Tuesday 25 November 2008

FÁS: A sloth in Ireland's Organisational Zoo?

Recent revelations of lavish spending by Rody Molloy and his team at the head of FÁS have provoked an outcry. At a time when citizens are experiencing a painful decline in their standard of living, people have learned that the state agency partly responsible for generating employment has been splashing out a shameful abundance of perks.

As far as I know Shane Ross was central to getting some of the spenging figures out there. He said today on Kenny's radio show that at first FÁS tried to fend off his requests for information under the freedom of information act. But he persisted and got his hands on the goodies.

I think there are two important elements to this which go far wider than FÁS itself. The first is the way in which huge chunks (perhaps now the bulk) of executive functions have been farmed out to agencies in the name of efficiency and under the banner of separating policy (retained by government departments) from implementation (now largely in the hands of the agencies.

There is absolutely no question that the overall structure needs to be reshaped from the roots up – in terms of co-ordinating strategy, appointments, transparency, and value for money.

The second issue that this emphasises is harder to pin dow. It is the prevalence in Ireland of wink and nod government, of patronage and close networks of old pals. And all this in a culture where the notions of civic responsibility and political integrity are almost entirely absent. (This is why Ross deserves credit – in this story his actions are remarkable if only for the fact that nearly all of our political elite know what's going on in FÁS across the myriad of state agencies, but none are willing to break the unsaid rule of letting sleeping dogs lie)

Turning back to the first issue. Our state agencies. The huge number of new agencies created under the Ahern regime is truly stunning. But that is not in itself the problem. The problem is how it was done and the way in which these agencies are themselves governed. Earlier this year the OECD examined the Irish public service and in part of that review they look at the issue of agencification. Below I have pulled out some of what they had to say.

First, the OECD give a general view that “in the absence of clear guidelines or consistent management, however, the proliferation of the agency structure in Ireland, has posed significant challenges in relation to governance, capacity and performance within agencies.”

Taking a closer look, the OECD found that “the current governance system is not transparent for the Public Service, let alone for citizens and private companies, and the management and accountability of the Public Service as a whole has become more challenging as the result of the particular path taken by agencification. This problem is compounded by the fact that, at the time they were created, little thought was given to establishing systematic arrangements for the oversight of agencies or to the idea of governance in general. As a result, the establishment of agencies in Ireland has not improved the delivery of flexible and responsive government services.”

Not only are the agencies internally difficult to penetrate, but the whole idea and concept is as vague as the kind of language used by Aherna himself. The OECD continues that “in practice there is no widely accepted idea of what is or what constitutes an agency in Ireland. This makes it very difficult to track the size of this sector or to analyse its impact. For example, no official Irish statistics are available for staff numbers in agencies in Ireland either today or 10 or 20 years ago. There are currently more than 500 non-commercial agencies in Ireland

Furthermore, “there is no agencification plan in Ireland per se. Instead, agencies have been established on a case-by-case basis. As a result, the vision and policy goals behind agencification are unclear, and agencification seems to have responded to a multiplicity of implicit objectives – some of which are inconsistent – rather than to a strategic vision about the functioning and structure of government.”

And so we arrive in the animal garden: “this situation has led to an organisational “zoo” where citizens, private firms and government have little clarity on how the Public Service operates. The proliferation of organisational forms with different governance arrangements, the lack of logic in the control environment and the absence of investment in steering capacity have hindered line departments from developing a proper steering relationship with agencies

A couple of years ago the think tank TASC looked into the growth of state agencies. According to their survey of the sector, the biggest problem was even getting a handle on the size of the whole mess “however, an absence of good information systems means that accurate assessment of their nature, scale and significance is difficult to establish. The fragmented manner in which they are established results in confusion, inconsistency and opacity.

TASC were looking at it not necessarily from a point of economic efficiency but with regard to democratic accountability. What they found was a system closer to a monarchical patronage than a modern democracy. “There is something in the region of 5,000 appointments to Public Bodies at national level alone, the majority in the gift of Government. Given the number of these appointments and the importance of the function which the appointees must perform, it is a big gap in our accountability structure that Ireland has no clearly established mechanism to ensure that appointments are free from undue political or other influence or that there is an effective independent appointments system in place. As of now, ministers and senior civil servants are responsible for appointing the majority of members to Public Bodies. Moreover, the influence of the Oireachtas in the making of these public appointments is negligible.”

We'll see now in the FÁS case whether TASC's final indictment can be verified “Without clear criteria there is the danger of making appointments where the appointee has either mediocre ability or is lacking the appropriate skills and knowledge. There is a problem of lack of accountability of those appointed. The power of dismissal is, theoretically, a considerable one, but one which in practice is rarely used.

To me the OECD writer was kind to liken the chaotic, dysfunctional, and ineffective nest of agencies to a zoo. It strikes me more like a jungle. But it is not merely the product of unclear thought and ad hoc decision making. And this is where I return to my second point, the political culture in Ireland.

If the Bertie series wasn't revealling in the narrow sense, in terms of why Bertie accepted cash or took a decision to cross Reynolds, it made up for it in another way. It showed Ahern at the centre of a culture of patronage – the proud and arrogant drumcondra Mafia, the developers who felt the had to be friends with the boss, the favours without trace. And it revealed a leader that has never and is incapable of comprehending the notion of public service and integrity in a modern democracy. Ahern tried to brush Haughey out of his past when he enterred power in 1997 and stated publicly that no officer of state should take money from anyone under any circumstances because it left the wrong impression. But he said this out of necessity, not out of conviction, and it is a message that he never again returned to.

The trouble for Ireland is that Ahern was only exceptional because he embodied the culture of nod and wink so completely, so fully. He was merely the best – or from the country's point of view – worst, of a bad lot. The FÁS shenanigans were inevitable not because Ahern had a sloppy view of public office, but because his view is deeply embedded in the DNA of our political system. Indeed, it spans far wider than that, and is likely buried somewhere deep in the national psyche.

Some improvement can be made by revising the structures that the OECD and TASC refer to. The founding fathers of the US knew that the main need for sound and robust democratic accountability is to save us from ourselves. Nothing has changed since.

But in Ireland we need to grow up as a nation. We need to admit the horrendous cost of our acceptance of political patronage and politics by envelope. We need to realise we cannot have the public services we crave, we cannot make the state (and other actors such as banks) work for us, unless we demand integrity and accountability. That is why it would be equally as valid to march on Leinster house in protest against corruption, waste, and arrogance in public office as it is to march to preserve medical cards or any other vital service. And until a rage like that builds in the public heart, we will continue to be surrounded by a tragic field of sloths and opportunists in the dreary confinement of our chaotic organisational zoo.

1 comment:

Tomaltach said...

so Rody had to go. Well my oh my. And since then more stories tumble off the FÁS gravy tain!