated or debated over-arching rationale. The fragmented manner in which they are established results in confusion, inconsistency and opacity.
Providing a census of all Public Bodies, with consistent definition and classification, updated regularly and made widely available to the public, is an important first and necessary 10 step to establishing a clear strategy for the conduct of State governance. But this is only a prelude to a review of the rationale for the existence of these agencies as separate entities, and an elimination of any overlaps which currently exist.
2.Lack of TRANSPARENCY AND ACCOUNTABILITY OF PUBLIC BODIES
Despite their central significance to the State, effective accountability structures for Public Bodies has historically been poor and may if anything have worsened. Accountability to parent Departments is poorly developed; judicial interpretations of the legal and constitutional framework combined with strong political control by the Government Executive means that Ministers can avoid responsibility, while the various calls for stronger Oireachtas scrutiny have been largely unsuccessful.
Ireland has in the past twenty-five years developed a body of legislation and regulation providing transparency and accountability directly to the public. We examined the most significant of these in some detail. In 1980, the Ombudsman's Act was enacted, followed by the Comptroller and Auditor General Act, 1993 and the Ethics in Public Office Act, 1995. Then came the Standards in Public Office Act, 2001, the Freedom of Information Acts, 1997 and 2003, and the Ombudsman for Children Act, 2002. A Code of Practice was also put in place in 2001. All of this legislation has done much to improve the ways in which the working of Public Bodies is transparent and subject to 'good governance' practices.
But paradoxically, the inconsistent and ad hoc manner in which this legislation is applied has subverted at least some of the value of these measures. Many Public Bodies are excluded from coverage by one or more of these measures or are included in an ad hoc, inconsistent and or partial way.
For example, the Office of the Ombudsman, acting directly on behalf of the citizen, is prevented from investigating complaints in relation to a number of agencies with important public functions such as the Refugee Tribunal Agency. Similarly, the Freedom of Information legislation does not cover bodies like the National Development Finance Agency and the National Pensions Reserve Fund.
In a recent report the Information Commissioner has complained about the growing number of non-disclosure provisions in individual pieces of legislation, one third of which have been introduced since 1997 and is quoted as saying that
'a culture of secrecy' continues. All of this inconsistency leads to uncertainty and lack of clarity within government departments and agencies concerning which bodies are covered and which are excluded. At the end of the chain comes the citizen trying to make his or her way through this maze.
Furthermore, the measures themselves have been put in place under a variety of rules and formats which create inconsistency and confusion. For example the Children's Ombudsman Office is governed by different rules to that of the Ombudsman. It has the power to investigate schools and voluntary hospitals and is invested with an advocacy role.
There also continue to be gaps in legislative/administrative provision of best practice standards in openness and transparency, for example, there is no formalised right of the public to review agendas and minutes of meetings, observe board or committee meetings or access the register of members' interests.
The difficulties we encountered in trying to map the application of accountability and transparency measures to any Public Body apply equally to all types of bodies, executive, advisory and temporary taskforce. However, there are strong indications that much less regulation applies to advisory bodies than to executive bodies and virtually none at all in respect of the functioning of temporary taskforces.
3. PUBLIC BODIES AND PATRONAGE
There is something in the region of 5,000 appointments to Public Bodies at national level alone, the majority in the gift of Government.
Given the number of these appointments and the importance of the function which the appointees must perform, it is a big gap in our accountability structure that Ireland has no clearly established mechanism to ensure that appointments are free from undue political or other influence or that there is an effective independent appointments system in place. As of now, ministers and senior civil servants are responsible for appointing the majority of members to Public Bodies. Moreover, the influence of the Oireachtas in the making of these public appointments is negligible.
The manner of selection of persons appointed to public office is also problematic. The process is 'hit and miss,' unmonitored and unsystematic with every stage ad hoc, random and potentially suffused with subjective judgements. There is a lack of clarity as to the expertise or experience which might objectively merit such appointments. Without clear criteria there is the danger of making appointments where the appointee has either mediocre ability or is lacking the appropriate skills and knowledge. There is a problem of lack of accountability of those appointed. The power of dismissal is, theoretically, a considerable one, but one which in practice is rarely used.
Finally, there are no effective mechanisms to ensure representation of the diversity of the Irish population: gender balance at 25 per cent, is still short of the 40 per cent guideline established in 1991. The competitive system of public appointments introduced in the UK in the late 1990s which provides for attention to gender balance is at least part of the explanation for the slightly better representation for women in Northern Ireland. The lesson to be drawn for the Republic is that the mere presence of an official guideline on a minimum acceptable level does not lead automatically to better representation of women. It is necessary for Government to move beyond formal guidelines to legal and regulatory provision with mandatory compliance, as is the case in Norway, if they are to be effective in meeting their legally-binding international commitments to ensure the equal participation of women in decision making.
Overall, the present system of appointment to Public Bodies effectively gives elite groups a monopoly of such positions and therefore an inordinate degree of influence on decision making in the State. The recent report of the Democracy Commission has made a series of recommendations on how to address this which includes an independent system of appointments, with a role for the Oireachtas in the most important appointments and clear criteria and systems overseen by the Standards in Public Office Commission and the parent Department.
The unplanned and ad hoc mushrooming of Public Bodies combined with the lack of good information about them is bad for democracy. The very existence of these agencies in the ad hoc and fragmented manner in which they have grown up adds a further layer to the bureaucracy of government, constraining an individual citizen's ability to interact with an agency from which they are seeking a public service. The case has now been persuasively and repeatedly made for a strategic overview to be taken of Public Bodies, in accordance with clear criteria. This overview should include an ongoing review of the rationale for their existence as well as adequate mechanisms for maintaining operational and strategic oversight.
It is now more than forty years since the absence of a clear strategy for the establishment of Public Bodies has been identified as a key problem in urgent need of reform. In the Irish context the mix of reasons 'never formally listed' which lie behind the decision to set up each Body goes a long way to explaining the unwieldy, overlapping, and incoherent system we have today. A number of good arguments can be made for outsourcing of public functions to Public Bodies, arguments which are based on sound principles of democracy and efficiency/effectiveness (McGauran et al, 2005). However, delivering these positive outcomes is less easy in practice and is particularly difficult in the absence of a clear strategy.
The issue of public accountability is central to current political debate and one which is seen to be exercising the media and the wider public to a considerable degree.Historically, departmental and parliamentary oversight of Public Bodies has been less than effective and our analysis shows that it is rife with problems of inconsistency, exclusions and lack of clarity. Ensuring that accountability legislation is applied fully to all bodies responsible for public functions and that any exceptions are in accordance with clear criteria agreed in an open, transparent and accountable manner is clearly called for. This kind of action combined with a review of the basis on which accountability institutions themselves have been established would go far to combat the problems of opacity and impenetrability and the residual culture of secrecy. It is essential if formal accountability measures are to be meaningful in practice.
Given the growing importance of Public Bodies and the influential role of non-elected individuals on important public decisions and actions, this accountability system needs to be extended to create an independent system for these appointments.
Sunday October 07 2007
The Government has set up so many state agencies that it "can't event count them, let alone tell us how much they cost", according to Fine Gael's new Enterprise spokesperson Leo Varadkar.
That was the only conclusion he could come to after many government departments failed to answer a parliamentary question he put down about the number of 'quangos' they have established and funded.
Varadkar claimed this failure was all the more surprising since some Departments like that of the Taoiseach, Justice and Enterprise were easily able to come up with the figures.
The Fine Gael deputy noted that when it came to the rest the only conclusion he could come to was that the ministers in question "do not know the structures of their own Departments if they do not know what bodies actually exist there". He also believed that the sole purpose of many government quangos is to "mollify troublesome interest groups and trade unionists."
He said he was appaled that tax-payers money was being spent "providing the finest of offices and state subsidised jobs which are so unimportant that the Minister didn't even know the person in question existed."
The Fine Gael spokesperson claimed that what we are seeing is the creation of "an edifice that resembles a Stalinist state or the Peoples Republic of Gaddafi" where bodies "whose work is questionable and whose appointments are made in a non transparent way" are used to head off trouble for the Government.
Unsurprisingly, when it came to Departments who didn't have a clue who they employ, Health headed the list. The HSE may have nine national directors and 61 assistant national directors -- but they were utterly unable to come up with a figure.
Martin Cullen in Social and Family Affairs and Noel Dempsey (Transport) were also unable to provide an answer whilst both of the Green Ministers in Environment and Communications and Natural resources were equally clueless about quango's operating and funded by their ministries.
One of the more remarkable responses came from Education, where Mary Hanafin claimed "the information requested by the Deputy is not readily available in my Department and it would require an inordinate amount of administrative time to compile."
The FG's new spokesperson on Enterprise and Employment also expressed some surprise at the inability of Eamonn O Cuiv to answer his question.
"Last week, O Cuiv was complaining about how when it came to getting information from the HSE it was an impossible organisation to deal with and he couldn't make head or tail of it."
However, when it came to his own Department, O Cuiv also claimed it "was not practical within the time available to provide the information sought", while Brian Cowen in Finance was also unable to provide a reply.