There’s a central character in Martin Lynch’s play Dockers called Buckets McGuinness. I can’t remember too much of the detail (it’s more than 25 years since I saw it at the Lyric), but the brashness of the name stuck. It could adequately describe the cavalier way the Irish government treated the apparently largesse of the Irish Tiger boom years… Eat drink and be merry for tomorrow, for we’ll be broke… As though Ireland was a nation of casuals whose docks were full to the brim with cargo, with no end of work and cash and new and bigger ships ever coming in… The reality, as Dan O’Brien noted in his commentary on last October’s budget for the Irish Times, was rather different:
A majority of euro zone members have registered a narrowing of budget imbalances since 2006. Ireland has not only bucked the trend, but the deterioration in its public finances has been far worse than that recorded in any euro zone country over the past quarter century.
If this extraordinary failure was a one-off failure, one could possibly make the case that the lessons of today will be learnt and not repeated. But it is no such thing. It is the second time in a generation that the country has inflicted upon itself such harm.
And he made a suggestion that’s been elaborated upon in today’s paper, by Eoin O’Mally. O’Brien pointed towards the fact that the electoral system has a bias towards choosing men and women who are popular members of their own community; but who have more often than not only the slimmest grasp of the higher powered world of finance:
School teachers, publicans and small-town accountants are deeply rooted in their local communities and ensure the political system avoids the kind of disconnection with voters that many other mature democracies suffer. This is the enduring strength of Ireland’s system. But it is also its greatest weakness. Such people are rarely even remotely qualified to run a finance ministry.
How to maintain the strengths while curing the ills? The answer is to depoliticise aspects of fiscal policy in much the same was as has been done with monetary policy across the world. This would allow qualified people to have a far greater input into the management of the public finances and curb the sort of “If I have it, I’ll spend it” insanity that has led to the current predicament.
That Brian Lenihan is a lawyer ‘by trade’ does little to blunt the argument. O’Brien goes on to make three suggestions which he argues would not interfere with the essentially political balancing of setting tax and expenditure rates; and all of which boil down to outsourcing key analytical functions currently be carried out inside the Department of Finance. He suggests: moving forecasting out to ESRI and evaluation of spending to a new independent institute. Then beefing up the powers and resouces of the Comptroller and Auditor General in the auditing of spending afterwards.
O’Malley continues the theme today when he argues that Cabinet oversight of increasingly complex and intertwining policy areas may now be obsolescent. So, he asks:
What could we do to ensure that policies are exposed to a thorough interrogation by a diverse range of interested parties and experts? Well, sponsoring departments could be required to publish their memorandums in advance of government meetings, not 30 years after! If these proposals could state the purpose of the policy change clearly, and why it would be expected to work, this would remove sole governmental control of policy analysis. Poor policies would be less likely to sneak under the radar.
In fact there is another means of beefing up the wider interest in the hard core issues of government. That is to simply free the data. In Britain a political revolution has been taking place simply because one newspaper, The Daily Telegraph, got hold of 1.5 million documents relating to the expense claims of MPs expenses. It’s a genii that will not now go back into the box. In fact, George Osborne’s office has been poring over of volumes and volumes of data from National Audit Office reports looking for things they can cut when they come to power, and promising when the Conservatives come to power they will publish every single item of expenditure over £20,000.
But it does not have to be that radical. Nor does it have to be argued for by trenchant Opposition politicians or newspapers with the immense resources of the Telegraph.
Anthony at the Public Enquiry blog, highlighted details of the massive spend on the private property market by local authorities around the Republic. Then Gavin (Anthony’s nephew and along with John Handlaar the moving spirit behind Kildare Street), chips in a Google graph generated data gathered from the Central Statistics Office which demonstrates just how madly central government has been spending public money, allegedly fulfilling social housing need, whilst in fact throwing good money after bad by buying housing stock at the full market rate…
The extent to which many of those costly properties still lie empty is an indication of just how pressing the need was in the first place. That they bought them off developers rather than as a planned policy of clearly identifying and then tackling real housing need serves to bolster O’Malley’s point that “much of our current monitoring of government strives to discover that monies werent misappropriated, not whether they were spent wisely.”
It seems to me this is a case of new wine bursting old bottles. The share scale of the boom left Ireland’s plodding bureaucratic government, civil servants as well as politicians, a long way out of their depth. But the capacity of new technologies to smarten the public debate can only be grasped by a government which has sufficient confidence in its own abilities to allow the public into areas they’ve never been allowed see before… Yet it’s not an alien concept either.. The art of the Meathail is the sharing of the ownership of common problem.
And the time for sharing has to be sooner rather than later…