Put the Interests of Citizens at the Centre of Policy Planning

Put the Interests of Citizens at the Centre of Policy Planning

Dr Jane Suiter, lecturer in Politics, Dublin City University


Over the past seven years in spaces such as this, and elsewhere, we have heard about the myriad problems in the way the policy process works in Ireland sometimes to the detriment of all our citizens. We know that short-term outcomes are often prioritised over longer-term outcomes, difficult and important changes are shelved, good reports and recommendations gather dust.

At the same time, the interests of vociferous lobby groups often trump the interests of the public, while policymaking often lacks transparency. Our national politicians people a puny parliament with their own power too often being used simply to promote localism, and, as a result, government tends to prioritise and be shaped by the concerns and needs of particular groups or geographic areas.

The overall result, as Niamh Hardiman has consistently pointed out, is that policy development is poor at strategic long-term planning. One answer lies in transforming the management ability and competence of individual people, but another is in planning processes around the needs of citizens.

This session has been framed around Francis Fukuyama who, as we know, declared in 1992 ‘the End of History’. Of course, that statement now provokes much criticism but the criticism is not entirely fair. His basic argument was that no one had advanced a convincing alternative to capitalism and democracy. Of course some do try, not only ISIS and Putin but also advocates of post capitalism. Nonetheless, most of the world, including Ireland, is still “getting to Denmark” — Fukuyama’s shorthand phrase for an effective, accountable, tolerant and law-bound society. In other words, the three principles which he argues are foundations of a decent polity are: an effective state, the rule of law and democratic accountability.

Developing all three in tandem is difficult. Too much of one can stymie another. It is a difficult balancing act. Moreover, there is the probability, perhaps certainty, of decay. As we all know, it is easy for bearauacracies to decay, to become self-serving. They primarily do this through intellectual rigidity and regulatory capture. On the one hand, those they regulate use their democratic accountability and the rule of law to get their own way over the years. So we have a twin problem: bureaucracies which seek to maintain control and power even when not in the general interest that they do so, and regulated entities ensuring that their regulation is as light touch as possible.

So let’s try to apply these thoughts to Ireland, examining policy through Fukuyama’s lens. First, we know that technical competence is too often sorely lacking. There is rule of law but law making can be problematical; and there is such a presumption to property rights that many feel there is one rule of law for the asset rich and another for the rest, while there are real and serious cultural issues in terms of accountability.

Let’s take three recent issues. An account such as this has a large variety of policy problems from which to choose. For the purposes of this talk I will focus on three, which exemplify problems across the range of issues and all in different ways. Irish Water is an on-going crisis which was, arguably, almost entirely avoidable. Financial regulation is a crisis from which we are still recovering and lack of progress around the establishment of an Electoral Commission demonstrates how even on the small stuff we refuse to implement policy coherently.

Irish Water
First, water charges; in an advanced industrial democracy it is reasonable to expect that clean drinkable water should be available to all households and hostelries. Yet in Ireland, tens of thousands are on ‘boil water notices’ at any one time. Even if the water were clean, almost half of all water is lost through leaks. As a result, a system of repairing the leaks, cleaning the water and ensuring supply is imperative. If this could have been achieved in an affordable manner it is arguable that many may have been willing to pay. Instead we have a complete fiasco of policymaking.

Applying Fukuyama’s lens, we can see that there were legal problems. The legislation was guillotined through in one evening with little prospect of proper scrutiny to uncover problems. To be fair, the few questions on that evening appeared to be more concerned with their own parochial localism problems than with the big picture analysis but, nonetheless, the Government gave no opportunity for any substantive examination. The ensuing legal amendments, changed policy to make it worse still, a flat-rate charge was introduced which failed to raise sufficient funds or indeed promote water conservation.

This exemplifies what is arguably the biggest weakness in the Irish policy process – the almost absolute power of government to get whatever measures it likes passed through the legislature sometimes without detailed scrutiny or debate. Using the party whip system which is stronger here than even in Westminster from where it derived, ensures not only that measures get passed without due attention or amendment but that parliament cannot easily hold the government to account.

If we then move to competency we can see that the issue of leadership is crucial. The government chose an experienced local government official to lead, but did he and his team have the competence to do so effectively? County mangers, as we all know and with respect to those here present, wield large levels of power with very little accountability.

For example, as my colleague Eoin O’Malley has written, a major problem was actually financing the huge investment required in the infrastructure after decades of neglect by all governments. Doing this off balance sheet simply added to the problems. The model simply didn’t work. It priced water at too high a price, took too little account of the ability of people to pay or to the fostering the necessary change in culture and simply sought to bulldoze it through. The bottom line was the need to maintain the bureaucracy that was the water service and this was prioritised over the needs of the people, those that consume water. This is despite the fact that the agency spent some €50 million on consultancy fees. These consultants, it seems clear, did not prioritise the principles of design policy i.e. putting the needs of the people front and centre.

If we then turn to transparency, we know that for the first months of the crisis, Irish Water management was simply nowhere to be seen; only sending out the Communications Director who became almost a household name. How decisions had been arrived at (or not) remains murky and unclear and indeed it was some time before the new state body was even opened to Freedom of Information.

An Electoral Commission
The second area I wish to look at is the issue of an Electoral Commission. This may seem a relatively esoteric topic, even to those in this room, but I argue it typifies policy making and demonstrates why we find it so hard to modernise our systems and adopt best practice.

I’ll just take a moment to set out the background. The establishment of an Electoral Commission to subsume the functions of existing bodies and the Department of the Environment was one of the measures promised in the last Programme for Government. Perhaps that phrase ‘subsume the functions’ is the secret to understanding why nothing has been achieved.

Among the public, it is essentially non-contentious receiving 97% support at the Constitutional Convention while some of the measures that it would oversee such as improving the accuracy of thee electoral register had 100 per cent support. Yet the Department of the Environment is only now conducting a consultation, a measure which no one I have met, believes will result in single substantive action. A bureaucracy does not easily yield any power or authority.

In other countries such as Australia, the Electoral Commission manages the electoral register, conducts public elections and referendums, educates and informs the community about electoral rights and responsibilities, provides research, advice and assistance on electoral matters to the Parliament, other government agencies and recognised bodies, administers election funding, financial disclosure and party registration requirements and shapes electoral boundaries.

In Ireland, the Standards in Public Offices (SIPO) covers many aspects of this while successive governments establish ad hoc referendum commissions to handle aspects of referendums and other ad hoc bodies to deal with boundaries. However, responsibility for running elections, including registration remains at a local level, while research and funding administration are generally absent.

The result is ineffective policymaking and lack of coherence: we do not actually know what turnout was in the recent referendums, registers are poor, people are struck off for no obvious reason or are on multiple registers and often remain on when they die or move oversees. Light touch regulation on funding in elections and referendums does not work properly. I and my colleagues Theresa Reidy, David Farrell and Fiona Buckley have recently made a submission on this to the Department of the Environment but I will not be holding my breadth to see any changes whatsoever emerge.

There is no Accountability
Finally, if we turn to the banking inquiry, day after day, we can see Irish policy making failure writ large. Again utilising the same framework, and looking first at the law, the light touch regulation designed to attract global bankers and funds here rather than to London or Luxembourg failed completely. As Michael Lewis so memorably put it, people panicked when they saw the little man who was meant to be in control, on our TV screens. As Neary’s own testimony at the Inquiry made abundantly clear, there was almost complete regulatory capture. Quite simply the banks were running the show.

But there was also clearly a competence problem. A strong regulator even working through light touch regulation could have made stronger demands of the banks, acting as a regulator rather than an enabler. A competent Taoiseach could have asked bankers about banking when on a golf outing in the midst of a banking crisis, and a competent system would have listened to the voices of dissent rather than to those advocating suicide for dissenters. The examples here could, and I’m sure will, fill many a book but suffice it to say the Irish financial policy system lacked proper competence at almost very conceivable level, managerial, regulatory, political and economic. Again the issue is that the system was there to protect the interests of the political, financial and administrative systems and was simply not designed with the interests of the people at centre. If they had been the focus, the possibility of banking collapse and socialising losses would have had to be guarded against as a matter of central principle.

It is almost trite to suggest that there is no accountability. It is only now some seven years on that we are even hearing people give usually self-serving accounts of their actions. There is a clear sense that, for Fine Gael, having the inquiry close to the election would remind voters of Fianna Fail’s starring role in crisis creation and incompetence. As result, the Banking Inquiry is not a forum designed to find out what happened. It’s there to push blame around.

Put the Citizen at the Centre of Decision Making
So where does this all leave us? It is clear that we are still travelling towards Denmark. We have problems in all three areas where one can outweigh the others. If we take one at a time, it is not so much the rule of law but more our law making process which is challenging. The overweening power of the Cabinet, which can mean laws get passed without sufficient scrutiny or amendment, is very problematical.

In addition, the constitutional protection given to property rights has led to a myriad of problems. For example, a good deal of corruption has come to light in land rezoning, rent reviews and housing shortages. The Kenny Report, as far back as 1973 on land zoning, recommended changing the strong constitutional protections afforded to private property where the public interest is at stake. Nothing has been done to change this law.

In terms of competence, we have myriad problems, as has been argued elsewhere. Better outcomes can be achieved by better-trained people with proper competencies. Ireland has fallen behind developments in the British system, on which our civil service is based, in areas such as graduate recruitment, specialist training, and construction of expert skills services.

But it is also about the processes and the systems, which also need to be upgraded.  One interesting area is the Stanford ‘design led’ approach, which advocates that the process starts with taking on a deep understanding of the ‘customer’.

In many ways, we see this as the management process akin to the deliberative and participative processes in political science, such as the Irish Constitutional Convention, which seek to put the citizen at the centre of decision-making. In a similar way, democratically mandated reform should be a design led approach with an understanding that innovation is a process that should emanate from a clear understanding of the needs of the customer or, for our purposes, the citizen. Thus, I argue that it is entirely possible to enable the design of better government in response to ‘observing’ the will of the people.

In terms of accountability, there have been very positive moves from Brendan Howlin and Robert Watt at the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform. Open government initiatives, freedom of information reforms, whistle-blower and lobbying legislation. But there is more to be done: senior policy advisers need to ensure their primary duty is to the people, and with that in mind they should be fearless about the impartial advice they give and it should be much clearer where the responsibility lies. Blaming the system to ensure no accountability is no longer good enough.

The Official Secrets Act
But I believe one of the biggest cultural problems with accountability and transparency is the Official Secrets Act. Even the most junior civil servants must sign this anachronistic legislation. As John Coakley and Michael Gallagher have argued, Irish political culture can be defined as “deference to the views of established leaders and intolerance to those who dissent from these views”. Contributing to this has been “a breakdown in the interface between Ireland’s public institutions and the Irish public” and “a presumption of secrecy that underpinned Irish government since independence”.

The Irish Official Secrets Act was enacted in 1963, replacing the British legislation of 1911 and 1920. This placed greater emphasis on state security than on openness and transparency. The Official Secrets Act, as amended, applies to all civil servants and potentially anyone within the state. Breaking the Official Secrets Act is punishable by up to seven years’ imprisonment, which naturally produces a chilling effect on any tendency towards openness. Official Information is understood to include not only cabinet deliberations but also information on the working of public bodies. This is a legacy of the British colonial system and is not present in most European countries which function well without it. Perhaps Sir Humphrey put it best in an episode of Yes Minister, when he stated that the Official Secrets Act is “not there to protect secrets, but to protect officials”.

Trust in politics and political institutions are at an all-time low. We need to act. First steps could empower the parliament, put the interests of citizens not bureaucracies at the heart of policy planning and make very effort to let the light in. We need to do this without delay.




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