Vilification of State agencies is well off the mark

Bodies are nimble, responsive and quick to adapt

Tourism Ireland: offered exciting examples of effective collaboration across the island of Ireland whilst also pushing the boundaries with new technologies. Photograph: Eric Luke

Tourism Ireland: offered exciting examples of effective collaboration across the island of Ireland whilst also pushing the boundaries with new technologies. Photograph: Eric Luke


It has become fashionable in recent years to vilify state agencies on the basis of their allegedly inefficient use of scarce resources. Yet there is very limited evidence to suggest that such vilification is either deserved or wise. Agencies are an essential part of the fabric of government and are pivotal to the delivery of a wide range of public services.

They are central to the execution of public policy. As such they exhibit a number of common features, including some degree of autonomy from political direction; a pre-established direction and purpose bestowed on them through political decision; control of their own budget; financing from a combination of their own revenues, earmarked contributions, and subsidies from the State budget; assets that are publicly owned and public accountability as defined by law and tradition.

The current drive to reconfigure agencies is at best rudimentary. It lacks any overarching intellectual integrity in terms of strengthening their role with the purpose of enhancing their value to the public. There appears to be no strategic framework to guide change. Nor is there a focus on reviewing how different government functions are distributed across separate and autonomous organisations delivering the services. The agenda for change, it seems, is narrow, short-sighted and driven by political expediency.

The recent international conference on Excellence in Public Service Delivery: Agencies’ Role in Shaping the Future, hosted at Trinity College Dublin in late May, offered a glimpse into the world of agencies and their agendas for renewal and reform. Organised by the Association of Chief Executives of State Agencies (ACESA), which has 72 members in Ireland ranging from the Arts Council to Bord Iascaigh Mhara to the Road Safety Authority, the conference brought together a myriad of actors from the political system, central government, agencies, academia, and international organisations.

In an era when so much emphasis is being placed on innovation and change across all sectors of the economy, agencies are exemplary in this regard. Unlike central government, which tends to be slow to adapt to change, agencies are more nimble, responsive, and continuously adapt to shifting internal and external environments. Reform and renewal flourish within this sector, the kind of renewal which perhaps one does not witness as the norm in central government departments.

Reflecting on the wide range of presentations at the international conference, the following are illustrative of the points just noted. State agencies within the education sector are clearly working within a strong partnership model with the Department of Education and Skills. Tourism Ireland offered exciting examples of effective collaboration across the island of Ireland whilst also pushing the boundaries with new technologies. The Injuries Board offered rich insights into the journey towards outsourcing business functions while the Irish Medicines Board pointed towards the value of collaboration with international networks such as the Network of Medicines Regulatory Agencies.

Taking note of the many exemplars of good practice presented at the conference, it is time to replace the prevailing political wisdom in relation to agencies with a deeper and more informed one that honours and recognises the public value being delivered by these organisations. It is time to move beyond narrow market-led ideologies and to reassert the principal focus on social value and public value. It is time to recognise the immense contribution being made by agencies in an environment where resources are increasingly scarce.

Having had the benefit of attending the international conference, I could not help but wonder how we have arrived at this point in Ireland. How have we managed to ignore much of the wise counsel offered in the most recent OECD review of the Irish public service in 2008? How have we managed to cast aside the intellectual logic embedded in the Strategic Management Initiative in favour of a narrow reform agenda focused on the consolidation of back-office government functions? How have we arrived at a point where the very notion of public service reform has become equated with an ever-tightening grip on resources and inputs and a disempowering of executives across the public service system? How have we arrived at a point where political and executive powers in relation to public service reform seem to be concentrated in the hands of so few? How have we lost sight of the pivotal role that shared leadership plays in guiding transformation and change within the civil and public service system?

We have arrived at this debilitating place, but surely it is time now for government executives to move beyond the current vacuous political rhetoric in relation to reform and take back the right to lead and guide change across the civil and public service system. Such leadership requires a sustained commitment to wise and careful use of scarce resources in pursuit of priority social and public value objectives. It equally requires a strong commitment to the effective management of change both within and across public service organisations.

The management of change has often been the Achilles’ heel of public service reform programmes, but focused effort now will undoubtedly yield positive outcomes well into the future.

Joe McDonagh is an associate professor of business at the School of Business, Trinity College Dublin

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