As ministers prepare to take what will surely seem a well-earned break, they’ll probably be feeling a bit sorry for themselves. The celebrity induced honeymoon hasn’t given way to an economic miracle and the likelihood is that when they come back they will be straight into a fight with Brendan Howlin for money. The argument has been made that the new government’s ministers are impotent to change policy because they have very little money and what money they have is ring-fenced or otherwise constrained by the EU/ IMF loan arrangement.
This is rubbish.
It’s not rubbish that they don’t have a lot of money at their disposal. And it’s not rubbish that the EU and IMF aren’t watching carefully how they spend the money. But it is rubbish that the only policy tool government ministers have at their disposal is money.
Policy makers in Ireland (and elsewhere) tend to equate spending money on a problem with caring. How much money you were willing to throw at a problem became synonymous with how much you cared about a problem, and in the context of expectation beating revenues during the boom, there was a lot of love to go around. If you care about children, give their parents more money; if you care about poverty, increase dole payments; if you care about the elderly, increase the pension; if you care about education, increase spending, ditto health.
In fact as a policy tool – a way of getting things done – money has been shown to be pretty ineffective. Think about some of the policy problems that Ireland faces and has faced over the last ten or fifteen years. One was that the health service was not very good. So what did we do about it? We trebled the amount of money that we spent on the health service. And what happened. Our health service is still reported to be not very good.
It’s probably because the extra money was targeted at delivering more services. Instead most of the money went on increased prices for drug treatments (making the pharmaceutical companies very happy) and increased salaries for doctors, nurses and other public servants working in the health service (making the unions very happy). But it didn’t fix the broken health system.
So if spending literally billions more on a problem doesn’t solve it, what does?
The first thing we should do is to set out the policy problem more clearly. Too often policy makers work within existing policy architecture, so the only way they can consider a solution is through the existing system. So when we think about unemployment we think about the dole as the only tool we have. But these systems are rarely designed in such a way that if they didn’t exist we would design them this way.
Think of a problem highlighted recently, possible corruption of the NCT system. A simple and cheaper solution is to dismantle the whole NCT system and institute random testing. Will that happen?
Changing the system is difficult and usually causes resistance and resentment. For the Ahern regime avoiding flak from unions, employers and anyone else whose complaints might be taken seriously, was a priority. So throwing money at those people was regarded as good policy.
But now all those groups who can block change know that they are in a weaker position. Unions that had complained about the Croke Park agreement are now hoping that the offer is still on the table. The government has more power now to effect public sector reform that ever before. The question is; does it know what it wants?
One of the failings of the political system has been that it has produced very few politicians with imagination or intellectual curiosity. Most politicians have accepted the obsession with economic growth and forgot how this relates to what people actually want – to be happy.
Our progress is measured in a way that prioritises goods for which money changes hands, even though non-monetised goods might be more desirable. So if a parent looks after a child then this is ‘worse’ for our GDP than if the child is sent to a crèche, but the being looked after by the parent might be better for the child.
On our traditional measure of well-being – GDP growth – we are now a lot worse off. It clear that we cannot afford to buy new goods in the way had in the last ten years. Is this a bad thing?
In fact materialism is probably toxic for our happiness. We know that there is an element in our psyche in which we rate our own achievements by comparing them with others around us.
So the disappointment caused by our inability to buy new cars every two years could be alleviated if we change the number plate system. The year/ county number plate tells the world that our otherwise functional, comfortable and safe car is ten years old. A system that doesn’t allow people measure the age of the car would probably make people more comfortable in the car they drive, and maybe happier.
Other things we know that makes people happy are a sense of community, security, a good environment and being close to family. Government ministers can’t deliver these but they can think about ways to encourage them.
For instance the sense of community can be fostered if people take public transport. But public transport need not cost billions as projects in the past have. One could easily and cheaply reconfigure the bus system so that it acts like an over ground metro, with connecting lines and regular times. The signs that tell when the next bus is coming actually work and that we now know when buses are going to arrive will probably make a big difference to our bus use and while not free, is much cheaper than any of the underground systems proposed.
Vibrant and well designed urban centre spaces can also help foster community. A minister could quite easily renew cities and towns by imposing a minimum €5 parking fee on all out of town shopping centres and retail parks. This would be revenue raising and would help revitalise our cities.
Nama probably owns sites that if we were to think less about maximising economic return could be better used as say public parks or cultural spaces.
There are thousands of policy improvements that could be made which might cost very little or even savings could be made. Why aren’t they thought of or implemented?
One reason is that government has been and continues to measure success purely in terms of economic growth rather than in what will solve policy problems.