Restructuring voluntary advice bodies is arrogant and unwise

Citizens’ information services and Mabs face change to top-down organisations

Abhaile chairperson Ita Mangan, Minister for Justice Frances Fitzgerald, Minister for Social Protection Leo Varadkar  and Abhaile chief executive Angela Black.

Abhaile chairperson Ita Mangan, Minister for Justice Frances Fitzgerald, Minister for Social Protection Leo Varadkar and Abhaile chief executive Angela Black.

 

The Money Advice and Budgeting Service (Mabs) and the Citizens Information services (CIS) are acknowledged to be invaluable services that are embedded in and respected by local communities. Leo Varadkar is acknowledged to be an intelligent and ambitious politician. Why is it, then, that as Minister for Social Protection he is apparently happy that the Citizens Information Board (CIB) is advocating a restructuring that will irrevocably damage both of these services by dissolving the local companies that run them and replacing them with regional structures?

Maybe his mind is elsewhere, because he is ignoring a growing swell of community outrage, although his party’s backbenchers are uneasily aware of it.

Just when the banks have begun to put increasing pressure on people in mortgage arrears because homes are again worth repossessing and selling, the Minister has apparently decided it is fine to dismantle the characteristic that has made Mabs so successful: their voluntary boards, which have enormous local knowledge and credibility.

In the 1980s, Mabs grew from the late Brendan Roche’s concern for the plight of Cork people who were in hock up to their eyeballs with illegal moneylenders.

He and others’ efforts were so successful that after a government pilot, 51 Mabs companies were established. The service moved from direct departmental control to being managed by CIB in 2009 after ministerial assurances that Mabs’s structure and conditions would not be interfered with.  

Mabs has been entrusted with vital government initiatives, the most recent being Abhaile, a free mortgage-arrears support service.

Volunteers

All Mabs companies’ boards consist of volunteers. For example, one board I know has members from St Vincent De Paul, the local credit union, An Garda Síochána, the Women’s Development Group and IFA Farm Families. There is also a higher executive officer from the Department of Social Protection, and a community welfare officer.

These boards establish relationships with lending institutions and utility companies and negotiate viable solutions for people teetering on the brink of financial disaster. They epitomise common sense, practicality and compassion and represent the best of statutory and voluntary co-operation, all for free.

The CIS emerged in a similar way in the 1970s. Civic-spirited volunteers all around the country saw that citizens needed information to access their rights. Not only did they give their time, they rattled boxes to fundraise. CIS is now a sophisticated service that is Government-funded. It, too, has voluntary boards, but also has more than 1,000 volunteers dealing directly with the public.

If the CIB proposal for 16 regional structures, eight each for Mabs and CIS, goes ahead, there will be 15 new regional managers who will earn substantial salaries. The majority of those who currently give their time for free on boards will have no role. They may apply to be members of the new management companies’ boards.

CIB has also told them, somewhat patronisingly, that former board members can be members of local advisory boards. How much attention is likely to be paid to these powerless advisory boards? About as much attention as CIB paid to the Dáil majority that voted in favour of halting this restructuring: no attention whatsoever.

CIB announced a consultation process this week to conclude on May 26th, to “examine key aspects of implementing the new 16-board model”. What kind of a consultation has a predetermined outcome?

Fianna Fáil TD Willie O’Dea has spearheaded the resistance to this form of restructuring. He said he was incensed at the attitude of CIB’s chairperson and chief executive. In his view, CIB seems to have taken this on as a mission, driving it forward while riding roughshod over the staff, volunteers and clients, not to mention the democratic mandate of the Dáil, and what is likely to be the unanimous view of the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Social Protection when it reports.

Governance

Reading the committee’s discussions with representatives of CIB, Mabs and CIS, it is striking how often the CIB representatives talk about governance and efficiencies. They sound a bit like a bank. In contrast, Mabs and CIS speak constantly about people and what motivates them to give such effective service.

From 2010 to 2015, CIS dealt with more than 3.15 million people. In 2015,more than 35,000 people got help with problem debt from Mabs, including 17,302 new clients.

After an independent evaluation in 2014 and 2015 by the European Foundation for Quality Management, both Mabs and CIS received gold-star service excellence awards. Despite this, at the Oireachtas committee, the CIB representatives threw out vague, unsubstantiated and deeply unfair allegations about problems with the services provided.

If the proposed restructuring goes ahead, the voluntary sharing of expertise which makes Mabs and CIS so effective will be destroyed, because people volunteer for local organisations, not for remote bureaucracies. 

More than likely, it will not even be cost-effective. Both Mabs and CIS are willing to restructure, perhaps along county lines. But dismantling a bottom-up model that has been proven to be flexible, efficient and humane and replacing it with a top-down bureaucracy instead is unwarranted, unwise and arrogant.

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