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Agencies are capable of pivotal role in recovery

Ladies and gentlemen, fellow citizens, we need to get a grip here. In the wake of the report of “An Bord Snip Nua”, there has been a national outbreak of self-loathing. How could we have got it so wrong? What national madness took hold? And that was even before the Sunday papers got going with the “bloodbath”of solutions ahead – complete with colour cartoons of Colm McCarthy as butcher, axe murderer, and scissorshand.

The McCarthy report has done the State some service. It paints a picture of excess, waste and restrictive work practices which grew like bindweed around the delivery of services, a situation that few could defend.

It questions the existence of many State agencies. Aside from a few organisations that deliver a core of essential services, no group has a right to exist and none without scrutiny and re-examination. Without a doubt, there is evidence of duplication and overlap in some areas. There is clearly justification for reduction and rationalisation where that is demonstrated. I also believe that many good agencies will be closed down because we can’t afford them anymore – not because they don’t do excellent work, let’s be clear about that.

The report and much of the commentary on it contains unexamined, unspoken assumptions for which no evidence exists.

Firstly, that Government departments are more efficient than State agencies. Secondly, that the functions of various agencies can be taken back into Government departments. Thirdly, that Ireland is some crazy outlier in respect of its use of multiple agencies. Does anyone think that if a similar exercise was conducted in the US, the UK or any developed OECD country, it would find a pristine, minimalist government landscape? Of course not. The business of managing complex modern democracy is just that – complex.

There is also an almost wilful historical amnesia in some of the reaction to the report. Remember the entire agenda of modernising government which everybody was so enthusiastic about a decade ago? That agenda emerged from the realisation that the socio-economic challenges facing government in a rapidly-changing world are more complex, uncertain and unpredictable than they were in the past, making it difficult to respond in a way that meets the higher expectations of the public.

Central to this agenda is reform of public services. While modernising initiatives have taken varying forms in different countries, certain key features were common.

Most included a focus on outcomes and value for money; better understanding and management of risk and ensuring users of public services rather than providers were the focus. Crucially, modernisation also involved challenging existing models of service-delivery by the wider involvement of people outside government and greater collaboration and partnership with the private and non-profit sectors. This in turn called for the creation of “arm’s-length” executive agencies as a way of bringing public and private sectors together in a way that allowed them to act independently at different levels – local, regional and national. The goal was to build a more responsive, customer-focused approach by utilising the local knowledge and specific expertise of agency staff. That was the thinking behind the creation of most agencies and it is still legitimate.

This raft of initiatives as implemented by the Clinton administration in the US, the Blair governments in the UK, and by governments in Australia and New Zealand has been termed the “New Public Management”.

But trying to modernise government is no easy business and the results have been patchy everywhere. Policy assessments undertaken by the US Office of Management and Budget have found that of the 1,016 federal programmes it had assessed by the end of 2006, only 18 per cent were judged to be effective, with a further 31 per cent moderately effective, 29 per cent were adequate, 3 per cent ineffective, and the results were not demonstrated in the rest. In the UK, the overuse of performance measures and targets has been criticised for stifling creativity and creating perverse incentives.

Issues of accountability and autonomy, as between parent departments and agencies, have continued to be a problem in most states.

In Ireland, the civil and public service responded quickly and, for the most part effectively, to the modernising challenge. Irish policymaking has been innovative and entrepreneurial over the past decade, particularly in the area of equality and social exclusion. At their best, Irish policymakers have also introduced a central coherence into policymaking through the social partnership process and the lifecycle approach. But we have our own peculiarly Irish problems. In the social partnership process alone, I think I counted about 80 working groups operating at one point. There have been persistent problems associated with the management of pilot projects, including inadequate evaluation, failure to terminate unsuccessful projects, and failure to mainstream successful projects. In the past decade in particular, the growing use of multiple agencies with multilevel governance often led to increasingly varied approaches to policy making, policy drift, and consequently greater challenges in monitoring success and failure.

But the failure here was due not to the agencies. All the modernising initiatives described above, particularly the creation of executive agencies, implied a changing role for government in a more complex society – a role of strategic co-ordination rather than policy control.

This is where we stumbled. Agencies can only operate effectively if they are given a clear remit and strong support. In a world where issues develop, change and mutate rapidly, the agencies dealing with them have to be monitored and expanded, modified or closed down as required.

In Ireland, we seemed unable to close anything down. But we found other ways to kill off programmes or agencies. As Daniel Patrick Moynihan, former Harvard professor and counsellor to the US president, once observed: withdrawing funds and favour is only the most obvious way to do that. Establishing a competing programme is more elegant and usually more effective, with the newly-established competing programme having goals and rhetoric barely distinguishable from the other programme.

Consciously or otherwise, we rather specialised in that modus operandi here. Before we ever had zombie banks, we created zombie agencies. I can’t help thinking that when finally presented with the full list of department-sponsored agencies, there must have been murmurings of surprise among some top civil servants.

Now these ghostly agencies have been dragged into the full glare of the “An Bord Snip” limelight and stand condemned. The process of softening up the public to get them ready for a public execution is already well established, this time led by a few overexcited politicians and media commentators. Agencies are no longer referred to by their individual names, but by the pejorative general term “quango”.

The key point is this: we need to recognise that the solution to too many agencies is not a reversion to a 1950s-style system of governance. Government departments are the linchpin for delivery of State services. But the essential function of departments is to implement the policies of the government of the day. They must do so within strict rules, with discretion and without criticising government policies. Social radicalism is not a civil service function. Neither is advocacy.

Government departments, no matter how innovative, are large bureaucratic institutions. With their broad remit, they are unable to give the sustained focus and attention to particular areas of activity that smaller, more activist State agencies can. Necessarily, they are at a greater remove from the local, intimate knowledge of particular groups or problem areas. Because of their size and way of functioning, they are not able to respond in the rapid and nimble way a good State agency can. Indeed, one of the major weaknesses of the McCarthy report is the almost exclusive reliance it places on large-scale as the route to effectiveness. As American commentator Thomas Friedman said, in the age of globalisation it is not size that is important but speed. Before, the big ate the small. Now, the fast eat the slow.

In any case, we have recently had painful reminders from the Ryan report of just how spectacularly a government department can fail. Had there been at that time even a semblance of an independent State agency with a specific brief to protect children, akin to the Ombudsman for Children’s Office, it is hard to envisage such sustained physical and sexual abuse occurring that happened under the watch of the Department of Education.

In the months ahead, important decisions will be taken. We need to be vigilant that in the rush to a kind of pseudo-efficiency we don’t create further problems for the future.

We must be careful that we don’t undermine the progress we have made over the past decade in creating a modern developmental State – that networked web of Government departments, State and other agencies – capable of delivering the mixture of income support and tailor-made services identified as the most effective way to tackle a complex issue like social exclusion.

A command-and-control-style government cannot deliver nuanced, bespoke solutions like that.

No doubt, in some redoubts, there may be a longing for the paradise lost of command-and-control government. But that is what it is – paradise lost; and it was never much of a paradise anyway.

If that mindset prevails, State agencies will be indiscriminately shut down, or amalgamated into Government departments. We will be assured that their functions will continue. And then?

I will leave the last word to Moynihan (adapt as necessary for Ireland): “But the pattern persists: the bright idea, the new agency, the White House swearing-in of the first agency head, the shaky beginning, the departure 18 months later of the first head, replacement by his deputy, the gradual slipping out of sight, a budget bureau reorganisation, a name change, a new head, this time from the civil service, and slowly obscurity covers all.”

Never was sober reflection and considered debate more needed in Ireland than in the coming three months.

Originally published in The Irish Times.

 

Posted: 23 July 2009