What are we changing exactly?

A post by Dr Niamh Hardiman, SPIRe, UCD, July 9, 2012

Irish politics is generally held to be in grave need of reform. The global economic crisis since 2008 showed how poorly prepared we were for any downturn, let alone anything on the scale of the crisis that has engulfed us. Our attempts to get to the bottom of successive scandals by setting up tribunals of inquiry have left us disillusioned. The party system itself, which seemed so remarkably durable throughout good times and bad, is now more fluid than it has been in a long time: Fianna Fáil’s once-dominant position has been overturned, and Sinn Féin and other parties are scrambling to fill the gap. But the current Fine Gael-Labour coalition controls a historically large majority, and has promised to undertake a new round of political reform. This is a good moment to pause and consider what exactly it is we wish to reform.

Many features of political life have been identified as being in need of change, and the electoral system is one that regularly comes up for discussion. We can see that a good deal of political energy goes into cultivating constituency support, and this close sense of connection with their politicians is clearly something people value. But the downside of localism is also clear: public interest considerations are hard to keep in view, and voters are still inclined to think that the main job of their representatives is, as Basic Chubb memorably said back in 1963, to ‘go about persecuting civil servants’ on their constituents’ behalf. We recognize that the skills required to do this well may not be the ones that best equip our politicians to take on specialized roles either as legislators or as government ministers. But it is far from evident, given other features of our political system, that changing the electoral system would of itself alter patterns of political behaviour very much, either on the part of the voters or of the politicians themselves.

There is no shortage of ideas about what needs to be reformed and how best to do it. Fianna Fáil’s Galway tent may now be folded and put away, but how best to regulate lobbyists and party funding is still very much in debate. At a time when the public finances are under extreme pressure, the debate about public sector reform gains new urgency.

But some of the ideas in circulation are more likely to provide quick fixes than deep reform. A recent research project undertaken in UCD has set out to examine patterns of policy making and implementation in Ireland that have persisted throughout our bumpy path from bust to boom and back again. Taking the quality of ‘governance’ as its theme, the papers consider the design of the political system; the problems that arise in making good economic, social, and infrastructural policy; and the challenges involved in trying to make the system more democratically accountable.

Three big themes emerge from these studies.

The first is the extraordinarily weak role of parliament in Irish public life. What we take as normal is highly unusual compared with other European countries. The studies in our volume detail many ways in which the untrammelled power of governing parties has caused poor policy outcomes. The government can set the agenda for debate and legislation and uses its majority to make sure its preferred outcomes are enacted. It is difficult for the opposition to raise questions, to challenge government decisions, or to hold it accountable when things go wrong. In other countries, most of the real work of parliament takes place in committees that are well resourced and well staffed. Politicians have a real incentive to develop policy expertise and make a name for themselves in their chosen areas. Policy debate is detailed and informed, and hard questions can be put to government effectively. When given an opportunity to move in this direction recently, in the referendum to remove the restrictions arising from the Supreme Court’s 2002 Abbeylara ruling, Irish voters said no. But I suspect that many people did not really understand what was at stake. The debate about the balance of power in the Oireachtas cannot be said to be over yet.

A second and related problem concerns the capacity of the government and the public administration to make coherent, integrated, and consistent policy. The dividing line between policy consultation and policy capture is not well defined. It is important that policy-makers should have good contacts with civil society organizations, but it is equally important that special interests should not be allowed to gain disproportionate influence over the policy agenda. This is not just a matter of regulating lobbyists, though this is important. It means there must be less blurring of the distinction between party-political interests and public policy. We also need a clearer sense of what our policy-making and policy-implementing institutions are for, and how they are to be used. There is an important place for state agencies and public bodies, but they need to have a clearly defined role and proper lines of accountability. Government needs to be well informed about what different sectors of opinions would prefer, but needs to be able to withstand the temptation to accommodate them uncritically. This points us toward something deeper again: we need more open discussion about the costs and implications of all policy choices, not just for the public purse but for our wider sense of the purpose of politics and the values that inform the kind of society we want to live in.

This leads on to the third problem, which has to do with the quality and effectiveness of the public administration itself. Two decades of public sector reform have made some changes, but many issues remain. The generalist design of the civil service needs to be re-examined. We now know that more specialized skills are essential in many areas of policy-making, and not just in technical areas to do with banking regulation or financial reform. How best to recruit, retain, and integrate those skills effectively is a matter for urgent consideration. Furthermore, the political neutrality of the civil service should not preclude challenging a minister’s preferences. This implies a culture of open policy debate, informed by a whole range of relevant skills and expertise, not only inside the civil service but in the wider society as well. If we want to encourage whistle-blowers, we need to make sure they are appropriately protected. By the same token, we also need to look again at the degree of protection we currently give to system insiders. If ‘the system is to blame’, we need to make sure we change the system. But we also need to make sure that people are – and know themselves to be – appropriately accountable for their own decisions and their consequences.

The UCD Governance project examines patterns of governance across several policy areas, including economic policy, regulatory regimes, policing, health care, urban renewal, waste management, and e-governance. The recurring themes point to clear conclusions: we need to open up fundamental debate about the deliberative capacities of parliament, the quality of government decision-making, and the effectiveness of the public administration. Unless we have a more integrated sense of where the shortcomings are in our national institutional design, we can change things all we like, but we won’t make them any better.

* Irish Governance In Crisis, edited by Niamh Hardiman, published by Manchester University Press (2012).

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