As the Government renegotiates its priorities and reshuffles the Cabinet, it is an appropriate time to look back and assess the Government’s achievements under its political reform programme.
There has been a good deal of criticism at the slow pace of change and at the apparent absence of an appetite for reform among the Government with little meaningful reform to decrease executive dominance which is arguably among the greatest problems in our system.
Indeed there are many reforms which are entirely absent or where problems have been exacerbated by the current Government. One exception is under the wider reform programme overseen by Brendan Howlin. Here the picture is rather different and much has been achieved even if there have been compromises and the full scale of reform demanded by activists has not been achieved. Nonetheless, such compromises are the essence of politics and the overall direction is clear and in the direction of reform on a scale not previously seen since the mid 1990s Rainbow Coalition when Freedom of Information and Ethics legislation were first introduced.
Among the significant reforms is Freedom of Information. As Jennifer Kavanagh has argued previously on these pages the underpinning values of freedom of information are openness and transparency. Access to information is regarded as a fundamental human right. FoI affords the public the opportunity to see how government decisions are made, and makes for better-informed voters. In addition, ensuring investigative journalists are freely able to access information is recognized as a deterrent to corruption and fraud in public office, and as a means of exposing serious wrongdoing. Crucially it would also recused burdens on whistleblowers to share information that should be readily accessible.
Yet, Ireland was the only EU member state to force the public and journalists to pay up-front fees for non-personal information under FOI. As such upfront fees were always the key to the FoI reform process and promises to revert to the original FOI regime made in the Programme for Government were widely welcomed. The process however was difficult as many vested interests put up vigorous fights to retain fees as a deterrent to multiple requests from journalists. It is very welcome that Minister Howlin overcame these objections to announce he is abolishing upfront fees last week. Some campaigners are urging caution and asking us to wait until the relevant legislation is published before congratulating the Minister. And of course the devil is often in the detail but the announcements itself is nonetheless to be welcomed in advance of the Report Stage in the Dáil on 16 July with enactment expected before Christmas.
While free upfront FoI fees may be among the most obvious achievements of reform there are many others which DPER has quietly been getting on with. Separately there are moves to expand the open data portal, which while a positive development is still very top level and does not allow much detailed interrogation of data. A National Open Data portal is expected to be launched soon and the progress towards a multi-level analysis will be interesting to observe.
Other achievements in various stages of progress are the publication of the Registration of Lobbying Bill 2014, although greater disclosure is required and many have valid concerns regarding the oversight and enforcement powers of the Standards in Public Office. Indeed it is to be hoped that new Minister for Environment will be more reform minded and will act on the need for an Electoral Commission, which would subsume SIPO, the Referendum Commission and other relevant bodies.
At the same time, Ireland has entered into the Open Government Process and the publication of the first OGP Action Plan, is due to go to Cabinet shortly, following consultation between the department and wider civil society.
The whistleblowing or Protected Disclosures Bill 2013 has completed all stages and is expected to be enacted later this month. The Ombudsman (Amendment) Act 2012 enacted that year extended the remit of the Ombudsman bringing some 200 additional bodies under the Act and extending the powers of the Ombudsman.
Of course the Government lost the Thirtieth Amendment of the Constitution (Houses of the Oireachtas Inquiries) Bill 2011 but has since commenced the Houses of the Oireachtas (Inquiries, Privileges and Procedures) Act 2013, allowing the Banking Inquiry to be held.
Other planned reforms are to the civil service and to increasing accountability there, but progress here has been far slower. A consultation paper on strengthening accountability has been published and an independent panel’s report has been published. But real movement is absent (addendum: and as John O’Brennan point out below the selection process for the new secretary general in Finance is very problematic) While regulations to prescribe bodies for the purposes of ethics is also merely under consultation.
However, the job is not finished. We need ongoing political will and funding to ensure laws and agencies are resourced and that legislation is enacted and for other Ministers to start thinking seriously about reform. Nonetheless, all in all this has to be welcomed and to be considered real progress. Credit where credit is due. (updated post 8pm 9 july)