Quick fixes that could make a difference?

In the various debates on the media, on twitter and on blogs like this there has been much call for specifics, for real practical suggestions on reforms that could be implemented without the need for full scale referendum debates over constitutional reform. To that end, those of us involved in making regular contributions to this blog are trying to raise the resources to arrange some events (probably starting in the autumn) to help stimulate further debate, and we will ensure to give as much notice as possible as these unfold.

In the meantime, perhaps we might start the process of stimulating ideas on areas for reform.  Let us imagine a world in which we have a benign leadership in this country (bear with me!), one that is prepared to put people before power, one that is prepared to give serious thought to how we might improve ‘Governance Ireland plc’ — what sort of wish list would we give them?

Let us suppose that our benign Taoiseach has asked for proposals that meet two objectives: first, for specific areas of reform that could be implemented pretty much with immediate effect (no need for long debate and referendum), and second, that would really make a difference in areas that matter.

Any thoughts on what these might be?  Don’t even try to rank order your priorities, let’s just pick one area and elaborate. (Perhaps later we could try and produce a priority list.)

In that spirit… one obvious initiative that has been much mentioned for the past number of years (five?) is to establish an Electoral Commission. The Programme for Government has promised this (twice); the opposition parties are in favour.  Perhaps it might come soon….

What’s the point?  Why do we need this?

1.) Well, there is a big point, and that is that they bring the electoral process up to the date, if given sufficient powers providing an important independent voice to the government of the day.

2.) Electoral Commissions are de rigeur.  In a recent survey of the world’s democracies, about two-thirds of them use Electoral Commissions to organize (and scrutinize) their elections.

3.) An Electoral Commission, with appropriate powers, can start to elbow in a role for itself in cleaning up features of how the electoral process works.  The British Electoral Commission is a good example, as shown by the role it’s played in helping to clean up party finance in the UK.

4.) An Electoral Commission can help to promote best practice in the process of democratic election overseas.  The Australian Electoral Commission is a wonderful exemplar here.

There is more to say about the advantages of Electoral Commissions (and so I may want to edit this in the future), but these are some initial pointers.

What’s next?

11 thoughts on “Quick fixes that could make a difference?

  1. Banging my own drum here (and why not since no one else is likely to bother) legislate to extend the franchise for the 6 Seanad seats for the 3rd level sector to all qualified citizens. And put the register for same under the control of the new electoral commission, and compile the new register with a one off mail out of registration forms, the electoral commission to provide the revenue with the PRSI/PPS numbers of those qualified (the colleges retained graduates PRSI/PPS numbers upon registration) and the revenue handle the mail shot (funded by the electoral commission). No data infringement issues as the revenue do not reveal to anyone the addresses of the qualified people apart from An Post. And if we’re not giving addresses to An Post then we might as well close the Post Office.

    It would immediately allow up to half a million people have voting rights for the Seanad, or roughly 20% or so of the adult population.

    Sure it’s only making a rotten borough less rotten but what is wrong with doing that much for a start rather than constantly waiting for the utopian solution.

  2. @site owners/promoters
    Would you please identify those who start a thread?
    This seems to be normal on Irish Economy.ie
    I cannot think of any reason why it should not be the same on this site.
    Who are the “we” that could try to produce a list

    Repeal the Freedom of Information (Amendment) Act 2003.
    Ministers constantly say that they act on the advice theyr receive. Let us see the Memorandum to Government that are supposed to accompany Cabinet decisions.
    We need to rebuild trust in our government system

    “The success of any public policy depends no less on its intrinsic merits than on the quality
    of the public service that executes it… The civil servant’s task is at any time a difficult one; it
    will not be lightened if he fails to bring the public closer into his confidence…In shaping
    the Civil Service to the satisfactory discharge of its present-day responsibilities, the public
    may reasonably expect to know how the official mind works and to understand the thought
    that animates it.” Patrick Lynch. Studies. 42(1953). p. 259-260

    “Sir – Corruption, abuse of position and inefficiency need secrecy, as we have learnt from
    tribunals and Dail enquiries.
    Freedom of information is one means of ensuring that we, citizens of a republic, can keep an eye on our governing classes, both elected and official.

    In a democracy, we need every possible means of limiting the scope for excess by those governing us. This used to be a basic tenet of liberal political parties. The PD support for limiting access to
    information makes a complete mockery of their membership of the Liberal group in the European Parliament. They clearly seek to exercise power in
    whimsical and arbitrary ways.

    Along with limitations on Dail questions, it is part of a pattern of closed-door government. With freedom of information, we can also see the quality of the official mind, eg the papers of the Tax Strategy Group, the fees for those managing the Bertie bowl.

    Without it, how can we be sure that low standards do not exist high places?”
    My letters published in Sunday Business Post on 16Mar2003 and Sunday Independent 23March2003

    Emily O’Reilly, Ombudsman and Information Commissioner stated in 2007
    “Another example, and again it is a relatively small matter in itself, arises from a recent experience of my own with the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Finance and the Public Service. In very brief terms, the Joint Committee was considering whether certain non-disclosure or secrecy provisions in legislation should be made subservient to the Freedom of Information (FOI) Act; that is that the secrecy rule would not apply if release under FOI were possible. I submitted a very detailed report to Committee and appeared before it. Ultimately there were 36 instances of secrecy clauses in which it was now the view that the FOI Act should be determining consideration, but where the relevant Minister was opposed to this approach. It was down to the Joint Committee to decide whose view should prevail although – of course – their views would not be binding on the Ministers.

    It was clear to me that the Committee members – across the party political divide – agreed with me on at least a majority of the recommendations. Yet, in the end, for the first time ever, the issue went to a vote and the Committee split along party lines, the Government majority supporting the relevant Minister in every single instance. Commentators suggested that a “whip” was imposed on certain Committee members after, as one member explained, they had made ‘an error’ of judgement in their initial assessment. Whatever the reality, it is clear that wider forces were at play and that some Committee members may not have felt themselves free to decide on the basis of their own assessments. Again, the lesson from this would seem to be that Oireachtas members are expected to rubber stamp decisions taken elsewhere. ”


    re. Electoral Commission
    Excellent though the Australian example may be, I am curious about how other smaller western-style (eg. New Zealand, Finland, Denmark)democracies deal with these matters.
    Would you please suggest sources for such data?

    • @Donal. I started this thread. I see what you mean. When you click on the thread my name as the author of the opening piece disappears; it only appears if you look at the link at the opening page of the blog. I need to work out how we can fix this for the future.

  3. Reform of the relationship between the Dáil and the executive has to rank high on the list of improvements. This is where things aren’t working. The fusion of the Dáil and the executive has at least two negative consequences – information needed for accurate short-term control of the executive is denied to most representatives, and the executive has a built-in bias against action.

    Some ideas for non-constitutional changes:

    Introduce new legislation to alter the relationships between the Dáil and Departments of State and their personnel. The concept of “corporation sole” which treats a whole department of state as if it consisted of its minister alone has the effect of hiding civil servants & their knowledge from the public. Possible policies lack expert public champions and ministers can ignore advice and ideas arising within their departments without the Dáil or public being aware of it.

    A slight counterbalance to the power of the executive would be to legislate that the chairpersons of all standing committees would not come from the parties forming the government. This is currently standard only for the Public Accounts Committee.

    The constitutional provision allowing two ministers to be chosen from the Senate could also lessen the fusion between the Dáil and executive. However, experience shows that this hardly ever happens – perhaps legislation could enforce this practice although I suspect that this might infringe the constitution.

  4. I think that, in terms of ‘quick fixes’ changes to procedures and standing orders in the Oireachtas as suggested by David Stanton TD on this site have the advantages of being (mostly) simple to introduce, and seemingly have broad-based political support.

    An idea that i have heard floated is that there would be a ‘Committee day’ once a fortnight – which would hopefully improve attendance and minimze distractions during Committee sittings.

  5. @Matthew Wall
    re. broad-based political support – see Ombudsman’s comment above.

    Would that happen so readily, if the Dáil was completely separate from the Executive/Rialtas/Government?

  6. The “quick fix” approach has much to commend it; I view the “big bang” constitutional reform programmes advanced by some politicians largely as a delaying and distracting tactic. I am also heartened by the focus on the separation of executive and legislative powers. However, I believe we need to recognise that the allegiance to tribe and faction seems sure to trump all reform initiatives as this allegiance has proved tried and tested as a means of securing and retaining the power of executive dominance and the ability to dispense patronage.

    It is this “winner-takes-all” contest that stymies even the most minimal reform. It is only by curtailing the value of this “prize” that any reforms, whether “quick fix” or more substantive, will gain any traction or support. The US Founding Fathers identified one enemy of security, prosperity and good governance and this was tyranny – the tyranny of foreign powers externally and the tyranny of faction internally. The overwhelming thrust of the Constitution, the Federalist Papers and the acts of the early Congresses was to minimise the emergence and impact of any tyranny.

    All EU parliamentary democracies suffer from this “tyranny of faction” – the UK and Ireland more than most. (The French, in their inimitable fashion, failed to develop the concepts of governance they successfully exported to the US.) This tyranny of faction is most complete at the top decision-making levels in the EU. The project of “ever closer union” based on competition, co-operation and solidarity has solid virtues. To a large extent it is driven by the Commission, whose members are appointed by national governments, and mediated by the heads of government in the Council.

    Inevitably there is conflict both among the leaders of factions in national governments in the Council and between them and the Commission, but, via a process of negotiation involving arm-twisting and backroom deals, the broad thrust of the “project” remains on track. Despite being directly elected and having gradually acquired more powers, the European Parliament is becoming increasingly peripheral and less able to exercise restraint on both the Council and the Commission.

    In effect, national voters and national parliaments have been progressively excluded from the decision-making process. Despite the possible impact of domestic political factors, the French and Dutch votes on the EU Constitution gave a clear indication of voter anger at being excluded from the cosy deal-making by the EU elite. And the pattern of national parliamentary engagement varies across member-states. The Danes, in particular, have mandated increased parliamentary scrutiny of the role of its government in the European Council. And other countries have beefed up parliamentary scrutiny.

    It is no coincidence that the PIIGS, where the tyranny of faction has been extreme and misgovernment most woeful, are suffering most from the global economic and financial crisis. And the EU elite is struggling to contain the impact as they have not brought their voters or national parliaments with them.

    This is the true “democratic deficit” in the EU and it mirrors the subjugation of parliaments to executive dominance, to varying extents, in all EU member-states.

    The discussion and initiatives being advanced on this board are useful and welcome, but I think, that since the problem is not unique to Ireland, some effort should be made to engage with political scientists, constitutional experts and proponents of democratic reform in other EU member states. It is dangerous to indulge in excessive, insular navel-gazing and we might be surprised by the extent to which enthusiasm for reform extends thoughout the EU.

  7. @ Donal – I agree with you, a government is always going to be loathe to make procedural changes that would lessen its stranglehold on the legislative process. However, if we had a ‘benign Taoiseach’ as suggested in the post – I suggest that such reforms would be possible without an inordinate amount of debate.

    On seperation of powers, I do think that greater seperation would certainly improve the ‘scrutiny of government’ role of the legislature. It might also reduce the extent to which Ministers disproportionately favour certain constituencies (their own) as has been documented in coniderable detail by Jane Suiter’s work.

  8. While I believe that there is a long list of reforms necessary perhaps most importantly the separation of the legislative and executive and even EU wide reform, I would like to highlight one reform which would be easy to implement and would really start the ball rolling. Yesterday David Cameron introduced the notion of open government to the UK. As Gavin Sheridan has pointed out in his blog this means that

    * Historic COINS spending data to be published online in June 2010.
    * All new central government ICT contracts to be published online from July 2010.
    * All new central government lender documents for contracts over £10,000 to be published on a single website from September 2010, with this information to be made available to the public free of charge.
    * New items of central government spending over £25,000 to be published online from November 2010.
    * All new central government contracts to be published in full from January 2011.

    This is serious yet easy to implement. Cameron simply wrote a letter to all civil service heads. The key points are that most Government decision and spending programmes are to be published online in an open format. And if requests are made for further information the presumption is to be towards transparency. The US too has moved in this direction with the Public Information Online Act which sets out distinctly that public means online.. A similar commitment from all political parties here would do much to open up government to scrutiny.

  9. @Matthew Wall
    I have not yet had a chance to read Jane’s work. My view on what influences Ministers was formed by reports of Opinion Polls in the I. Times over 20 years ago – which I used in my Need Government Fail? piece which you were kind enought to post

    “A recent Irish Times/MRBI poll (The Irish Times, February 5 1987) shed some light on this aspect of our political culture. This found that, of the key factors which voters said would “influence them a lot” in deciding how to vote
    • 75% opted for “Choosing a TD who will look after the local needs of the constituency”;
    • 53% said choosing a candidate who will perform effectively on national issues in the Dáil:
    • 45% said that party policies were important;
    • 27% identified choice of Taoiseach as a key factor.
    We use our system to select people who are good repre¬sentatives — in other words, we select people to carry out the delegated authorising function. Our system is not properly shaped to select individuals who will provide the know-how which is the basis for effective and efficient government.”


  10. It seems this thread is running out of steam, but, perhaps, it reflects the high probability that even the simplest of quick fixes will not be considered by the current Government. I’m always a bit reluctant to ape our big neighbour, but the similarities of the institutional and administrative arrangements encourage it on occasion. The on-line publication of government expenditure (highlighted by Jane Suitor) seems an excellent “quick fix”. (Of course, it makes political sense in the UK. The new government can highlight the previous profligacy of Labour and soften up the public for significant expenditure cuts.)

    Another development in the UK could be replicated in Ireland. One of the recommendations of the Wright Cttee is being implemented. Cttee chairpersons in the new parliament will be elected by secret ballot. This is a major diminuition of the power and patronage of the whips and an increase in the ability of parliament to exercise scrutiny.

    Unfortunately the chances of these relatively minor, but significant, changes being implemented here are negligible. It appeasr that the Dail won’t even be able to debate the Honohan and Regling reports.

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