Public service ethos

What do the following Irish organisations all have in common: the Border Regional Authority, An Bord Pleanála (Planning Board), the Central Fisheries Board, the Competition Authority, the Equality Authority, the Food Safety Authority if Ireland, the Health and Safety Authority, the Higher Education Authority, the National Employment Rights Authority (goodness, I had never heard of this, must check it out)? Well, yes – they are all public service organisations. What else?

I’ll give a clue, the following don’t share this characteristic with them: the National Treasure Management Agency, the Irish Blood Transfusion Service, the Housing Finance Agency, the Courts Service. And the category to which these latter bodies belong has far fewer members than the one about which I am asking.

So what am I on about? Our tendency to create public sector bodies with regulatory or supervisory powers that have a mission of bureaucratic or authoritarian control seemingly built into their names. We still have an ethos in Ireland of seeing public agencies as bodies which instruct and control, and this is often reflected in the way they deal with their clients or with the general public. We have set them up to be appear to be the masters, with their clients as the servants. This however is an upside-down view of public service, which should see state-owned agencies treating the public as people to be supported and helped rather than controlled.

Of course a name is only a name, and many of these bodies in fact adopt a hugely supportive and constructive relationship with their clients; this is certainly the case with our very own Higher Education Authority. Nevertheless, the name does signify something, and that something is an ambivalence we still have about government and its agencies. If the government can set up ‘authorities’ and ‘boards’ to rule over us, then we have a sort of implied right to practise passive resistance, and in consequence an unhealthy relationship builds up between the public and the public service.

I’m sure there are many more important things to reform in the public sector, but I would nevertheless suggest a gradual re-naming of all these bodies, replacing ‘board’ and ‘authority’ with terms like ‘agency’ and ‘service’. Some have already gone that way. Others should follow.

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2 Comments on “Public service ethos”

  1. belfield Says:

    A name can represent – often with telling precision – the world view of those who name something. I can’t see Board and Authority leaving the lexicon anytime soon.

  2. coc Says:

    Genius! You should submit this on yourcountryyourcall.

    The possibilities for reform are only remarkable for their multitudinousness. Electricity Supply Service. An Agency Gáis. Not forgetting the most pernicious organisation to ever blight the Gaels of our beloved capital city, the Dublin County Agency. Up the Dubs!


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