Cliff Taylor: Setting up new quangos is not the solution

Recent history is littered with institutional shake-ups, most of which have achieved very little

‘We are at risk here of slipping back into an old Irish habit - thinking that setting up a new government department, or agency, or some other kind of quango is the key step to fixing something.’ File photograph: Frank Miller/The Irish Times

‘We are at risk here of slipping back into an old Irish habit - thinking that setting up a new government department, or agency, or some other kind of quango is the key step to fixing something.’ File photograph: Frank Miller/The Irish Times

 

Of course we need a Minister for Housing - or at least someone who is clearly in charge of sorting out the mess. With responsibility for the issue spread across a dozen departments and agencies, nobody is accountable for delivering. Yet we are at risk here of slipping back into an old Irish habit - thinking that setting up a new government department, or agency, or some other kind of quango is the key step to fixing something. It isn’t. Fixing problems requires decisions and action. A new brass plate on the door is no guarantee at all that anything useful will happen.

Recent history is littered with institutional shake-ups, most of which have achieved very little - and some of which have arguably made things worse. The HSE was meant to have been the answer to the health crisis. Now it is the institution which can’t, it seems, be abolished, despite promises to do so. The splitting of the Central Bank and the Financial Regulator into two separate bodies in 2003 was meant to usher in a new era of financial regulation. That one worked out particularly well, of course.

Each time a new government comes to office there is some shuffling around of Government departments . Sometimes this can work. There was a valid argument that the Minister for Finance had too much to do in the old set up, and that splitting out a new department of public spending was useful. But other departments such as energy, transport, communication, defence and fisheries have merged and demerged in different combinations many times over, without much apparent rationale, apart from dividing and re-dividing the political spoils.

And when we set up new agencies, we don’t often do it very well. Just about every mistake in the book was made in the establishment of Irish Water, centred on the issue that the consumers of water were not put as a priority from day one. That said, the establishment of an agency to take on a job previously undertaken by 31 local authorities was long overdue. Having now taken the initial cost and done the work, calls to abolish Irish Water are a reversal of the normal demand to create an agency to solve a problem.

Now we are pretending that actually abolishing an institution can make a problem better. Someone needs to arrange to fix our water supply and waste water and abolishing Irish Water and setting up some other lesser quango doesn’t seem a very clever solution - handing it all back to the local authorities seems an even worse idea.

Too often, institutional change is an excuse for doing nothing, for avoiding upsetting interest groups, or for delaying decisions. The appointment of a new Minister for Housing as a full ministry or some kind of “super junior” ( the outgoing government has a junior ministry responsible for housing) could be part of a comprehensive programme to address the problem, or it could be a next-to-useless shuffling of the deck chairs. A new Ministerial position on its own won’t make a bit of difference - what is needed are ways to get more houses built and in the meantime action to address the plight of those with nowhere to live ,or stuck in a room in a bed- and- breakfast.

Watching the political dance going on in Dáil Éireann, and the talk of new ministries and reform of the way the Dáil works, the public will surely soon grow impatient. Political and institutional reform are important - and potentially powerful in the years ahead. But in the short term, they aren’t going to get construction moving more quickly in the next few months or address the 500 people waiting for a hospital bed during the week, or deal with the possible fall-out of Brexit.

With public scepticism of politics at a high level, the Leinster House manoeuvring risk looking increasingly irrelevant to the problems people are actually facing. Perhaps what should actually be done to address the key issues is actually being discussed behind closed doors, but for the moment it looks more like a phoney war.

Our politicians are at risk of answering calls for short-term action with plans for long-term reform and institutional shake-ups.Nobody much cares whether the HSE or the Department of Health run the health service - they just want to have confidence that we can find our way out of the annual stacking up or people on trolleys. And despite all the noise about Irish Water, the 50 per cent plus who have paid their bills just want to see the service working, whether that it achieved by a body on or off the state balance sheet or somewhere in-between.

Clear signs will come when the real talking starts on the formation of a new government, even if it is still far from clear who will be involved. If the key points of any emerging deal involve the institutional issues - the “abolition” of Irish Water, a Minister for Housing, the future of the HSE, the chairing of Oireachtas committees - we will know that nothing much has changed. We need a Dáil that can act more effectively and a delivery on the long promises of a “new politics”but this is a process that is going to take time to evolve. We somehow need a system that can re-act quickly and get things done.There is “stuff” to be done, decisions to be made and policies to be implemented.

Appoint a Minister for Housing, for sure, but only after agreeing what he or she should do, and how it will be implemented and paid for. Decide what the Minister will do in the first 100 days in the job - then make the appointment.

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