Ireland’s suffering is only intensified by its loss of the art of good-policy making

Journalist Deirdre O’Shaughnessy did a long post yesterday on a very personal experience she had in Patrick Street in Cork recently. It’s worth reading the whole way through to get its fuller effect, but the point she makes at the end is worth highlighting…

…while we are all distracted by Irish Water and suspicious greenways and TDs’ fraud, our society is crumbling, and, distracted by our own private struggles, we are letting it.

Yesterday the death of a homeless man in central Dublin  triggered a debate around the government’s capping of the Rent Supplement, which has pushed many families into Bed and Breakfast and record numbers onto the streets of the Republic just as the winter weather hits.

Like the closure of women’s refuges it represents a pressing down on service budgets at the extreme edge of social policy. Relatively speaking the numbers are small, but the stories which emerge speak directly to Ireland’s self conception as a caring society.

The public debate invariably falls back into mutual recrimination, allowing one famously libertarian Irish MEP to remark:

He has a point. Long term policy arcs were all the rage in the post war era in Ireland as much as in the UK. Massive public house building programmes were a feature in both jurisdictions, but for much of the last forty years, successive governments as deferred to market demand as the prime locus for social action.

But Jason O’Mahony also has a point when he argues that there’s a dishonesty about an undernourished policy sphere in which everything is weighed and tested against local parish interest as opposed to the interest of Dublin or the broader interests of the country.

He offers the plumping for county hospitals over regional centres of excellence:

Some years ago, a number of Irish politicians knowingly sentenced some their constituents to death. A report by experts pointed out that small local hospitals did not have the experience, capacity and technology to provide specialist care in the case of heart attacks.

In effect, the report said that a person who had a heart attack on the steps of the local hospital stood a better chance of survival if they were flown by air ambulance to a regional hospital with a dedicated experienced unit who dealt with heart attacks every day.A rational analysis of the report would have led to a debate about how to ensure that such an efficient air ambulance unit could be provided.

Instead, in Ireland, the local deputies argued that every small local hospital should have such a cardiac unit, a proposal that was not only impractical but if attempted to be implemented would suck resources from other parts of the health service, thus resulting in unnecessary deaths from non-cardiac related illness.

Why did they do it? Why did these elected representatives knowingly campaign for a policy they knew would actually kill some of their constituents? Primarily, one would suggest, because their constituents demanded it, and in a democracy, the voter is always right. Even when he or she doesn’t read the report or just plain refuses to accept its findings because he or she simply don’t like them. The voter rules.

When the voter is then standing over the grave of his or her wife or husband who died on an operating table from a heart attack, in the local hospital, it’s not their fault. It’s the health service’s fault for not providing a world class cardiac unit in a tiny town. The local deputy will attend the funeral and agree that the wife or husband has been let down, despite having known this would happen from the expert report. And so on it goes.

Now there are many considerations here.

When Peter Geoghegan and I visited Roscommon on our mad one day dash through a greater swathe of the country than either he or I had anticipated, we heard that what filled people with dread was the thought of needlessly dying on the road to Galway.

Yet a functional solution is hardly rocket science either. David Allen Green wrote a blog for the FT recently trying to clarify what policy is and what it’s not…

…a policy is about obtaining an outcome which otherwise would not be obtained but for that policy being in place. It should thereby make a difference. If the same things would happen (or not happen) anyway – regardless of any particular policy being adopted – then you do not really have a policy, unless perhaps that policy is just one of pure laissez-faire.

He concludes…

The deeper problem is that there is often little political advantage in good policy-making. The voters and the press find the exchange of slogans and the performance of gestures comforting. Most people who take an interest in politics are preoccupied by the soap opera of the personalities involved, or in the exercises of tribalism and sentimentality which usually pass for national political debate.

This is not surprising, as good policy-making is as boring as any other detailed exercise involving the competing interests of other people. Nonetheless, it still needs to be got right. Good policy is the considered course of action by which a supposed public benefit is accomplished, which otherwise would not be accomplished, by the best use of the resources available. It is grounded in reality and thought-through as to its consequences. But get policy wrong and instead of the desired benefits there may be further and unintended problems, or even nothing achieved at all.

Quite. From an age of broad (perhaps stultifying) consensus we are entering an age of prolonged divergence. In the process as O’Mahony notes…

…democratic politics is becoming less and less tolerant of long term planning. It’s attracting candidates who are thinking more and more short term, sometimes just to Friday afternoon or the following days newspapers, candidates who aren’t interested in anything that they can’t wave at their voters before the next election.

O’Shaughnessy’s story probes a crucial sidenote to all of these matters. She describes in Hobbes’ terms a life at the margin that remains what it always was, “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short”.

The true mettle test for Irish democracy lies not in its willingness to pay attention for the moment it takes to blame the inherited plutocracy, but to persevere for “an outcome which otherwise would not be obtained”.

Politics will always be politics, and in the game of who eats whom, as Arbitrary Constant notes politics will always trump policy. It’s our means to establish, understand and communicate a workable public will that’s missing.

Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty

  • Zeno3

    We really know all of that and yet over half of the electorate continue to support the curruption that is politics.
    If you keep voting you can expect nothing better. Voting for different Suits will, and has made absolutely no difference. Withdraw your vote. That is the only possible solution.

  • mickfealty

    I hate to repeat myself, but all politics is in part, us not them…

    “It’s our means to establish, understand and communicate a workable public will that’s missing.”

  • Zeno3

    Are you suggesting that we continue to support the charade. It has been shown that it doesn’t work. All we have gotten from voting is curruption and game playing. As someone said “repeating the same actions over and over and expecting a different result is insanity” (paraphrased).

    When you are voting for just variations of people who have selected themselves as our leaders your vote means nothing.

  • mickfealty

    I thought it was clear from the piece above that this is a problem which is not in anyway particular to NI?

  • Sharpie

    Policy making is poor because the right people are not involved in informing and creating it. Most policy making is driven by people (Ministers and their staff) who are unqualified for the nuances of their brief and who chose to ignore the experiences and expertise that does exist.

    Politicians sell their value as being able to effectively respond to any issue, from any constituent, at any time. There is no time for them to deepen their expertise, to study alternatives, and to create space for wider insights.

    Also the types of people who rise to the top in politics didn’t get there by being humble listeners – it’s those who sell a vision to which people respond – the classic alpha personality. This is precisely the wrong type of person to have creating policy.

    The ideal personality for top politics is forceful on the side of the public good, an advocate for inclusion, but not scared of fighting for those principles. A benign dictator type personality. They would surround themselves with professional people with no political ideology or aspiration, but who are able to do the technical work of coalescing movements, finding and acting on evidence, and keeping coalitions on board.

    Instead we have people who generally have frail personalities, swayed by popular opinion, offering promises that can’t be kept, trying to be the archetypal hero leader who has all the answers.

    Charismatic in service to the public good. I can’t think of one current politician on the island of Ireland who fits this profile, apart from Mark Durkan. Mary Robinson and the senior late Brian Lenihan are examples. Somehow I have an impression that Scandinavian leaders have this sensibility.

    Of course different situations call for different types of leadership. But complex corporations are able to manage it – so why can’t relatively small “Nation corporations” or Governments?

  • Zeno3

    Maybe I am not making myself clear. I’m saying that continueing to vote is prolonging the problem.

  • mickfealty

    AH, I was going to put something in there about the choice between democracy and demagoguery… but this from Justin should suffice…

    That’s not to say we should scrap democracy, of course. China does long term planning very well, but it also uses tanks against its own people.

    Democracy is still the most effective bulwark against tyranny and for that alone must be maintained. But as a guarantee of good, rational government it is becoming less and less effective.

    The truth is that the less and less effective it is the more attractive the demagogue may become… so there’s a public interest in trying figure a way of getting ‘the machine’ (which isn’t quite a machine of course, since its made up of people) to listen more effectively…

  • kensei

    Any article blaming democracy should be instantly viewed with suspicion. He’s wrong on China – it’s not just the tanks that are the problem. There are levels of corruption much worse than in Ireland throughout the state and there is no guarantee that the decision making made for corrupt or political ends will ultimately pan out. It’s too early to tell, and if there are economic troubles a state that size may well have trouble remaining unified.

    Closer to home, there have always been rabble rousing and populist politicians. Generally there has been more far cited leadership to meet them – even in the Republic. I’d blame a gap there rather than the general populace. The electorate in the South has sucked up an awful lot of austerity without much in the way of protest – much, much more than many commentators predicted but there is always a breaking point. It being water – both abundant in Ireland and utterly fundamental to life – seems like a reasonable place to do so.

  • Ian James Parsley

    It’s probably fair to say I had a discussion with Mick this morning about this.

    I had long assumed that my increasing awareness of people’s innate self-centredness (not quite the same as selfishness, but related of course) was due to age. As you get older and kids/mortgages take priority, your focus is on maintaining your home and your children’s well being – and, honestly, there simply isn’t that much time for worrying about anything (or anybody) else.

    And yet I do wonder if in fact it is not my own age, but a fundamental shift in social norms (which probably applies to the entire Western World). As we see other parts of the world advance economically, it becomes much harder to justify why we should enjoy higher standards of living (in terms both of incomes and public services) when people in the Far East and elsewhere are working considerably harder than we are. Thus we engage in a kind of self-centred denial – as if it’s reasonable to spend decades in education at the outset, decades retired on a state pension at the end, and decades in between working for the government, and suspect someone else magically to pay for it all (this view is particularly widespread in NI of course, but it’s common across Western Europe).

    One of the features I have long noticed about political parties in decline is they get nastier and they begin to shaft each other more – it’s a survival instinct. Is this now what’s happening to the whole of Western Civilisation?

  • barnshee

    “Democracy is still the most effective bulwark against tyranny and for that alone must be maintained. But as a guarantee of good, rational government it is becoming less and less effective.”

    As Churchill notes
    “It has been said that democracy is the worst
    form of government except all the others that have been tried.”

    Is it however “democracy” when the “party” and associated money donors selects (and deselects) the candidates and except at the extremes -the politician?

    And money “lobbies” and buy politicial influence.?

    Is it “democracy” when politicians remove half or more of its
    citizens income via taxation because it “knows better ” than they do on how to spend it?

    “China does long term planning very well,”

    Long term planning is an anathema to politicians in “democracy” -It inevitably requires hard decisions which militate against the sectional interests which elected them and thus against their most important wish–to get re-elected.

    Every major problem faced by society (In Health Education Immigration, Environment,Pensions you name it) arises as a result of the” kick it down the road and leave to the next generation” method used.

    Inevitably each time the hard decisions are deferred they become-what else – harder -time to kick it down the road again