Fine Gael’s reinventing government: Is government too big?

Eoin O’Malley 8 November 2010

Fine Gael’s new document on the reform of the public sector is released here. It’s a big document with a lot of stuff that seems more about actual policy that design of government. The main ideas is to make government smaller, and more responsive to the needs of citizens. There’s a lot in it, and as David Farrell suggested, some of it is the repackaging of existing policies. So the old populist policies such as the reduction in the number of TDs,  reduced pay for senior public servants are combined with some new, good ideas, such as the requirement that 1/3 of senior appointments are from outside the public service. Other parts are aspirational – Fine Gael will save €5bn in efficiency savings (who hasn’t promised that?). The number of civil servants will fall by a third. The document talks a bit about the creation of a Cabinet Office in the Department of the Taoiseach whose primary purpose is to deliver the programme for government.  In a nod to Sir Humphry, they’ll set up a new Office to ensure all this happens!

Fine Gael is addressing an important issue. The size of the civil and public service wage bill will ensure that this remains an issue for some time to come. Legally, firing civil servants is not that difficult (though much harder than it used to be) but in practice it’s difficult to see large scale redundancies without strikes. The Irish civil service is quite small, but arguably it’s bottom heavy. So there are lots of junior civil servants based in Donegal or Shannon, pushing bits of paper about the place, and are pretty well paid to do these low-skilled jobs. But a very small number of people based in policy making functions around the minister. Arguably one would only need about 150-200 senior civil servants in each department who would be highly skilled, and willing to move in, out and about the civil service as they were needed.  The problem has been that that flexibility, though nodded to in management reports the civil service released, never really happened. The ability to hire from outside the civil service was severely limited in practice. Fine Gael’s document acknowledges this is a problem, and quite how they’d achieve this with Labour as their coalition partner is questionable.

The document suggests that new Fiscal Council and that external recruitment will allow high level specialist in banking, taxation and economic forecasting. These are good ideas, but we’d want to be careful that we don’t design new government structures in an attempt to solve the last crisis, rather than prevent the next one.  It’s unlikely that the next crisis will be the same as the last one. So we shouldn’t over do the need for banking experts. What happens if the next major crisis is not economic?

The idea that the Department of the Taoiseach must be halved seems perverse. It is already quite small – it doubled in the 1980s under Garret FitzGerald and Charles Haughey. But at a bit over 200 people it’s not that large compared to PMs departments elsewhere. Fine Gael’s document complains that it has taken on too many additional bits. These were taken on partly because of a Taoiseach’s interests, but mainly because by bring them to the centre the department could drive forward programme for government changes that were getting stuck when divided between various departments. They should rethink this idea.

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13 thoughts on “Fine Gael’s reinventing government: Is government too big?

  1. Perhaps having two leading posts on the same topic is not very helpful. And both, like the document on which they comment, tackle mostly symptoms and not causes of the current malaise in the body politic and economic.

      • Thank you; and I apologise for being a tad cryptic. You outline FG’s proposed treatment of the symptoms and look for more; Eoin is critiquing some of FG’s proposed treatments. I would critique (my comment on previous post) FG’s (and Labour’s) effort for failing to address what I see as the core problems. Rather than detailed programmes and long wish-lists, the initial effort must be made to reform the process of policy decision-making and of political governance and accountability. The detail may be sorted out when the process is reformed. FG is putting so much effort into describing the goodies they’re loading on to the cart that they’ve lost sight of the horse.

      • The problem is that the executive system “works” too well – and mainly in the interests of those who can influence it. Policy is formulated and bills are drafted and whipped through the ‘legislature’ with minimal scrutiny entirely by the executive branch. FG’s (and Labour’s) proposals don’t come even close to recognising this problem – not to mind tackling it effectively.

      • It depends on what you mean by ‘working’. It ‘works’ in the sense that it can get its policies implemented, but arguably it doesn’t ‘work’ in the sense that those policies have been sub-optimal.

  2. Reducing TD’s looks good on paper but if you only reduce the number of players without changing the rules then the game will not change. Lower numbers of civil servants is a policy it is not reiventing government and as for experts in fiscal policy how did we get to this point, experts!

  3. @Eoin,

    I don’t think we’re in disagreement. Only in the fiscal/budgetary area (like all generals fighting the last war) does FG contemplate the kind of scrutiny and transparency that would help, but, even here, it pulls its punches.

    As I have commented elsewhere, the spoils of power are too great and they suppress the better natures of those who aspire to grasp it. The people have conceded too much of their ultimate authority and, once conceded, may prove impossible to regain.

    I know I have been dismissive of citizens assemblies, but, rather than focusing on electoral reform, I believe such an assembly might be able to devise an appropriate balance of power between the executive and the legislature. Politicians, on thier own, will never be able to achieve this.

  4. Some of the public sector management ideas have a great deal of merit. I am an advocate of long term fiscal planning and the Fiscal Council has great appeal. It works well in other countries but I agree that the current crisis appears to be pre-determining its strcuture and focus. The long term threats ahead will stem from demographic imbalances (aging), national IT infrastural capacity and security and the financial implications of climate change. Banking experts will have limited contributions to make on those fronts.

  5. I think that we may not be giving enough credit to what is, by Irish party standards, a substantial piece of work. There is much here to recommend it. Of course there are populist measures such as dismantling the HSE and FAS and enacting a salary cap across the public services (interestingly RTE seem to believe it may also apply to those on contract there?) But there are also more thoughtful initiatives such as the Whistleblowers Act, publishing work objectives of the top civil servants, and publishing more data online.

    With a nod to recent developments in the UK Fine Gael are also proposing two innovative new websites, The first http://www.opengov.ie will publish the detail of every purchase order above 20,000 online. Of course this could go far further I am not sure exactly what the party means by purchase order but every grant as well as purchase should be published online without delay. It is also very welcome that public bodies will be required to openly compete for budget resources by publishing their pre-budget spending requests during the Estimates Process, together with the promised activities and outputs for the citizen.

    The emphasis on evidence based decision making and increasing the role of the Comptroller and Auditor General is also welcome and again it could go further with a remit to measures outputs and outcomes as well as carry out value for money audits.

    It is also possible that the establishment of a second website – http://www.fixmystreet.ie – to allow residents to report problems with street lighting, drainage, graffiti, waste collection and road and path maintenance in their neighbourhoods, with a guarantee that a local official will respond within 2 working days will works towards ending clientalism to some extent.

    The proposal for a new Office of Public Spending and Modernisation, which will also be responsible for expenditure management, could also be a really useful innovation especially if it ensures increased rational evidence-based decision making across the public services. The document merely says that it should “becoming clearer about what outputs are expected in return for moneys allocated”. This of course should go much further with no monies allocated unless the outcomes are expected and measured. From a personal perspective, I was also delighted to see that Fine Gael is proposing to make the ad hoc distribution of funds under their control by ministers much more difficult. And it is very welcome that it is planning transparent systems for the allocation of sports and schools capital grants.

    Of course as Paul and Donal have pointed out there could have been more emphasis on reducing executive dominance. But as Paul notes that may need to be driven through alternative mechanism such as a citizen’s parliament. But for now I think these proposals have much to recommend them and go further than any other party has yet been prepared to go. Here’s hoping many of these ideas and even more specifics make it into the FG manifesto and from there into the Programme for Government.

    • Having done Kildarestreet.com, obviously I’m all over the notion of opengov.ie — as far as it goes in this document. Which sadly isn’t remotely far enough. If we’re copying the last year’s developments in the UK (and we should) then let’s get the whole lot.

      Where’s our version of free the postcodes? “Free the Geodirectory” would enable open government services to be provided by third parties like me. Right now we can’t even tell people which constituency they live in with a simple online address form. “Commercial concerns” will be trotted out (as they were by the OS in the UK) and are equally invalid since all but a microscopic handful of those ‘commercial sales’ are made to parts of the State, masquerading as non-State activity.

      And fixmystreet can’t be done without it.

      On which subject the notion of asking the LGCSB (which by the way was supposed to have been closed by now following the quango cull in the budget passed in *2008*) to build Fixmystreet is just silly. You’ll end up with 34 fixmystreets, one for each local authority, each slightly different, possibly with something as completely useless as checktheregister.ie sitting on top of them all. How about *not* trying to replicate MySociety’s UK effort through a national government agency, but instead enabling Open311 for each locality and letting any third party willing and able to create the public interfaces for web, mobile, whatever? It’d sure as hell be cheaper and easier to use, and I can guarantee I can get it up and running more quickly than they can.

      And I’m disappointed in the lack of thought that’s gone into the FoI proposals.

      Rolling back the overt charges still leaves charges remaining from the original Act, and charging has no place in FoI. But more importantly — and a little surprising given the excellent notion of the spending data release being proposed — almost all FoI work that’s currently done by departments ends up releasing data that should already be proactively published as a matter of course. Fewer than a dozen people are issuing requests that account for more than 75% of the Finance department’s FOI log at the moment. Or in other words, you could remove 75% of that workload by simply publishing the data (mostly regarding spending, minutes, and visitor/lobbying logs) they’re asking for in the first place.

      Likewise I’d like to see the recent clampdown on TD expense and salary information reversed in favour of proactive publishing of categorised monthly expense summaries, including dumped scans of the original receipts.

      FoI shouldn’t be the default means of prising information from the State. It should be the last resort.

      So overall while the stuff they’ve come out with is a clear positive step, I’m looking for some inkling of a leap of imagination from FG here. Plus, we can save the State a bunch of money in the process and create new types of taxable economic activity.

      (We’d be more than happy to discuss a more comprehensive and detailed list of things with anybody from any party, by the way. Any FG, Labour, FF or other party willing to take a meeting reading this? Please contact us.)

  6. @Jane Suitor,

    I realise I am coming across as being hyper-critical of FG, but the nature of commenting on a blog – and a desire to spare readers! – means I’m not conveying the full flavour of my thinking. I very much welcome what FG is doing – as this must be conducted in the political sphere – but I believe the focus should be on the key reforms required to ensure the delivery of good governance and the principles, objectives and criteria that underpin this. This, I believe, is what people want – or, at least, avoidance of the misgovernance that has created this debacle.

    But this is being lost in the context of the mortal combat between FG (as a right-of-centre/centre faction) and Labour (as a left-of-centre/centre faction) to decide which will be top dog in the next government. As a result FG is developing a detailed and prescriptive programme of government that will rely on a continued exercise of extreme executive dominance to secure more traction with voters. (Labour has some way to go as it needs more than the current opinion poll popularity of its leader.)

    Given the current fiscal and economic challenges, it is not in the public or national interest that this battle is being joined in advance of forming a government – and likely to continue within government. This battle should be joined between blocs competing to form a government (as it is generally in other EU parliamentary democracies); not between factions expecting to combine in government. The battle lines revolve around how much and what the state should do and how it should do it, how much should be left to markets, individuals and civil society and how the interactions should be governed. All politics revolves around these questions in mature and developed democracies.

    It is ironic and unfortunate that this debate is between factions seeking to form a government with some, but not all, voters deciding which faction will be top-dog, rather all voters deciding which side of this debate (and associated faction) will win.

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