Michael Carey: In defence of quangos

The acronym “quango” has become a term of derision, with connotations of waste, excess and freeloading: but that image is unfair and unfounded

UK prime minister Theresa May: “As the  British government makes fundamental decisions on Brexit, business groups are voicing their frustrations that their concerns are being ignored.” Photograph: Andy Rain/EPA

UK prime minister Theresa May: “As the British government makes fundamental decisions on Brexit, business groups are voicing their frustrations that their concerns are being ignored.” Photograph: Andy Rain/EPA

 

British prime minister Theresa May spoke at the recent Conservative Party conference about how her government now engages with business. Apparently seeking to distance itself from the interests of business, it is closing down some of the channels through which business can make its case to government.

She has disbanded the advisory group of 20 big business representatives that had been established by her predecessor David Cameron as a sounding board for policy development. As the British government makes fundamental decisions on Brexit, business groups are voicing their frustrations that their concerns are being ignored.

In contrast to that, one of the advantages of the scale of Ireland is the easy access to the Government and policy-makers. Foreign business visitors to Ireland are often amazed at the accessibility of political leaders and that concerns of business are actually heard. And it’s not just businesses: access to the Government by workers, unions, farmers, investors and other interest groups is easier and more genuinely open than in most other countries.

This level of engagement, while it has its own risks, gives us a real competitive advantage, assuming the concerns of the various stakeholders are given due consideration in a fair and equitable manner. As the current UK government takes steps to isolate itself from business, Ireland’s competitive advantage in this regard can become even more valuable in these uncertain times.

State agency boards

The acronym “quango” has become a term of derision, with connotations of waste, excess and freeloading. But that image is unfair and unfounded. The reality is of meaningful contributions made by thousands of members of State boards, providing direction, oversight, advice and guidance to the executives of these agencies.

State agency board members are, in some cases, paid positions, while others are pro bono. Chairmen and chairwomen receive an annual fee of between €8,000 and €31,000, depending on the size and complexity of the agency, while ordinary board members receive between €6,000 and €16,000. In some cases, board members choose to forgo these fees and cover their own expenses.

The main board of Bord Bia has 15 members, comprising senior executives from food, drink and horticulture businesses and officers of the main farming organisations and the Department of Agriculture and Food, together with specialists in branding, environment, consumer law, retail and entrepreneurship.

About half of this group have waived their fees and expenses. These include the senior executives of larger food groups who attend board sessions on their employers’ time and currently serving public servants covered under the one-person-one-salary guidelines.

Such a group has, by definition, conflicts of interest. A balance is achieved between that risk and capturing extensive sectoral expertise, ensuring decisions taken are in the sole interest of achieving the aims of Bord Bia itself.

Exciting time

All of us on the board are motivated by a desire to contribute to the continued success of Ireland’s most important indigenous sector at a hugely exciting and challenging time.

One of the reasons Bord Bia is highly regarded – it is Ireland’s most respected organisation on Reputation Agency’s 2016 survey – is this intensity of engagement with its stakeholders.

Attendance rates at board meetings are extremely high. Discussion and decision-making on strategy and how resources are to be allocated is passionate and of extremely high quality. A regular and formal board evaluation process helps to maintain a focus on further performance improvements.

Successfully attracting the best talent on to State boards is important. The current appointment process is robust and transparent, with open advertising of vacancies and detailed independent review of applicants by the Public Appointments Service. A list of qualified candidates is provided to the relevant Minister for consideration.

Some flexibility remains to allow the Minister to approach obviously qualified and highly experienced candidates, specifically for the role of chairman. Such flexibility is vital, as some of the best candidates may be unlikely to apply for the position and they do not need to hold the directorship for either the financial reward or the status.

Ireland can further strengthen its position as a great place in which to do business by making the most of the contribution of the members of our various State boards through ensuring the issues of all stakeholders are genuinely considered.

Britain appears to be isolating its business community as it takes a stance on Brexit. Ireland can gain by moving in the other direction.

Michael Carey is chairman of Bord Bia and managing director of East Coast Bakehouse. Twitter: @careyonfood

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