LOCAL GOVERNMENT TO PROVIDE SOCIAL AND ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT
Phil Hogan TD, Minister for Environment, Community & Local Government
Someone in media once said that “an audience is slow to grow and fast to go.” I’m sure that’s true. But it’s even more true in another area of life. When it comes to politics and to public administration, trust is slow to grow and fast to go. Trying to drive the engine of state in the absence of trust is like trying to drive a car without oil. The thing is likely to grind to a shuddering halt. And its innards may be terminally damaged. That’s where we stand, in Ireland, right now. A major lack of trust has developed – and developed for good reasons. We have spent a decade in a sustained post-mortem, examining, through tribunals, how trust died. We have been disgusted, astonished, furious. And every now and again, as details of the hot press storage of large sums of money emerged, we have laughed. What’s that old saying? “We laugh, that we may not weep…” Now, Ireland has reached a definitive point, summed up in two words: Never again.
What the Mahon Report exposed must never happen again. We must not hide behind any of the ready caveats. Like “Oh, it was just a small number of people who feathered their own nest.” Or “The majority of them came from one party.” Or “That’s history.” We mustn’t hide behind such comments, because they reduce the issue to party politics, and it’s much more than that. It is an issue of patriotism, pride and trust. It’s an issue that goes to the heart of our democracy and our responsibility to the people of this nation. The issue is to take action to ensure that there will be no more assaults on trust. No more betrayals. No more corruption.
Re-building public confidence and trust requires us to set down standards, introduce regulations and develop legislation. It means reform. Reform is one of those concepts everybody approves of. The Taoiseach has made the point here, for example, that there’s been talk of reforming the Seanad for a long, long time. Except it didn’t happen. Similarly, over the past decade, we’ve had lots of talk about reform of local government. Except it didn’t happen. It’s time to take action, and this is the year. In September, when every aspect of what I propose has been tested, up, down and sideways, I’ll be announcing the details of the most radical changes ever undertaken in this area. To reform what’s not working and what has led to abuse. To replace the outdated and dysfunctional systems with structures and approaches that meet the needs we now have. And to restore trust.
Local Government reform matters because, if – as Tip O’Neill said – all politics is local, all trust is local too. Citizens in every city, town and rural area throughout this country encounter public administration – and politics – up close and personal through their local authority. That encounter must create trust. It must be so clear, so straightforward, so clean, that the individual, the householder, the business person comes away reassured that their interests will be vindicated, not subordinated to someone with more money, more contacts, more political connections.
This is why I am mandated by a reforming government to drag the system of local government into the twenty-first century, so that it delivers more to the community it serves and puts people first. The programme to be announced in the autumn and implemented directly afterwards will be called Putting People First. It will introduce significant changes to regional, county, city and town governance.
Every aspect of local government will see change, will see action. Action based on a clear vision of the ideal. A clear vision I want to sketch out now – and that I’m pretty clear will meet with general agreement.
First of all, where possible, public services should be delivered through locally-based bodies rather than centralised agencies. Locally-based bodies are, or should be, best able to respond to local needs, local circumstances. Local authorities should be delivering services, enhancing quality of life through local amenities and delivering an environment in which business can prosper and employment created. Local government should – and will – lead economic, social and community development where it should be led: locally. It should – and will – deliver services that work at costs that make sense.
Now, let’s be clear. I am not talking about reform of a bad system. I’m talking about reform of an out of date system. Local government structures generally in Ireland have not been updated since the 19th Century. I’m updating those structures to increase efficiency and give more value for money for the people they serve. It’s extremely likely that I will be cutting the number of councillors and the number of authorities. I’m certainly going to strengthen the role of the Local Authority Audit Committees. We must have better oversight. Clearly, also, local government must look to new income streams.
Governance, accountability and funding will be just the start.
When it comes to economic development and job creation, the objective is to radically enhance the role local authorities play. New structures. New positions. In addition, we’ll see streamlining and integration. This will be a long overdue cutting away of duplication and overlap. It will allow us to deliver to entrepreneurs what they need: strong guidance and speedy answers. Two themes run through the thinking behind this reform. The first is measurement and the second is communication. The business books all say that if you can’t measure it, it might as well not exist. If we can’t measure performance, for example, we can’t satisfy the customer that it’s actually happening. That’s now going to change. We’re going to have much more robust performance monitoring. We need to measure: end results, not activities, value for money, people, not processes. We also need to capture when one local authority is doing something that’s new, or different or better, and make sure that this gets spread throughout the other local authorities.
The other theme I mentioned is communication. Local authorities will be required to provide good quality public information. I rely on the local authorities to understand exactly what “good quality public information” means. It means that every communication is immediately understandable to the citizen, the layperson, the one who may not have third level education and who may be daunted by the big impressive words bureaucracies use – in my view – way too often.
You will appreciate that I can only begin to sketch out the programme of reform here today. But the inevitable question that arises when we look at a programme of such scope and scale is the cost question: How much is all this radical change going to set us back? Thinking about this question on my way here, it suddenly struck me that allowing the system to become as dysfunctional and as mistrusted as it is, actually cost money. Inefficiency and corruption can cost the state billions. No, inefficiency and corruption have cost the state billions. In tribunals alone, they’ve cost us, as a nation. And that doesn’t address the costly trailing wires of bad decisions and actions over the past decade or more. The reverse should be the case when it comes to reform.
Reform should save the state money. Indeed, the evidence is that it’s already saving the state money. Local government has been ahead of most sectors in the changes it has made to reduce costs and drive efficiency, with €830 million savings made since 2009. This will continue to be pursued vigorously to achieve the highest standards of customer service. The sector is well on the way to achieving the €511 million savings identified in the Report of the Local Government Efficiency Review Group of which €346 million were identified as potential direct efficiency savings. Savings of €195 million attributed to efficiency measures – as opposed to a reduction in activity – have been achieved in the years 2010 and 2011.
A further target of €150 million in efficiency savings is out there to be achieved – while maintaining existing services – under LGER. In order to achieve this, a dedicated Programme Management Office has been established by the County and City Managers’ Association to deliver shared services and support a work force planning process to make sure we get staffing and organisation right – and cost-effective. This office has to remain focussed on identifying and delivering further efficiencies. The easier efficiencies have started to be delivered, and the focus must now move to overcoming obstacles to delivery of the more challenging efficiencies and changes needed.
Notwithstanding this, the ongoing rationalisation of staffing within the local government sector has to be acknowledged. Local authorities have made savings of €288 million on staff; in fact, they have achieved the highest proportionate staffing reduction of any sector in the public service, with staff numbers reduced by 8,432, 23% – from 37,243 in mid-2008 to 28,811 at March 2012, involving significant reduction in senior management grades. And this has been done while maintaining existing services.
At a critical time for our country, local government has a crucial role to play in Ireland’s national recovery. The action programme I’ll present in September will empower local government in an entirely new way, particularly in relation to economic development, and most importantly, sustaining and creating jobs. This programme will affirm the need for the system to embrace change, share the burden, modernise, adapt to new financial circumstances and deliver even better services with scarce resources. Putting people first will reinforce local government as the primary means of public service at local level harnessing the commitment of elected members and officials.
I am committed to building stronger, more cohesive local government, giving it a greater capacity not only to address the challenges we face, but also to promote local community, social and economic development, and collectively to maximise the strengths of our country as a place in which to live, to invest and to work.
Over the last number of years, and particularly since I became Minister, I have consulted widely and have reflected deeply on how local government should be developed. The one thing that’s very clear to me is that there’s a keen appetite for change out there and a matching desire to be able to trust again.
What this Government wants is to take the system by the scruff of the neck and turn its face to the public it’s supposed to serve. That sounds simple. It’s not going to be simple. It’s going to be challenging, complex and radical. But what I can promise you is a focused action programme for reform that puts people first and ensures local authorities operate at the highest professional and ethical standards. My hope is that people will be able to see change happening – soon and repeatedly. If and when they see those changes coming into force, they’ll begin to believe that local authorities are organised through a rational and efficient system, led by committed and effective councillors, staffed by highly competent professionals, managed expertly and committed to serving the public all day every day. And if they begin to believe that, trust will be rebuilt.