Policy oversight required


ANALYSIS:A State obsession with secrecy is one reason for poor policy choices, so is the system of government effective?

DESPITE REFERENCES by the Government to the global causes of Ireland’s economic crisis, it is clear that massive policy failures of successive Irish governments have contributed to the probability that our recession will be deeper and longer than those of our counterparts in the EU.

Some of these policy choices were obviously going to produce results counter to stated objectives. One of the more egregious examples was the reduction in Capital Gains Tax on investment property which encouraged property speculation at a time the Government was also worried about escalating house prices.

It is reasonably easy to point to other examples of failed schemes: electronic voting, for which there was no evidence that it would increase turnout; the Official Languages Act that does little to encourage use of the Irish language; and the Bank Guarantee Scheme, which exposed taxpayers to huge debts.

One might think that had there been a rigorous interrogation of proposed policies they would not have made it past a minister’s desk. There are many reasons why such an exposure and interrogation of policy does not happen. We can point to “horse-race” journalism, the supine parliament, but what about at the governmental stage? If faulty policies could pass through the system unchecked what is it about the governmental process that allows this and what might be done to ensure that only the best policies emerge?

One could argue that cabinet government is designed to maximise the exposure of policy to debate. Ministers control departments of state and provide accountability for their departments’ actions. But most major policy changes must also be approved by cabinet, which first undergoes a process of distributing policy proposals for comments from all departments and ministers who can make observations. Often the initiative will then be debated in cabinet, where presumably intelligent people test each argument in favour or against the proposal.

But there are a number of reasons why the system may fail. It was designed at a time when the government’s reach into people’s lives was not particularly long. Departments today do so many things that ministers may be overloaded with their own departmental work which could make cabinet little more than a rubber stamp. This may be especially the case in recent years when ministers were not concerned that conceding one’s colleague her policy would reduce the exchequer funds available for their own projects. So ministers may not have the time or inclination to think seriously about another department’s work.

Cabinet meetings with almost 20 people present are probably ill-suited to policy discussions, and so we’ve seen the emergence of cabinet committees. But the people in cabinet may not be suitable, or at least may not have the varying perspectives one might want. If our Ministers must be electorally popular, only a certain type of person will make it to Cabinet – so we have lots of lawyers and teachers, but not much else.

The same is true of the civil service, whose appointments procedure acts as a bulwark against patronage but prevents specialists from engaging in policy development. The practice whereby secretaries general are in their posts for just seven years and then retired was designed to encourage innovation, but in doing so may mean the system loses a great deal of experience and its most talented people.

What could we do to ensure that policies are exposed to a thorough interrogation by a diverse range of interested parties and experts? Well, sponsoring departments could be required to publish their memorandums in advance of government meetings, not 30 years after! If these proposals could state the purpose of the policy change clearly, and why it would be expected to work, this would remove sole governmental control of policy analysis. Poor policies would be less likely to sneak under the radar.

One wonders would the deal to indemnify religious orders for claims by those it abused have been passed had it been seen in advance. Suggestions by Dan O’Brien last October would also enable greater oversight of government policy-making: take the collection and delivery of official statistics, and especially economic forecasting out of the hands of governments; transfer the evaluation of spending proposals from government; and increase the powers of independent auditing of government finances.

The whole process of auditing public spending is misdirected. Much of our current monitoring of government strives to discover that monies weren’t misappropriated, not whether they were spent wisely. For instance, we give €1 billion to Fás each year but we have no idea whether its programmes achieve any stated policy objectives. As well as accounting audits of government departments and agencies, policy auditors should be charged with evaluating policies and programmes to see if they achieve their stated goals.

Governments would no doubt argue that such an open system might push the cabinet system to breaking point and make the country ungovernable.

But such openness doesn’t prevent cabinet government operating smoothly in other countries. We should at least have a debate.

Dr Eoin O’Malley is a lecturer in political science at the School of Law and Government at Dublin City University. This is an edited version of a paper given in Trinity College today at a conference, Are Our Institutions Fit for Purpose? Political Reform in the Republic of Ireland