Good governance can be linked directly to the level of transparency and accountability that operates within a society. It is marked by broad support for administrative structures and public confidence in social justice. This State wandered far from those ideals as its defining attributes became a lack of accountability, excessive secrecy and undue control. An opportunity to address those failings has arisen.
The Department of Public Expenditure and Reform has published a document - coordinated by the anti-corruption agency Transparency International Ireland - that recommends a range of measures in support of administrative reform. Much of what is proposed has been awaiting implementation for decades, but was successfully resisted by a variety of interests. What is heartening on this occasion is the imprimatur offered by a Government department and the implied commitment by Brendan Howlin to a new beginning.
There is, of course, a political agenda. Establishing a commission of inquiry into the financial failures that led to the bank guarantee is top of the coalition’s wish list. Such a commission would “make findings of responsibility”; offer recommendations on how a repeat of the banking collapse might be avoided and refer files to the Director of Public Prosecutions. Such an inquiry may be useful on many levels, but other suggested initiatives are equally pressing. Financial crimes legislation that would penalise reckless trading and malfeasance in office is long overdue. So are strict standards of financial transparency and responsibility in the conduct of audits and the establishment of a bankers’ charter.
Within Government, there is no compelling reason why the concept of Cabinet confidentiality should prevent publication of its agenda, minutes and relevant documents. Greater oversight and transparency should also be introduced into traditional areas of discretionary decision making by public servants.
Politicians are reluctant to confront these issues because they represent avenues for vote-getting. Transparency International has suggested that a referendum on a Bill of Rights and Responsibilities should be held within two years. This would set down the entitlements of all citizens and their concomitant responsibilities. At a time when local government is being restructured, empowered and funded through a property tax, such a development would help to erode an unwarranted dependence on national politicians to secure statutory entitlements for constituents.
A culture of “the inside track” and “who you know” is corrosive in any society. It is particularly destructive in one where innovation, experimentation and upward social mobility are vital for success. A radical shake-up of established patterns of behaviour is required.