Posted tagged ‘Brian Cowen’

Political communication

September 6, 2012

Long term – that should probably be ‘long-suffering’ – readers of this blog may recall that, back in 2009 when I was still working in Ireland, I bemoaned the apparent inability of the then Irish government to make a case to the people for the steps it was taking to repair the economic damage that had afflicted the country. The then Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Brian Cowen in particular was politically tongue-tied, and the lack of any coherent narrative eventually persuaded the people, for better or for worse, that the government did not know what it was doing and had to be removed; and they voted accordingly in early 2011.

Political communication matters, because politics is in part about the discussion and analysis of ideas. It is also about people and personalities, but these become most effective when what they are communicating engages the electorate.

One of the reasons, I would argue, why current economic problems have been so intractable across the developed world is because those who have the levers of power seem to be so bad at explaining what they are doing with them, and why. Even Barack Obama, who was elected in 2008 by the American people on a wave of enthusiasm for his message, appeared to lose the ability to engage the people once in power and, no doubt, worn down by the sheer awfulness of the problems that needed to be solved.

But such communication can be done. And if President Obama has been less than perfect at being the national (and global) narrator, his predecessor but one, Bill Clinton, las night showed in his Democratic Convention speech (which you can watch here) that he is the master politician. He may have taken Obama a step closer to re-election; and perhaps to finding his own voice.

The importance of good (political) communication

January 25, 2011

Political careers have been made (and unmade) through good (or bad) communication. People who would struggle to name any of John F. Kennedy’s political achievements will nevertheless quote him saying ‘Ask what you can do for your country’, or ‘Ich bin ein Berliner.’ Barack Obama’s road to the US presidency undoubtedly began with his extraordinary speech to the Democratic Party convention in 2004. By the same token, Gordon Brown in part failed as British Prime Minister because, coming after Tony Blair, he simply could not match his predecessor’s ability to persuade with his oratory. And now in Ireland, Brian Cowen’s career ended after it became clear he could not or would not address the people to tell them what he was doing, and why, and how it would ultimately benefit them. It is too early to judge whether his policies really were failures (though right now that’s the consensus judgement), but we can certainly say that he failed dismally as a communicator.

Politics is only partly about finding the right policies for the time; it is in equal measure about persuading colleagues, supporters and the people that the policies are right. It is about setting a vision before the public and asking them to share it, and by that device to create a bond of common purpose. People generally will accept hardships and sacrifices if they know what the ultimate prize will be, and this requires skilled communication. If this is not a skill demonstrated by the outgoing Taoiseach, I would have to say that, as yet, I am not persuaded that the other party leaders have it in abundance either. The election campaign may tell us more.

At this time we need what has been called ‘rhetorical leadership’, and it has been identified as perhaps the key ingredient in securing popular support during times of crisis [see for example Ryan Lee Teten, ‘We the People”: The “Modern” Rhetorical Popular Address of the Presidents during the Founding Period’, Political Research Quarterly 2007 60: 669-682]. During this terrible period of upheaval and failure, people need to be inspired and enthused. Let us hope at least some of our leaders are equal to the task.

Brian Cowen, Fianna Fail and Ireland

January 22, 2011

Brian Cowen’s decision to step down as Leader of Fianna Fail, still for now Ireland’s largest party, had become inevitable. I predicted a week or so ago that his decision then to cling to the post was a mistake – for him as much as the party and the country – and it has ended much as I had expected.

But here we are now, and before he goes riding off into the sunset (which he won’t do for a few weeks, as he stays on as Taoiseach until the election), I’m going to say something nice about him to balance all the other stuff right now. It’s not that I think he was the right person to lead the country, as it was clear to me for some considerable time that he lacked the desire and the capacity to create that kind of partnership with the people that every political leader must fashion if they are to survive – something that Bertie Ahern was very good at (whatever about any other failings) – in the same way that Tony Blair was very good at it in Britain, while Gordon Brown couldn’t do it.

But Cowen did understand one thing that, in the long run, is vital to the future of universities: that we are now in an era in which knowledge trumps everything. The other day I heard some economist, I think, on the radio suggesting that we must now return to less ambitious industrial development in which we’ll start chasing call centres again. This is complete nonsense, because we cannot return to that. Not only are we still a very large distance away from being competitive in such contexts (and could only become so by further massive pay cuts), but such investments now routinely go to Asia, and I expect soon to Africa; they are not coming back to us. Regardless of what anyone might think, knowledge-intensive investments and indigenous start-ups are where our only really promising future now lies.

In supporting, as Finance Minister, the Strategy for Science, Technology and Innovation, which in turn had been formulated under the leadership of Michéal Martin (possibly his successor-to-be as Leader of Fianna Fail) with the support also of Mary Hanafin (also a possible contender), Cowen showed some ability to understand this vision, which he continued to support as Taoiseach. Admittedly this was somewhat undermined by the cuts in higher education that have also followed, but I would still argue that he leaves an important legacy that may help us into the future. I say that without wanting to deny that other parts of his legacy will seem less attractive.

I have met Brian Cowen on a fairly large number of occasions and have had occasional opportunities to exchange thoughts with him. His career is not going to end in a happy way, and I am afraid he has himself to blame for much of that. But nevertheless, I appreciate an important part of what he did in office, and on a personal level I wish him well.

Mysteries of the political endgame

January 17, 2011

In an often misquoted passage in his biography of Joseph Chamberlain, the late British politician Enoch Powell wrote that ‘all political lives, unless they are cut off in midstream at a happy juncture, end in failure, because that is the nature of politics and of human affairs.’ Politicians in fact often make every imaginable effort to prove him right, and in Ireland at this time Taoiseach Brian Cowen is working hard in this endeavour.

Not every reader will share this opinion, but I am of the view that Brian Cowen will leave a legacy of some achievements. Of all the politicians I have met (and I have met many, from different countries), he was one who perhaps most easily understood the value of universities in a modern country and society, and having understood this he genuinely tried to do something about it. Working with Micheal Martin (now set to vote against him in this week’s confidence vote) he secured the adoption of the Strategy for Science, Technology and Innovation, which changed the funding framework for  research.

But right now, Brian Cowen is in that curious mood that seems to grip some politicians when crisis threatens to overwhelm their tenure – the mood that persuades them that their continuing in office is a matter of national interest, when virtually all the signs shout otherwise. Furthermore that mood, once it has asserted itself, leads the victim to certain doom, not least because the wider population quickly learns to distrust someone who claims emphatically that their political survival is pivotal in securing the national interest.

I have met Brian Cowen (though not as often as other Irish politicians), and I have always found him to be decent, courteous, interested and intelligent. When he was a minister – and regardless of how one might evaluate his achievements in office – he was clearly in command of his environment. Not so as Taoiseach. Almost from the word go it became clear that he could not adopt the leadership style that this office demands, and in particular that he simply could not communicate to the nation the kind of message that would inform, encourage and inspire. A  man with a very close connection with his party, he did not manage to show that he could transcend its organisational boundaries.

Brian Cowen’s political career is coming to its end. That much, I believe, he cannot change. But he had choices about how that might play out, and he has chosen the path that will in the end break him much more comprehensively than any other option he might have gone for. I cannot help feeling that it is sad, and not just for Brian Cowen.

Cowen vs. Gilmore in the Dáil

November 5, 2010

Here is a report from the Irish Times on Taoiseach Brian Cowen’s exchange with Labour leader Eamon Gilmore in the Dáil (lower House of Parliament) earlier this week:

‘THE TAOISEACH criticised the rainbow coalition’s decision to abolish third-level fees during sharp exchanges with the Labour leader. Brian Cowen said the decision was made to eliminate all fees, regardless of income, when Labour was in government.

“That was not the most socially progressive thing that ever happened, since it allowed those who were well capable of paying fees to pay nothing, thereby limiting the number of people from lower socioeconomic backgrounds accessing education,” he added.’

While I fully acknowledge that there are differences of opinions amongst readers here about tuition fees – and while I would for much of my adult life also have favoured a non-fee based system – I am pleased that the Taoiseach has referred to the socio-economic aspects of this issue. Tuition fees are not just about higher education funding, and it is useful to have the social element included in the discussions.

Communicating gargled messages

September 17, 2010

I understand that the noise and bluster around Taoiseach Brian Cowen’s interview on RTE’s Morning Ireland earlier in the week is now being called ‘Garglegate’, another of those annoying ‘gate’ suffixes, but this time referring to the Taoiseach’s statement that the problem with the interview was that he was hoarse. It has taken me a bit of time, but I have now listened to the whole interview online; and I know I’m swimming wholly against the tide here, but I cannot see what the fuss is about. Yes, he mis-spoke twice, once referring to the Good Friday Agreement when he meant the Croke Park Agreement, and once saying legislation was ‘in place’ when he meant it was ‘in preparation’. In each case he corrected himself immediately. And I’d have to say, if I were to be condemned every time I suffered a slip of the tongue I’d now be on my way to hell.

And the rest of the interview? Well, it was boring as could be, and delivered in a monotonous tone; but with no disrespect to the Taoiseach, that’s how he does interviews, and I don’t think this one was very different from many others he has done. I can’t even say that he sounded particularly hoarse, and if he did it absolutely didn’t matter.

So why did Brian Cowen apologise? Or rather, what exactly was he apologising for? In fact, in listening to his apology I wasn’t wholly sure that he knew what he was apologising for. A storm had broken out around the interview, and he was probably advised he could calm it all down by apologising for something or other. However, it didn’t make one bit of sense to me.

The problem is, I think, that our senior politicians have totally lost the plot as regards political communication. This is not just Brian Cowen’s problem, it is also Enda Kenny’s, and for my money even Eamon Gilmore doesn’t ring the bells. We have a political class that simply doesn’t know how to inspire trust and confidence through well-judged communication. I believe that this is also why we are still being questioned in the global media about our economic performance – not because the economic policies are necessarily deficient, but because we are so bad in our national advocacy in support of them. Furthermore, two years into our financial crisis the Taoiseach has, despite calls from absolutely every commentator, not addressed the nation. The only politicians whose communication skills I rate right now are Brian Lenihan and Pat Rabbitte.

This country has several very skilled communications experts. Politicians need to take lessons.

Education, skills and training

April 20, 2010

When the Taoiseach (Irish Prime Minister) reshuffled his cabinet recently, he re-named two government departments; one of these was the (former) Department of Education and Science (which has become the Department of Education and Skills). The ‘and Science’ part of the organisation migrated, at least by implication, to what was the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment and is now Enterprise, Trade and Innovation.

Do these name changes matter? Here is how they were explained by the Taoiseach in his speech to Dail Éireann (parliament) announcing the reshuffle on March 23:

‘The changes I am making are intended to ensure that political leadership and administrative capacity are aligned with the core objectives of economic recovery, job creation and support for those who have lost their jobs. In particular, I am strengthening our approach to supporting innovation and overcoming barriers to structural change; responding better to the needs of unemployed people; supporting productivity and growth through skills development; maintaining progress in a coherent and strategic way towards important social policy goals, and accelerating the pace of modernisation of the public service.’

In the reshuffle itself, the two Ministers who ran the now re-named departments swapped jobs. And here is how the new Minister for Education and Skills, Tánaiste Mary Coughlan, explained the significance of the change as it affects her department to the annual conference of the Teachers Union of Ireland (TUI):

‘There has been a somewhat artificial divide between education and training in Ireland for many years and I know that the TUI has been vocal for some time now that a more joined up approach was needed. I am glad we have delivered that change. Your conference and the work many of your members are engaged in relates directly to my new task of bringing cohesion to this move of policy responsibility and service delivery. Together, we need to ensure the up-skilling and re-skilling of people across the country, a task that is central to how the State assists and supports those who have, unfortunately, lost their jobs during this recession.’

Taken together, it seems the name changes were designed to reflect the government’s priority concern with economic recovery and job creation. And in the case of the Department of Education specifically, the change is, as the Tánaiste explained, designed to blur the lines between ‘education’ and ‘training’.

But what does all this mean? Does it mean that all education is vocational? Is it all exclusively to do with preparing people for jobs? What, if any, are the pedagogical implications in all this?

It has been my contention for a while that education in Ireland has lost its way. There are a few reasons for this, but one of them is that nobody quite seems to know these days what education is actually for. This becomes more complex still when the agenda for what has become known as ‘lifelong learning’ is added to the mix – some of it has genuine pedagogical objectives, while some of it again seems to be primarily about removing people from the dole queue.

There is, I believe, quite a strong argument for placing both education and training in the same government department; but that argument is not that they are both the same. There should of course be a coherent view of learning that takes in both what goes on in schools, and what people do to develop themselves later in life. Furthermore, the education system should take account of national needs, so that students learn those things that are of benefit to society and to themselves. But that is not the whole story, and if we over-emphasise the vocational angle we will find young people balking at learning, say, Shakespeare or Yeats, or even Pythagoras, because they  will feel that these will not be of direct functional relevance to them in their lives as accountants or software programmers.

Education has to deliver some practical benefits to the country, but that is not the whole story. It is to be hoped that the new government structures will not suggest to anyone that all education is principally vocational training. It is time that, as a country, we rediscover the merits of pedagogy.

Reshuffle blogwatch

March 24, 2010

The news media have come down on the reshuffle like a ton of bricks – I have been unable to find any comment in the main newspapers that is even neutral, never mind positive. So how about the blogs?

There are some interesting comments on Both of the comments I am about to cite indicate a view that the reshuffle is really all about internal Fianna Fáil issues, and that it will either lead to internal party dissent or attempt to sidline it. Here is the first, from TCD’s Brian Lucey:

‘For what its worth, I met a FF diehard on the train home this evening, a man who has given time and effort beyond the norm to his party, ran for election and taken the bullet. This is a younger man, extremely well educated, not blindly FF but a genuine believer that they can do the job. He was apoplectic with rage at the lack of thought and effort made. He characterised it as “a death spiral, totally lacking in any competence” .’

And here’s another comment from the same blog, suggesting that it’s all about power play within the cabinet:

‘There is more substance to ths reshuffle than meets the eye. If you go back to the famous day when the unions were shown the door 7 cabinet ministers rebelled against the Taoiseach and sided with Lenihan. these were believed to be Hanifin, Ahern, Cullen, O’Dea, Harney and the two Greens.
Of these 7, Cullen and O’Dea are gone to be replaced by unknown quantities. Hanifin has been shafted. the balance of power in the Cabinet has shifted to the pro Cowen axis. Moroever, ilness will diminish Lenihan’s powers in the months ahead.’

Another theme that runs through the blog (and for that matter, the media) commentary is that the changes display caution and risk-averseness, just when the Taoiseach is rightly pointing out that we need to be courageous, creative and innovative in how we handle our economic problems. This is a point made in several of the blogs hosted by the Irish Times, including this one by Laura Slattery.

A slightly less caustic, if still sceptical, view is expressed by fellow presidential blogger Ciaran O Cathain of Athlone Institute of Technology. He fears that the government approach to education may become disjointed as a result of the reshuffle, but he is keeping an open mind. His suggestion that the higher education issues might be addressed with the appointment of a junior HE minister (which I had also raised) won’t be followed, as we now know.

The twittering community has also been active with micro-comments about the reshuffle – you can see them by going here. It wouldn’t be wholly appropriate for me to quote any of them – many are unprintable – but the overall tone is cynical and negative. I couldn’t find any supportive tweets at all.

What does any of this matter? The purpose of reshuffling a government is to generate a sense of energy, purpose and vision. All governments, even when they are very good, have the capacity to appear jaded to the public when its members have simply been around too long, and the trick is to generate some excitement and a sense of renewal. A ‘tidying-up’ reshuffle is almost always a waste of time. In the case of Ireland right now, the publication a few days ago of the report by the Innovation Taskforce created a backdrop that should have prompted an innovative and innovation-driven reshuffle, and the verdict will be that this opportunity has been missed.

Nevertheless, cynicism and a pessimistic outlook get us nowhere. We have the cabinet we now have, and we have things to be getting on with. It would certainly be my hope that the higher education sector will now quickly establish an effective partnership with the Tánaiste to advance the national agenda for high value renewal, and that we work with Minister Batt O’Keeffe in his new role to ensure that Ireland’s ambition to be a research and development hub is met. The Taoiseach could have sent stronger signals in his decisions; but we have an opportunity to move ahead anyway, and we should not lose momentum.

Understanding the reshuffle

March 23, 2010

Maybe readers were expecting this particular change, but I wasn’t. Anyway, we have now learned that the Department of Education and Science is to become the Department of Education and Skills, and that the Minister is to be Tánaiste Mary Coughlan. She therefore replaces Batt O’Keeffe, who will swap places with her in the (also re-named) Department of Enterprise, Trade and Innovation. There are other changes, too – but I think I need to get a fix on the education changes before worrying too much about anything else.

What are we to make of this? It has of course been a subject of intense speculation over past weeks whether Mary Coughlan would be moved from her post, and most of the reasons given would not have been complimentary to her; though in fairness she has also had her supporters, who have argued that perhaps the chorus of criticism of her performance might have sexist undertones. But nevertheless, what does it mean? What significance is there in this in terms of the government’s sense of priority for education? I’ll give it all the benefit of the doubt and assume that, particularly as she remains Tánaiste (Deputy Prime Minister), Mary Coughlan’s appointment indicates that Education is seen as a key Department representing urgent national needs. Also, the part of education that she would have got to know best in her last post would be higher education, and so we may perhaps hope that she will show a strong sense of commitment to this brief; but we will need to wait and see what she says early on.

Progress in the higher education agenda can only come from close and constructive collaboration between the Minister, the HEA and the universities and colleges. We will need to play our part to ensure that this is how it plays out in practice. Mary Coughlan has my best wishes, and I hope that she will find her appointment to be rewarding and successful.

More comments on the changes will follow later.

Small is ugly?

February 19, 2010

The announcement of the strategic partnership between NUI Galways and the University of Limerick was made in the presence of the Taoiseach, Brian Cowen TD, and senior government ministers. The following in the report by the Irish Times caught my eye:

‘He [the Taoiseach] said universities working alone were limited by their relatively small size in comparison with competitor institutions. “However, by working together they can begin to have a much bigger impact.”‘

I certainly don’t wish to detract in any way from the significance of this new partnership, but I do wish that politicians would stop talking about size as an important element in the success of a university. There is absolutely no evidence to suggest that size on its own is an advantage. Harvard University, which is recognised in the league tables as the number 1 university in the world, has roughly 11,000 students, which makes it smaller than either Limerick or NUI Galway. Princeton University (also in the global top 10) has 7,500 students. And California Institute of Technology (usually know as Caltech, also in the global top 10) has 2,100 students.

On the other end of the spectrum, not one of the 100 biggest universities in the world (by any form of measurement) features in the global top 500.

The significance of this is that we must identify correctly what allows a university to score highly in global comparisons, and it isn’t size. In fact, what allows universities to lead in the rankings is very simple: resources and autonomy. The more money that universities can invest in faculty, in facilities and services, in equipment and in materials, the more likely it is that they will be key global players. And the more they can develop key strategies independently of bureaucratic control, the more effective is their use of those investments. Of course the extent to which they can strategically use their resources to maximum effect, for example by finding partners who can complement their strengths, will also make a difference, and given the extraordinary lack of resources for Irish universities even in the good times we have done very well indeed.

There are strong arguments for supporting the Galway-Limerick alliance, and I believe that their launch statement has some very exciting and entirely workable objectives. Both institutions are also committed to developing and securing collaboration with other institutions also. They have also made a strong case for the benefits they will be able to achieve from linking some of their key teams. But what will not determine their success is the combined numerical strength of their institutions.

Unless politicians understand what allows universities to be successful, they will not be able to support us in securing that aim. And if they do not understand the significance of viable resourcing in an autonomous setting, they do not understand higher education. There is still much ground to cover.