Posted tagged ‘reshuffle’

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.

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.