The water charges fiasco: a lesson in how not to do things

Social enterprise, civil disobedience and a more accountable political system could help Ireland work better. But for starters, let’s learn some lessons from the water-charge shambles

A year ago, The Irish Times published the first Blueprint for a Smarter Society. 

Here, we revisit that idea, asking writers to imagine a future of “engaged citizens in a smart society and not just alienated workers in a smart economy”.

Three years ago a young Norwegian postgraduate in Florence examined how three small countries had been coping over the previous 10 to 20 years with the global crisis, globalisation, Europeanisation and so on. After interviewing a host of ministers and civil servants, policymakers and central bankers in New Zealand, Norway and



, he found that Ireland had come bottom of the pile. Why had we done so badly ? The short answer, he said, was that if we had had Norway or New Zealand’s minister for finance we wouldn’t have ended up where we were.

“That was fairly shaming for an Irish person to hear,” said Peter Mair, the Irish head of politics at the European University Institute in Florence, where the young Norwegian delivered his seminar.

Mair included the story in his address to the 2011 Magill Summer School, only a few months after the change of government and just two weeks before his own sudden death. He used it to ask the one question guaranteed to propel an already frightened, seething nation on to a higher plane of rage.

“If the ministers matter so much, or the poor quality of the ministerial government matters so much, why don’t we already have this government and this political infrastructure, which can govern us better and which New Zealand has, Norway has, the Netherlands has, Denmark has and a number of countries have? . . . Why haven’t we built up a system of government which suits our needs, which can look after us well and which doesn’t neglect us, as it has done up to now?”

His analysis spared no one. The defence of being a “new” country doesn’t wash; we have had democracy longer and in a more sustained fashion than almost any other country in Europe. We are the also best-represented voters in Europe.

So whose fault was it ? “We, the citizens, did this,” he said.

We have never respected the State. We see it as something to be dodged, ripped off, milked for personal, local, constituency benefit. Mair called it amoral localism. We lost sight of the broader collective interest a long time ago.

And here’s the really wounding part. We were well able to control our TDs using fear and reward – ably abetted by the multiseat-constituency system – but never bothered to control our governments. “As citizens we never held our governments accountable for their policies,” Mair said. “We were too busy holding our TDs accountable for their local activities.”

In a drinking game about the language around Ireland’s path to penury, that word “accountable” would account for a lot of indignant drunks. But what Mair did was to turn the word back on ourselves.

Accountability begins with us, the citizens. If we aspire to being a mature democracy, never mind a smarter country, we have to begin by recognising the root of our problems. This is about something more profound than harnessing protests against unpopular taxes.

It is about getting to the truth of why so many of our ministers were not up to the job, yet survived and prospered. It is about why the Civil Service, despite the presence of some of the brightest, most diligent people in the country, continues to leave the average citizen feeling excluded, disrespected and disempowered, and is perceived to be grounded in a different culture.

It is about how and why we, the citizens, made bad choices.

Asked to name the main problems inherent in our political system, Dr Jane Suiter, a political scientist at Dublin City University, lists five: cronyism, governing for vested interests, a lack of accountability, a lack of openness and transparency, and an absence of challenging voices. They amount to a template for the birth of Irish Water.

In one sense the stunning ineptness of Irish Water has been a gift to us, the citizens: an accessible, textbook study of how an unaccountable Government and Civil Service can unite to patronise and insult us.

All in one quango

Eddie Molloy, a management consultant who began his working life at Guinness when he was 14, names the links.

“With Irish Water we had the whole works: legislation rammed through the Dáil, a deal done behind closed doors with the unions to give people contracts out to 2026, no redundancies, a licence to hire, people exiting one job with a golden handshake then joining up again with Irish Water, cronyism on the board.”

Why has the Department of the Environment in particular, the one responsible for Irish Water, thrown up such vast and continuing problems, he asks. An awestruck county manager told him: “The way that deal was done . . . you could not make it up, Eddie, you just could not make it up.”

Molloy traces the roots of Irish Water and virtually every other State-conceived fiasco to that word “accountability” and, in particular, to “the crucial pivot around which problems revolve”: the relationship between a government minister and his or her secretary general.

As the responsibilities of both are conflated in the relevant 90-year-old Act, the minister can swat away criticism by declaring that he or she “was acting on the best advice”, affecting a pained aura while dropping officials in the slurry – officials who are precluded under law from saying what that advice was.

“So there is no accountability,” Molloy says, “and both can collude in their own mutual interest. As Brendan Howlin put it, ‘Go along to get along.’ Where do so many secretaries general go when they’ve completed their seven-year contracts? To some other job* the government has in its gift.” Going along to get along.

Just before entering government Pat Rabbitte gave a notably hard-hitting speech about it: “Without statutory reform, the system of accountability we pretend to operate in this country is grounded in a lie . . . Civil servants can hide behind the skirts of ministers, and ministers can avoid responsibility.”

“And it remains grounded in a lie,” Molloy says now. “When you have that, you have a real problem. Civil servants sat across the table with managers and union officials and cut that deal. Was Phil Hogan responsible, or was it the secretary general? Just what are the secretaries general of Health and Environment personally accountable for?”

Cracking accountability

Dr Tracey Cooper, an outsider brought in from the UK to head the Health Information and Quality Authority, remarked in her parting words: “We still have not cracked accountability in the health service when things go wrong. The problem is we have never had any consequences. If there’s a repeated failure, nothing really happens.”

The nature of the questions still swirling around Irish Water demonstrates how closed the process is to the citizen. Why are we unable to apportion responsibility for the shambles? Who were the officials who negotiated the deal? Without grown-up answers, how can we know it won’t happen again?

For many the most dismaying aspect of the Irish Water shambles was the inability of those at the centre to spot the glaring danger signs. “That’s because they live in that cultural soup of complacency, keeping industrial peace and so on to themselves. A fish does not recognise the water it swims in,” says Molloy. “The people sitting in the room are talking to themselves. The citizen is not represented. When doing these things, the government loses sight of the fact that it’s not just acting as an employer – which it is – but it is also the government of all of us.

“With every single institutional failure in Ireland – the church, Fás, AIB, the prison service, the penalty points, the child-protection system – you would look to the culture construct to explain what went wrong. Mindset can defeat everything.”

Jane Suiter’s solutions touch repeatedly on the issue of transparency – around appointments and lobbying, for example. Like Molloy, she suggests naming and allocating clear lines of responsibility between senior ministers and civil servants.

She also suggests a review of the widespread use of the Official Secrets Act. “We should be making new recruits sign a pledge to put citizen and public interest centre stage, not secrecy. We are no longer a State under imminent violent threat.”

The concept of putting the public interest at the heart of its values seems blindingly obvious to outsiders, yet it’s a matter of legal and philosophical debate in some circles. Such as, what do you do if you have to choose between the public interest and making the minister look good?

The civil servant paper

Among the several papers produced on Civil Service accountability over the years, Molloy singles out for special admiration one called Strengthening Civil Service Accountability, produced by civil servants themselves. "It defined accountability as being subject to external scrutiny, with a requirement to explain, justify . . . with implications of consequences."

Then, he says, an expert panel was set up to take the paper to public consultation, “and the mice got at it”. His weary description of boards and panels stuffed with the very people who go along to get along doesn’t make for happy listening.

It’s important to record that Molloy has hope, although civil servants may be astonished to hear that the repository of his hope lies in them. “I have huge regard for the Civil Service. The public has no idea of all the things they do. But, God, they’re in a system which almost abuses the human talent they were given.

“Politicians won’t go for meaningful reform, because that would be like turkeys voting for Christmas. So civil servants are the only people positioned to do it, because they have a degree of job security and tenure and good salaries and pensions, and have the essential intelligence and resources to do it.”

He urges them to read and take courage from Anne Chambers’s new biography of TK Whitaker and “realise that it is in the public interest and their interest to develop an identity as the Fifth Estate”.

Among Suiter’s proposals are several that aim to place the citizen at centre stage, resulting, by definition, in accountability at every level. “Perhaps we even need to be really radical and consider a randomly recruited citizen council, replaced annually. Or at least citizenproof all decisions explicitly, as in a citizen impact report.”

Arguing among other things for a Dáil strengthened with committee work and the election by secret ballot of the ceann comhairle – “so his loyalty is to colleagues, not the taoiseach who appointed him” – Suiter begins to sound a bit disheartened.

“As we saw in the few questions that were asked at the debate on the establishment of Irish Water, politicians are more likely to ask questions about local politics and their influence rather than really getting to grips with the big issues.”

And so we come full circle to the late Peter Mair.

“We the people need to think about who we are electing and why,” Suiter says. “If we elect people who we think will deliver to us locally, then how can we expect everyone in every other constituency not to do the same? What comes first, parish or country? We’re very good at the former, not so much at the latter.”

We know from at least one Irish Times poll that the electorate is ignorant of the most basic facts about the functioning of our democracy. So the smartest step we could take, surely, is to educate ourselves.

When Suiter was travelling the country with We the Citizens, an initiative to test the idea of a citizens’ assembly, it was what most people wanted: “real citizenship education, not the current Junior Cert but something much wider and more philosophical, perhaps even in primary school. This will be really crucial for everyone to understand how politics works and why.”

But, first, is anyone in public life brave enough to trust citizens with the truth?

* This article was edited on February 26th, 2015