The wheels of government in Ireland grind too slowly for the public good

Opinion: New legislation will introduce an element of intergenerational equity into the pension system


The snail’s pace of decision-making in the Irish system of government was illustrated during the week with the publication of legislation designed to reform the defined benefit pension system and to establish a guarantee fund for workers in insolvent companies.

This welcome legislation will introduce an element of intergenerational equity into one part of the pension system but it is unforgivable that the decision has taken so long.

It is almost seven years since the Fianna Fáil government published a Green Paper on pension reform and thousands of workers in defined benefit schemes have seen their pension entitlements slashed since then as governments dithered over what to do.

A decision was eventually forced on the State by the outcome of a landmark case taken to the European Court of Justice by Waterford Crystal workers. The court found that the State was obliged to face up to the requirement to meet its obligations under an EU solvency directive by setting up an insolvency guarantee fund.

While dealing with the Waterford Crystal issue Minister for Social Protection Joan Burton also implemented a long overdue reform of the defined benefit system that has been urged for years by the trade union movement, the country’s employers and the pensions industry. It is just one example of how decision-making at Government level often proceeds at a numbingly slow pace.

At political level it is remarkable how fear of small vocal pressure groups can paralyse decision-making that is quite evidently required in the common good. Our multi-seat system of proportional representation makes politicians fearful of antagonising organised interest group. The wider national interest is often put on hold at the behest of tiny vested interests.

The controversy over EirGrid’s plans for ensuring that the country has a secure power supply looks like becoming another case in point. The Fine Gael parliamentary party for the past two weeks has been dominated by objections from TDs to plans to erect pylons in their constituencies while Labour Senators have been threatening to revolt against their own Minister for Energy, Pat Rabbitte.

Politicians running scared of interest groups is just one part of the problem. The inherent conservatism of the Civil Service and the increasing need to have so many aspects of decision-making subject to legal scrutiny also slow down the process.

It doesn’t have to be like this. The system has shown it can respond rapidly at times of crisis. The way in which this Government and its predecessor got to grips with the financial problems confronting the State is a case in point.

Whatever the arguments over the bank guarantee and the bailout programme, decisive action was forthcoming – with a little help from the troika – and the public finances are close to being under control.

The establishment of the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform (DPER) by the Coalition has certainly paid dividends. The public sector pay bill has been reduced significantly, through reduction in numbers and pay as well as changed work practices which are still in the process of being implemented.

Routine decisions
For all that, getting routine decisions made at government level and then translating those decisions into action can still take an inordinate amount of time. For instance, why has it taken so long for the merger of the Irish Human Rights Commission and the Equality Authority to take effect? It was first mooted about five years ago and legislation to give effect to the decision has been passed but the merger has still not taken place.

The same thing applies to a range of other quangos that were due to be merged or subsumed into parent departments.

Changes in the culture as well as changes in the structure of the Civil Service are clearly required. One positive development is that senior positions in the Civil Service have been opened up to outside competition. A number of people with experience of the private sector have been brought in at senior level and over time that will pay dividends.

It is interesting that the secretaries general at Finance and DPER, John Moran and Robert Watt, who both worked in the private sector for a number of years, have been prepared to engage with the public through the media in a way that would be unthinkable for previous departmental heads. The system whereby Ministers are theoretically responsible for everything that happens in their departments is outdated. One essential reform is that while Ministers should be held accountable for policy decisions, administrators need to be made take responsibility for the implementation of policy.

Action promised
In its programme for government the Coalition has promised action on this front and a consultation paper is expected to be published in the next few months.

Changing the culture in the Civil Service will be crucial. The appointment of people with outside experience to senior posts is a start but there needs to be an intake at the middle rank to really change the culture. This cannot happen with the embargo on recruitment.

There is also a strong argument that the Civil Service grade structure is outdated with too many rungs on the ladder. Some talented people have to wait so long for promotion that when they get it their enthusiasm may have evaporated.

The establishment of the Economic Management Council to deal with the economic and financial crisis facing the country has shown that new structures and new ways of doing things can make a difference. Similar urgency is needed to get innovation across the whole system of government to improve the speed and quality of decision-making and the subsequent implementation of those decisions.

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