Posted tagged ‘government’

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 irisheconomy.ie. 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.

Shuffle and reshuffle

March 24, 2010

Whenever the leader of a government re-allocates ministerial responsibilities we expect to see some overall direction, purpose or strategy. To get a better sense of that, I have been looking at official government websites, and oddly enough I have been unable to find any statement, press release or other documentation setting out the cabinet changes and perhaps adding a narrative. The only website that has any information at all, if you know how to look, is this page listing cabinet ministers and their responsibilities; though while you can see that the individual ministers have been placed alongside their new portfolios, the changes in government department names and areas of responsibility have not been made here. And that is all I have been able to find at the end of the day of the reshuffle. The Government Press Office, for example, is totally unaware that anything has happened; though to be fair to them, it’s not just the reshuffle, they are unaware that anything of any kind at all has happened since 23 February.

This makes it slightly more difficult than it should be to find out what exactly the Taoiseach’s intentions are regarding this new configuration of the government. However, the Taoiseach’s speech to the Dáil (parliament) setting out the changes is available on the Oireachtas website. We also have some assistance from the media: both the Irish Times and the radio station Newstalk have reproduced the Taoiseach’s speech in full. The key passage in the speech explaining the changes is this:

‘In approaching the reconfiguration of Departments, the starting point has to be clarity about the objectives to be achieved. 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 general terms this has involved a renaming of departments, and some shuffling of areas of responsibility between them. So for example, the new Department of Education and Skills will get much of the training agency, FÁS. But Education also loses something:

‘Within the framework of the Government’s commitment to fiscal stability and the restoration of a functioning banking system, economic recovery will require a renewed focus on supporting enterprise and driving innovation. The agenda set out in the recent report of the task force on innovation highlights some of what needs to be done, building on the very significant presence of overseas companies and the potential for a much faster rate of growth of our many high-potential indigenous companies. I propose to sharpen this focus within the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment, which will be renamed the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Innovation, by transferring to it funding for the programme for research in third level institutions. This will help to bring together a streamlined and focused programme of funding of research and development aligned with the objectives of enterprise policy.’

We therefore learn that the Programme for Research in Third Level Institutions (PRTLI) will move to the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Innovation. This raises at least two questions. First, as PRTLI is administered by the Higher Education Authority, and as the HEA is an agency of the Department of Education, how will this work in future? Secondly, PRTLI is now largely a research capital infrastructure programme, and its remit goes beyond science and technology and those areas that fall naturally under the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Innovation; therefore, will research support for the humanities and social sciences continue to be covered by PRTLI, and will it be effectively supported? I might add that there is no reason why it should not be, but the question is worth raising.

As a result of the reshuffle and the departmental reconfigurations, we now have a system where, even more than before, higher education is the responsibility of two separate government departments. Given the record of each department, it is possible that higher education in its teaching role will continue to loose out to schools when funding is distributed, while in its research role it will potentially enjoy greater resources and a higher level of commitment. This separation of functions may not work well in practice, particularly (which is not at all unlikely) if different monitoring and control mechanisms are used by each department. This could perhaps be helped if a junior minister with higher education responsibilities were appointed to straddle the departments.

It will be interesting to see how the two ministers explain their strategies for their departments, and in particular whether we will be able to see how the higher education piece can be kept strategically coherent across the departmental boundaries. This is something to watch over the coming days.

PS on the morning of March 24. Oddly enough the Government Press Office now has an item on the appointment of junior ministers, but still nothing on the cabinet reshuffle itself.

Whipping the politicians

March 13, 2010

In the light of our recent experiences, both in Ireland and elsewhere, it has become clear that we need people who are willing to shout at us when we all run berserk. We need people with independence of mind and a degree of courage to pull us back down to earth when we are all threatening to float off into the blue yonder. And of course at other times we need people who will egg us on when we have all lost a sense of purpose or self-confidence. In short, we need public figures who have the will and the ability and the courage to swim against the tide.

But that, at least as far as politicians are concerned, is something we don’t have; or at least so says Emily O’Reilly, the Irish ombudsman. Speaking to the Institute of Public Administration this week, she argued that politicians are controlled by their party whips and are unable to practise independent thinking.

Ireland has, more or less, followed the British model of political organisation, so that there is no significant separation of powers between the legislative and executive arms of government. The government, once it has a secure majority, controls the parliament, and controls it absolutely. And even the opposition closely controls its parliamentarians.

We may feel that on the whole this model has served us well, but it does occasionally occur to me that we should at least consider a US-style of government, in which the parliament is much more independent of government and therefore also more independent-minded. It is not that this model is perfect, but it does tend to throw up more politicians who are willing to pose awkward questions and challenge received wisdoms. As we see from the US political debates, the disadvantage is that legislation is sometimes more difficult to enact, as various shades of opinion have to be accommodated. But still, we should ask why we need parliamentarians who have no function other than to agree with a position put to them by their leaders. Perhaps there is a batter way.

Public service ethos

March 6, 2010

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.