The parties need to “think local” if reform is to work

Guest post by Johnny Fallon (loaded by David Farrell, February 8 2011)

With the reform debate now all thrashed out by the parties I don’t think any of them has hit the spot for me. But rather than sit on the fence I will, as usual, pop my head up for some abuse. If I was asked to reform politics this is where I would have started.

• One of the main problems within the Irish system is that we do not have a properly functioning local government system.
• There is a lack of trust on the part of national government when it comes to delegating responsibility to councils
• There is a lack of responsibility among local councils and a lack of accountability.
• The number of councils for such a small population is far too expensive.
• There is a lack of co-ordinated planning and economies of scale
• Regional Authorities have no function in the public mind
• TD’s are seen as more powerful than a Council and therefore approached.
Addressing this problem is not easy however it can be done in a number of steps.
Step 1 – Councillors elected to Regional Authorities
I propose that local government be organised on a regional basis instead of a County basis. This will mean that each county will have much fewer councillors. However the representatives will continue to meet on a committee basis. So for example if all of County Longford had only 8 Councillors, they would meet as a Longford Committee, however they would be elected members of the Regional assembly. This would encourage councillors to work across party lines at county level to ensure that their area was represented effectively. The Councillors would still have a county profile but would be part of something much bigger.
Regional Assemblies and Authorities could then implement far more effective and standard plans across a region. The elected representatives would in turn meet and elect a Chairperson. Similar to National level politics this Chairperson would need to select a cabinet from the other members ensuring that there is political accountability in each region for policies and decisions are not left in the hands of unelected officials only.
As each region is large to rise to such prominence would demand a strong calibre of candidate and this alone would help to improve the level of local representatives.
The system also lays out a clear career path for councillors that is far more attractive for ambitious and able councillors apart from needing to run for TD.
The Regional Assembly will also automatically include Members of the European Parliament. The focus will be to tie in the work and understanding of the Assembly and the directly elected representatives with that of Europe to address the so called democratic defecit that exists.
Most importantly, TDs now have separate career paths. A TD while obviously more important that a local councillor, has a different role. The TD is no longer a more important figure than the council itself. This removes the image in the public eye of the TD being able to influence council. Rather, it ensures that TD’s and the public alsike will be more inclined to refer local issues to a councillor who has the contacts and network at Regional Assembly level to deal with the issue.
Step 2 – Giving regions a national forum
The cabinet, or executive of each of the regional assemblies should form the majority of members of a new Senate. The rest of the Senate should be made up of members elected from experts in specific disciplines, Economics, Education, Agriculture, Private Enterprise etc.
This increases the importance of local elections and ensures that for parties there is a real need to get high quality candidates who can win and progress as otherwise the Senate could prove difficult to navigate for a government and this is the kind of teeth that a new Senate needs. Not unlike what occurs in the United States. One final problem then exists. The Dail selects the Taoiseach and Cabinet, if the Minister for local government is part of this then it may still cause problems to be referred to a TD in the hope that they can influence the Minister with Authority. It could also create conflict between a Minister and the Authorities themselves. Therefore the executives must elect one Member who will in turn have a seat at Cabinet as Minister for Local Government. This is a new departure in politics but could give an interesting injection of debate and views right to the heart of government. It also lays out a specific, real and powerful career path for local government that is separate to that of TDs.
It should be noted however, that the member elected does not have a vote in the Dail and can only be Minister for Local Government and cannot be moved from this post. It may also encourage more consensus should a member be linked to an opposition party yet sit at cabinet.
Reforming the role of TDs
It is widely accepted that despite the reality of the job, TD’s should be focussed on national policy. The introduction of a strong and effective local government structure would assist greatly in removing much of the constituency work from TD’s but that is not enough in itself. Many of TD’s problems stem from the competitive nature of their constituencies.
Some harsh realities need to be faced by TD’s in this regard. It is for them a race to the bottom. In years gone by those candidates with money opened constituency offices, these were then extend to full time offices. The state assists with the cost of these however most TDs can clearly indicate that current funding does not cover the full costs. Equally there is no level that will ever be enough, in time TDs will pen two offices then perhaps three of four and the more money a candidate has the more offices they can run. Similar to election spending the only way to have a level playing field is not to fund such activities but to limit them by law.
We need to understand the basic nature of requests that occur in the constituency these can be broken down as follows
• Local authority requests, pot-holes, planning permission etc
• Requests for items the person is already entitled to but don’t know how to get
• Requests for genuine and acceptable intercessions, medical cards or grants in particular circumstances
• Requests for assistance, providing references, asking parliamentary questions, departmental information, advancing proposals etc
• Requests for items people are not entitled to, for unjustified interventions etc
Dealing with this problem is not easy or popular. However without changing our voting system a simple solution does exist, should politicians be willing to accept it.The current constituency office system should be scrapped and TDs prohibited from having a specific constituency office. A full office and staff will be provided in Leinster House.
However, meeting the public and clinics are a critical and welcome part of Irish politics. The system should be replaced by a complete reform of Citizens Advice Bureaus. These Bureaus should be requested to have offices whereby there is sufficient room to facilitate TD’s holding clinics two days per week. This ensures that all TDs operate from the same level of facility. The provision of the office is no longer a cost to the TD. The TD is entitled to use phones and computers etc of the Bureau and they are in a position to observe the costs. This provides TD’s with an effective office space to meet the public at no cost to themselves and therefore no need for constituency office funding. It ensures same level of service between TDs and removes competition and also makes for easier transfers when a new TD is elected. It brings specific benefits when dealing with queries these are:
• Local authority requests can now be filtered and referred to the relevant councillor by the bureau staff
• The Bureau already has all forms and details of entitlements to hand, there is no need for TDs to request these. They can simply obtain there and then in the office and assist the constituent or have a member of the bureau staff deal with it.
• TD’s can discuss the case of a genuine intercession with the bureau staff and these intercessions can be handled directly by them with relevant officials after this, clearly passing on the recommendation of the TD
• Where a TD receives a proposal or a request for departmental information or a PQ, this can be emailed or passed on to their Leinster house office to handle
• Where a TD receives an attempt at an unjustified intercession they can ask for the staff of the office to advise them and clearly indicate to the individual that such an intervention is simply impossible.
This system would be far more transparent and efficient and end a current anomaly of a resource duplication. It levels the playing field for all TDs and would act as a barrier to those who are well funded or wealthy simply upping the game at each stage to have more presence and gain more votes. In time it may also assist the public to go directly to the bureau with a simple request on the 3 days per week when a TD is not having a clinic. This could greatly reduce the amount of work that currently falls to TDs and their offices.

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10 thoughts on “The parties need to “think local” if reform is to work

  1. The implication that the ineffectiveness of our parliamentary institutions arises from TDs and ministers having to attend to potholes is without foundation.It is at best a prejudice of the Irish elite. At worst it is a cover-up for the fact that governments and the wider Irish elite are dominated by the rich. The members of the board of the central bank, the Economic and Social research Institute and the National Economic and Social Council are equally culpable for the current debacle. They are not subject to local pressures and were never “approached” by constituents. The problem is that government and national expert institutions are in the service of the rich. If there was a list system during the boom, Seanie Fitzpatrick would have been minister for finance!!! The only solution is to make parliament more answerable to the people. To effect this, the Dail term should be reduced to 3 years. There should be a a popular initiative which would allow a proportion of the electorate to call a referendum on bills such as the bank guarantee scheme. These measures would limit the damage that governments and the Irish elite could cause to the population on behalf of the rich. Current proposals for a list system and the bringing in of “experts” come under the heading:”never waste a good crisis to undermine democracy and give the wealthy who caused the problem even more power”

  2. This approach to local government leaves something to be desired – how is it all going to be funded?

    IMO, any local government reform must be anchored in funds that local government raises itself – as used to be the case before rates on domestic residences were abolished in 1978 and on agricultural land in 1984.

    Central government has further weakened the funding base for local government by piecemeal exemption from rates to other properties and charges being imposed, from the centre.

    The great advantage of local government is that it shortens the feed-back loop between citizens and government. Over years, we in Ireland have made these feed-back loops longer, with the resultant distortions in our way of governing ourselves – at both local and national levels.

    As we start the process of re-engineering our way of governing ourselves, we need to look at how fiscal decentralisation would assist shortening the feedback loops between citizens (who own the power of the state) and those we delegate it to, in local and national elections.

    • Yes re local fundraising ability …

      Works wonders for democratic participation rates in the cantons of Switzerland – in terms of local elections and in local referenda …. google the work of Bruno Frey – a behavioural economist …

  3. Thanks for the comments Donal. Funding of local authorities is a major issue particularly the raising of revenue and that is a seperate issue that must be looked at. However, County Councils are operating today in a far more expensive system that brings no economies of scale and huge duplications. As McCarthy has pointed out larger local authority areas would in fact save the exchequer money.

    The only major difference in workload or approach that I have laid out is that there will be greater political accountability and planning at a regional level. This of course means that the elected executive (cabinet) of each authority would have a considerable role and perhaps this is what you mean when you ask how it would be funded. If so, then that is also the reason that I have suggested that the executives of the regional authorities make up the senate and are therefore in receipt of a full time salary in any event. This would have a neutral effect on the exchequer and make the senate more democratic because as things stand, Senators are elected by the councillors but are not necessarily part of the local government system.

  4. Great ideas, Johnny – I especially like the notion of regional executives voting for a specialised minister for local government. As you say, a major problem is the current hierarchical career path, where to really have an influence, you have to become a TD (and, in reality, once a TD you have to become a Minister to excercise power).

    I would echo Donal’s concern about funding – not funding of salaries for the members of regional assemblies, but funding in terms of budgets that they would control exclusively to deliver on education, roads, waste disposal, water and so on. Basically, you would have to have to delegate some revenue raising powers and leave the regional authorities say over how that revenue is spent.

    Also, it would be important to still have elements of national-level decision making to rationalise planning and gain economies of scale. Still though, your propsed system of local government makes a lot more sense to me than our current one.

    Also, I like your thinking on using the Citizen’s Advice Bureau as an operational centre for serving TDs. As you say, a real strength of our democracy is the frequency with which elected politicians and ordinary citizens interact, this proposal might be a way to keep that without over-burdening TDs.

  5. I would like to second Donal O’Brolchain’s proposals on reconfiguration, reform, increasing the competences and ensuring self-financing of local authorities. This would reduce the perceived responsibilities of TDs automatically and allow them to focus on matters of national and public interest.

    This and re-empowering the Oireachtas and its Cttees, are the two glaring omissions in the reform proposals of the major parties; absent these and we’ll just have business-as-usual, but it will be festooned with nice-sounding, but totally useless, bells and whistles.

  6. I’ve never understood this love of local government. In the past decade, one of the few things that we extended to local government was planning and look how that turned out.

  7. Dave,
    I would have to agree with you there. I dont think anyone can love our current Local government system. It lacks any kind of real power and also any sense of responsibility. This is why I think reform must start here.

    This problem generally exists because Government dont trust local councillors to take the decisions. This lack of trust leads to a lack of talent at local level with the best only interested if its a stepping stone to being a TD. I think we need to do a couple of this to address this. Firstly before power can be devolved local authorities must be of a scale to make a real difference, hence the regional system. Then the people who make the decisions will need to be talented as councillors coming from several counties so to get selected for ‘cabinet’ you need to be good. I think if such talent was then evident it would make sense for Government to allow greater power as they can trust the elected representatives better and also it gives political accountability as in my view at the moment local planning etc is the preserve of unelected officials, with good reason, but this can changed on a regional level.

    Tying Eurpe and MEPs to the regions also addresses other issues, but for me the core concept is that Local government representation is not seen as just a feeder to TDs and the Dail, but rather a seperate and viable alternative for talented and capable people.

  8. I take on your point and do genuinely wish that a system such as that could exist. However for me, the ultimate issue in government is transparency and citizen interest. People in Ireland have shown in the past decade an incredible disinterest in the actions of their Taoiseach, let alone their ministers, let alone their TDs, let alone their councillors. There is only so much time that people are willing to spend thinking about politics. Obviously an ideal system would be local government focused on local issues with the local population understanding them, and a national goverment focused on national issues, with a national population engaged in them also.

    However for me, what is likely to happen, is that the limited amount of time that the average citizen gives to politicians outside of election time will remain focused on the government and their actions. The actions of councillors, irrespective of their increased role or competence, will continue to go un-noticed, especially in Dublin where no specific county level media operates. As such, we will be devolving more power to people who have little media and almost no population oversight.

    The key to reforming politics is ensuring that politicians don’t commit actions because they genuinely think that they will lose the election because of it. If a councillor thought his awful planning legislation was going to ensure an election loss, he wouldn’t do it. But nobody pays attention. And even if his role became more powerful, it would still be minor compared to the actions of say the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural resources, who the vast majority of the population has little to no interest or opinion on.

    There is a limited time people will spend engaged in politics, and in a country as small as ours, the focus should be on centralisation, because whenever we have devolved, nobody has paid attention. Unless somebody can really show a plan to get citizens actively engaged in local politics to the point that actions lead to losses/increases in votes, politicians will still tend towards incompetence and corruption, and the good ones will use it as a stepping stone to move up to TD. As such, let’s ensure the power is where the media and citizenry scrutiny is.

  9. If public services were delivered correctly, with proper and due regard to the recipients of public services, there would be no need for TDs to intervene. As it is, public servants are often nearly aggressive in their attitudes to the general public, and obstructive in their failure to help people deal with bureaucratic impediments.

    If this didn’t occur, then people wouldn’t need to turn to their local TD.

    Incidentally, I’m in favour of locally raised funding for local administration. I have seen the benefit of local funds being spent locally, having spent time working in London, and other UK cities.

    However, at this time, the quality of public servants in local authorities would make me vote against giving them responsibility over such powers.

    Incidentally, local representatives have no power at all. Power is held by unelected, unaccountable, local council managers. This is a democratic vacuum, and must be reversed.

    Politicians, local and national must be able to wield the power they are elected to wield. This is the carrot. The stick has to be severe consequence for corruption.

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