‘Quango cull’: Audacious promises of 2011 amounted to little

Reduction in number of State bodies compared to 2011 is 12-17, far from FG promise of 145

Former minister for public expenditure Brendan Howlin, who promised that 48 bodies would be abolished or merged, but the changes were incremental rather than instrumental Photograph: Cyril Byrne

Former minister for public expenditure Brendan Howlin, who promised that 48 bodies would be abolished or merged, but the changes were incremental rather than instrumental Photograph: Cyril Byrne

 

Of all the three-card political tricks played in the last decade, the “quango cull” must rank as the most audacious.

In the run-up to the 2011 general election, a slew of Fine Gael and Labour spokespeople made the dramatic promise that they would slash the number of State agencies, commissions and bodies.

It would lead to hundreds of millions of euros in savings, the “synergies” (yes, that) would create efficiencies and these agencies would be far more accountable and transparent.

More modest

Top of the class in the promise department was Fine Gael, which promised to abolish 145 quangos. Labour was a little more modest, it nevertheless promised “a reduction in the number of quangos and duplication of agencies and government departments”.

When parties are in opposition, their policy papers can be presented in clean and simple lines, as if something can be changed overnight or at the stroke of a pen.

Fine Gael’s Reinventing Government was like that. When it actually attained power, it was met by a different reality. Culling quangos was a much more problematic proposition.

You couldn’t fire anybody so people had to be redeployed. In addition, it sometimes required legislation. There was also resistance from unions, from managers and from within the Civil Service. What seemed a quick win for the new coalition descended into a bit of a mush.

Like so much more in politics, the delivery did not quite live up to the promises.

The minister for public expenditure Brendan Howlin promised that some 48 bodies would be abolished or merged in the first tranche with a further 46 measures.

The government also forgot to mention that 17 of the “actions” were of the previous Fianna Fáil government and most of them were complete at the time the plan was announced in late 2011.

Howlin did manage to make progress, but the changes were incremental rather than instrumental. A good example were the Vocational Education Committees, which were reduced from 33 to 16. However, there were no reductions in staff and the chief executives of the culled VECs were redeployed elsewhere on the same pay and conditions.

Not in reality

In some cases what looked like a rationalisation on paper was not so in reality. The Wexford VEC, the Waterford city VEC, and the Co Waterford VEC were merged into one. However, under public service rules, employees cannot be asked to move to a new office more than 50 kilometres away from their current place of work. As the three offices were more than 50km from each other, they all continued to operate as before, except under the umbrella of one VEC.

Another example was the much derided Financial Regulator’s Office. That was absorbed back into the Central Bank. Did it save money? Not at all. The Central Bank recruited a huge complement of new staff to beef up the banking regulatory functions after the failure of light-touch regulation. The net effect was a substantial increase in spending.

The net effect of the quango cull has been, at best, a zero sum game. A 2015 report by Dr Richard Boyle of the Institute of Public Administration concluded that 62 State bodies were terminated but only 10 of those ceased operation completely. The remaining 52 were merged with other bodies or subsumed back into a larger agency or the parent department. Fourteen new agencies were established resulting from such mergers.

When you subtract the new agencies, plus the 12 agencies already abolished by the previous Fianna Fáil government (but included in the coalition’s quango cull), the number falls to 36. By the end of 2017, the two Fine Gael-led governments will have established 26 new agencies at the very least, including the Irish Fiscal Advisory Council, the Low Pay Commission, the Credit Review Office, the Charity Regulatory Authority, New Era and the Politicking Authority.

There are a few other agencies that may be abolished or merged in the foreseeable future (including the Dublin Docklands Development Authority, the Pensions Ombudsman and the Valuation Office).

A far cry

When you tot up the numbers, though, the number of fewer bodies there are now compared to 2011 is anywhere between 12 and 17, a far cry from the 145 promised by Fine Gael. Notably, the word quango was noticeably absent from all parties’ manifestos in the run-up to the 2016 election.

As Dr Boyle noted in his paper, the overall savings amounted to €24 million: “At the macro level the changes made and savings accredited have been relatively small in scale . . . The object of delivering a simplified agency landscape with more transparency and less duplication is hard to assess at this stage due to limited evidence and because (the changes are relatively new).”

NEW BODIES ESTABLISHED SINCE 2011

1. Labour Market Council

2. Climate Change Advisory Council

3. Peatland Council

4. Caranua – Residential Institute Statutory Fund Board

5. Credit Review Office

6. New Era

7. Irish Fiscal Advisory Council

8. Re-Bo: Credit Union Restructuring Board

9. National Oversight and Audit commission

10. Charity Regulatory Authority

11. Pyrite Resolution Board

12, Microfinance Ireland

13. Insolvency Service of Ireland

14. Pensions Council

15. The Policing Authority

16. Planning Ombudsman

17. Judicial Appointments Commission (2017)

18. Public Pay Commission

19. Public Sector Standards Commission (2017)

20. Property Services Regulatory Authority

21. Property Services Appeal Board

22. Charity Appeals Tribunal

23. The Legal Services Regulatory Authority

24. Low Pay Commission

25. Knowledge Transfer Ireland

26. Irish Water

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
SUBSCRIBE
GO BACK
Error Image
The account details entered are not currently associated with an Irish Times subscription. Please subscribe to sign in to comment.
Comment Sign In

Forgot password?
The Irish Times Logo
Thank you
You should receive instructions for resetting your password. When you have reset your password, you can Sign In.
The Irish Times Logo
Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.
Screen Name Selection

Hello

Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
SUBSCRIBE
Forgot Password
Please enter your email address so we can send you a link to reset your password.

Sign In

Your Comments
We reserve the right to remove any content at any time from this Community, including without limitation if it violates the Community Standards. We ask that you report content that you in good faith believe violates the above rules by clicking the Flag link next to the offending comment or by filling out this form. New comments are only accepted for 3 days from the date of publication.