Breaking up (government departments) is hard to do
The problems facing the Government will not be solved by reorganising departments
Switching the responibility for job activation from Fás to the Department of Social Protection was a rare example of a reorganisation that worked. Photograph: Bryan O’Brien
Over the last 40 years governments have too often sought solutions to pressing problems by reorganising departments or State agencies. However, such changes were often ill-thought out and the reorganisation itself proved a barrier to real change.
Obviously, the structure of our administration needs to evolve continuously to deal with changing needs, but decisions on reorganisation should be fully thought through before being implemented.
When a new government took power in 1977, it decided to split the department of finance into two, setting up a new department of economic planning. The outcome was not successful. The process of breaking up and rebuilding a government department absorbed energy which might have been better expended coping with the major economic challenges facing that government.
Major obstacleSince 1977, government departments have come and gone. Some have made a difference in terms of policy outcomes. But, in many cases, the administrative effort required to form a new department out of old departments has posed a major obstacle to progressing policy in the first few years of the process.
The establishment of the Health Service Executive (HSE) from a series of regional health boards is a case in point. Even after a decade, it has not yet been fully integrated into a coherent organisation. Despite this, there are suggestions that the new Government may move to break up the HSE. The lessons of the past suggest that if a major change in structure takes place, a lot of effort will go into reorganisation, rather than into making the health service work better.
Probably the worst reorganisation of the public service was the “decentralisation” decision of the 2004 government. This resulted in a number of years of dislocation and disorganisation while it was implemented and it continued to haunt the performance of the public service.
Climate changeThe new Government is proposing to move responsibility for climate change from the Department of the Environment to the Department of Communications, Energy and Natural Resources. As the number of people working in this area is relatively small, in the absence of decentralisation, such a change could probably be effected with limited disruption.
Bringing together policymaking on climate with policymaking on energy could make sense. However, many of those working on climate change live and work in Wexford, while the Department of Communications, Energy and Natural Resources is spread over sites in Dublin and Cavan. So a change in departmental responsibility will mean most of the staff working on climate change in Wexford will have to be replaced by new staff working in Dublin.
The dislocation would be more serious if responsibility for the environment were also transferred to the Department of Communications, Energy and Natural Resources. Not only would it involve significant replacement of staff, but the work on implementing environmental policy is closely aligned to the work of the local authorities, so separating responsibility for the environment from responsibility for local government could make policy implementation in this area less effective.
The lessons of the past suggest that, if a new administrative structure is needed, it is important it has a timeless quality and is likely to be appropriate for more than one government term. Otherwise the benefits from establishing a new structure are likely to be outweighed by the administrative costs. This argues for a more considered approach to a necessary restructuring of the public service.
Deciding such important issues in the margins of negotiations on forming a new government is quite likely to have an unhappy outcome.
An example of a successful change in the past was the relocation of responsibility for labour market activation from Fás to the Department of Social Protection. If activation measures are effective in returning people to work, then the department will reap a budgetary benefit: it has an incentive to do a good job.
Justified concernIn many cases over the last 40 years the original impetus for organisational change arose from a justified concern by the political system to change policy priorities. This underpinned the original splitting of the department of finance in 1977, the establishment of a department for equality and law reform in the 1990s and a department of children in 2011.
The present Government, quite rightly, wants to focus policy attention on the housing problem. However, we need to find a way of establishing new policy priorities without always having to undertake major changes in the underlying administration.