IT IS TIME FOR FUNDAMENTAL POLITICAL AND INSTITUTIONAL REFORM
Catherine Murphy TD, Independent deputy for Kildare North
The collapse of our economy in 2008 was not a singular event; it was years in the making. Deliberate actions such as light touch regulation on the banking sector, the lack of strategic thinking and physical planning, an over cosy relationship with the construction sector – all contributed.
Deliberate inaction since independence on the other hand has resulted in the dysfunction of our political system and many of our key public services. When we had money, it was thrown at them, rather than used to deliver reforms.
Not only is political and institutional reform needed. It is expected by the citizens of the state. Firstly, we need to ask ourselves what kind of institutions does a modern state require and what checks and balances are needed to ensure those institutions act in the interest of the citizens of a democratic republic? And what is it about our political institutions that are broken? How do we go about redesigning them in a way that captures what is best about us as a people? How is it that we have great local and national movements in practically every walk of life and yet our political institutions can at best be described as mediocre?
One explanation could be that we have no real cultural memory of institution building. The challenges of the new state, when founded in the early 1920s, were such that stability and survival were understandably the immediate concerns. However, we can point to pre-Norman times and a set of laws formulated and guided by our ancestors, that were highly regarded, because they were of the culture rather than inherited laws and institutions.
We know our state is highly centralised – we can fix that by decentralising power and introducing new functions to a radically reformed local government system and by separating the executive from the legislature, as is the case in countries like France.
I had expected the reform programme would have been predicated on a number of criteria such as;
– what is wrong with our public service and political institutions and how do we fix those problems?
– how do we re-design these systems in a way that builds on our natural strengths?
– how do we do this in a way that delivers quality services in a way that we end up with a set of functioning institutions that are efficient, cost effective, easily understood and engaged with and, most of all, citizen and community centred?
Currently, with few exceptions, it seems there is just one question driving the “reform agenda” and that is: How can we save money?
The Silo-based approach to such cuts often results in savings being made on one side, with costs incurred on the other, often producing poor outcomes and alienating citizens who are frustrated by the lack of vision and lack of inclusiveness in the reform agenda.
The lofty desire that existed prior to the last General Election that reform would deliver a set of political and public service institutions that would be fit for the 21st century has disappeared along the way and needs to be re-captured.
We need a higher level of ambition which includes a vision of the kind of institutions this state needs together with considering how they will interact with each other, what kind of culture those institutions foster and the kind of outcomes desired. What concerns me is that we are seeing a piecemeal approach to reform, driven primarily by a cost cutting agenda.
I was at a conference last year organized by Social Justice Ireland. Tony Fahy, head of the School of Applied Social Science at UCD gave an inspiring paper the title of which was ‘Welfare and Debt; Lessons from Beveridge and his times’.
The reason why it was so interesting was because he reminded us of the timing of Beveridge’s visionary thinking around the creation of a welfare state in 1942 in the middle of the Second World War. He also addressed the post-war debt solutions and the outcomes. He told us that Beveridge believed that “A revolutionary moment in the world’s history is a time for revolutions, not patching up.”
Unfortunately, there is no great vision driving the so-called reform programme which seems to be limited to one electoral cycle and lacks the long view Beveridge took. Not only was he visionary, but his system was also hopeful at a time when people did not dare to hope. I believe we are in that unique moment and we cannot and should not waste it.
If political reform is to bear fruit I believe we need to look at the whole set of political institutions rather than take a piecemeal approach. I am convinced there cannot be meaningful Dáil Reform without local government reform.
If we are to counter the excessive centralization that dominates we need a stable functioning location to which we can decentralize. In doing this, we must work to our strengths. We have been capable of designing and building such organisations and institutions as the GAA, the Credit Union Movement, the Carer’s Association just to name but a few.
All were a response to a need and capture values such as solidarity, volunteerism, culture, care etc. Each also functions within a defined geographic space that people identify with. Just imagine if we were to build such elements into a reformed local government system – a system that is designed in such a way that allows the kind of flexibility to foster initiative rather than stifle it, a system that works in harmony with its people rather than grates against them.
Despite the fact that so many good people work within the system, the first question I am asking you to consider today is, do you think the current County Councils are that system? If not, do you think the County Council system can be reformed to be that system or is something else needed?
The counties, as we know them, were formed following the Norman invasion and took shape between the 12th and the 17th Century, mirroring what had previously taken place in England. The counties were formed as a means of control by the Crown over such areas as taxation, and the administration of justice. They are therefore not uniquely Irish even though we have come to identify with them from the point of view of Gaelic games, for example. I question if they are part of the problem when it comes to local administration.
Probably one of the features that are noticeable about the Irish disposition is – WE DON’T LIKE BEING TOLD WHAT TO DO. Yet we have either accepted or designed our political institutions with control and centralization at the centre.
I was greatly impressed by the New Urban Living project (NUIM Sociology Department) which studied the emerging social fabrics of four new suburbs and satellite towns in the greater Dublin region – Lucan, Leixlip, Mullingar and Ratoath – which were considered to be representative development patterns occurring throughout many of Ireland’s cities and towns.
The study found that the “attachment to place” of local residents was influenced by four main factors;
– the built and natural environment;
– the cultural character and life of the area;
– the quality of informal associational life and
– elective belonging – the reasons why people had chosen to live in their place of residence.
I am convinced we need to refashion our local government system in a way that really allows people to govern themselves in a place they actually identify with and have elected to live in. I also believe we need to decide what it is that local government should do, and at what levels.
In the UK, Sir Michael Lyons was commissioned to do an Independent review of the UK’s local government system a few years back. He concluded that “Place Shaping” – the creative use of powers and influence to promote the general well-being of a community and its citizens should be the primary purpose of local government.
When we think of community, we tend to think of it at a much lower level than county level. All the evidence is that communities, when left to their own devices, are incredibly responsible and resourceful. As public representatives we have unique insights into how our citizens and communities function. We all have impressive stories about the ‘get up and go’ that is visible from sports to social enterprises – in organisations which are usually run on a shoe string with huge voluntary input. I have long held the view it is at this level that we can unleash that genius by building into our governance the values that make our communities function. It would take the form of a district council model.
Engaging in a process of reform at district level provides opportunity to foster and utilize community engagement to enrich the development of the district, and engage members of the community in the exercise of self-government in a manner not yet experienced.
In an Irish context, this would mean encouraging communities to break with decades of misgovernment and overcome the fatal dependence on the intermediary in Irish politics…Middle Man or Woman known as clientelism, which I will come to later.
What is really dangerous, and we are seeing it at the moment, is to have a dependent citizenry who know we can do better, but who feel both hopeless and powerless. That must change if we are to truly begin to build a functioning civil society.
A community-led as opposed to an institutional-led model where place shaping is the primary purpose of local government should be at the foundation level of our political institutions.
In addition to the district council model I also favour the establishment of an overarching Regional Tier which would merge the existing county bureaucracies into a set of authorities headed by a directly elected executive – similar to those located in the Nordic countries.
We currently have a little known regional tier, which has very limited functions. The new authorities, I propose, should ideally be based around cities such as Dublin – Cork – Galway with perhaps no more than three.
There may be significant advantages, such as larger populated regions could achieve lower per-capita costs on expenditure on essential services such as waste, water, road maintenance etc. Bigger regions could also eliminate the duplication of services provided across the present counties by amalgamating/centralizing such functions as licensing, human resources, payroll, IT etc. They would also have bigger purchasing power to effect cost reductions and perhaps, over time, achieve something that is a stated national desire; balanced regional development.
This would be the delivery tier – indeed there is evidence from elsewhere that City Regions are also good economic drivers. Regions should also deliver a range of services, some not currently provided for by our local government system i.e. transport, leisure/sport/heritage/culture, health, policing, spatial and environmental planning, child/elderly care etc.
The value of introducing an autonomous district and regional tier of government would deliver a functioning local government system and would take the excessive localism out of our National Parliament. These are essential components of reform. While I favour a unicameral system, I do so in the context that we first have, at the very least, a plan and commitment to reforms at local and national level with an agreed time-frame.
We need a functioning Dáil with a functioning and properly resourced committee system. One of the principle defects in how the Dáil functions is that there is no clear line between the executive and the Dáil. Basically, the government or executive has commandeered the function of the legislature. I don’t just refer to this administration. It has become custom and practice for the legislature to be subservient to the timetable and wishes of the executive which is the reverse of how it was intended to operate.
The consequence is that between the executive and the permanent government (civil service) they control everything, A good example is the timetable; what we are seeing is the excessive use of guillotines, late publication of bills, very brief time spans for the tabling of amendments which are almost never taken by government. This is an obvious abuse of process.
How we do our budgets is a private matter between government and the civil service. We were promised this would change but so far we have seen little evidence of this. If anything it has become more centralised.
The purpose of separating the two functions is to ensure there is no unchecked power. The intention was that they exist and operate separately as stand alone entities that work in co-operation. Basically, we have a permanent government which is the civil service. We then have the dynamic government which involves politics which is there at the will of the people. On occasions it is not possible to tell which is which.
The role of political parties and the whip system
Article 40 of our constitution sets out rights citizens may enjoy in our republic including the right to form associations and unions. The constitution makes no reference to political parties, but it is implied in the right to form associations. In a political sense this has been taken to mean political parties, only one model is seen as valid and is unfortunately designed to protect and reinforce the traditional system.
The excessive control by political parties in power is a misuse of power; while I accept governments must govern and that requires a majority – at least on key economic matters. However the monopoly of wisdom that was cautioned against on the first day of this new Dáil has become a reality, it impacts not just on the opposition but limits input within the ranks of the government’s own backbenches.
The dire consequences for losing the whip, for example, excludes a deputy from speaking rights, membership of committees and access to systems funded by the taxpayer based on the number of TDs a party has at election time under the electoral funding acts.
The person who is elected under the banner of that political party ceases under that system to have independent thought and action. I believe it discredits politics. The mandate is given by the citizens and that seems to have been forgotten.
Dáil reforms to date have been superficial, a box ticking exercise. We need to address the fundamental question of how we separate the power of the executive from that of the Dáil and how we re-introduce the correct checks and balances.
Clientelism and Public Service Delivery
I said I would return to the issue of clientelism. It is a system that flourishes when citizens cannot easily navigate the various state institutions to access their entitlements and, consequently, it fosters a type of middle man or woman in the political system – where the focus is all about fixing the individual citizen’s problem and not about fixing the system.
This ‘middleman relationship’ has come about as a result of an unhealthy relationship with power that is so marked in the Irish people.
We almost regard government as external or ‘the other’ and we REQUIRE a good middleman to interface with that power on our behalf. When we go into a polling booth are we judging the candidates on the basis of “who would be the best legislators or are we thinking who has the best skills at being an intermediary between me and the nameless power over which I have no influence?
If we were to change that political culture to focusing on fixing the system, rather than on an individual’s problem, I believe it would lead to a clash of ideas where real choices emerge and politics becomes more policy rather than personality driven.
Our public services have also to be reformed in a way that is citizen centred. Rebuilding our public service institutions is, I acknowledge, a significant challenge, particularly at a time when funding is so restricted. We, therefore, need to be creative and we should not be afraid to borrow good ideas from elsewhere.
One system I am a fan of has been developed and is in use in Norway. It did require investment but there are impressive returns.
In 2003, the Norwegian eGovernment system was established initially to assist corporations do their statutory reporting; that has progressed to delivering the services of 33 public agencies, including some of the municipalities. 86% of all Norwegian business used Altinn. More than 80 million forms that would have otherwise been printed were made unnecessary. 17% less hours were spent on administration. The total hours spent on administration by Norwegian business dropped from 6,000 to just less than 3,000 in roughly ten years. Since its introduction the total money saved was $7billion.
We need to find ways that make it easier for citizens to interact with public services. We need to do so in a way where efficiencies can be achieved and essential front line services can be funded from the limited tax income available. It is but one, but yet a useful example.
To sum up
Republican ideals require us to put the citizen at the centre, to design our systems in a way that inspires, facilitates and engages citizens in a way that makes the best of our collective talents. I have set out, I hope, what is a snapshot of what I think some of the reform initiatives should be.
We will soon commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Easter Rising and the foundation of our state that was a revolutionary time; we are now in a very different but revolutionary time. It is time for fundamental reform, we need to stop the patchwork and start rebuilding a better more inclusive future.