3 Jun 2008

I’m trying to understand what happens at a meeting attended by the Taoiseach and his advisors on setting up a taskforce to address the criticisms of the now famous OECD report which pointed to some serious failings in the Irish public service system. The challenge facing the Irish public service is that, although we're a very small country with few, if any, public policy experts of international repute (certainly not in planning anyway), we still have to provide a service which in every respect is a match for those of our larger neighbours. It’s not an excuse to say that our planning and transportation systems are a mess just because our population is too small to produce experts of sufficient calibre. Whenever it becomes apparent that home grown expertise is not available to us in a critical area, the obvious way to deal with things is to seek advice from abroad.

With this in mind, I’m picturing myself at that meeting with the Taoiseach and his people, jotting down my wish-list of possible taskforce members. It includes the following: the chairs of the public policy departments at the London School of Economics, MIT, Wharton, Harvard, etc.; some top economists (Alan Greenspan, Emilio Ambasz – in addition to being a world famous architect Ambasz has been an economic advisor to US administrations as well as the Spanish Government); public servants of international repute (Rudy Giuliani, Dave Dinkins, Jacques Chirac, George Mitchell); a smattering of representatives from countries where the public service is known to function: Germany, Japan and Holland… you get the picture - people with ability, international experience, qualifications, insight, peer respect and what have you.

The very last people I would have on my list of task force invitees would be our own Secretaries General of the Departments of Health, Environment Heritage and Local Government (I have absolutely nothing personal against this particular Secretary: I’ve never met her, I’m sure she’s a lovely person, a great neighbour and fun to have at a dinner party, but her performance three weeks ago at the Public Accounts Committee defending the half billion cost overrun on the Ballymun Regeneration Project left me thinking that the modus operandi of her Department is exactly the kind of thing the that the Taoiseach’s new taskforce would be focusing its attention on) and Education (future generations will never forgive us the money we squandered on baubles while they were squeezed into draughty little huts). And yet, when the Taoiseach announced the taskforce membership a week ago, these very people make up half its membership.

There are two things I don’t understand. First, with the economy now faltering, Fianna Fail seniors - the Taoiseach included – have in recent weeks been pointing fingers across Kildare Street at the six figure salaried folder-carrying-corridor-walkers accusing them of contributing to the economic slowdown. Sure this is mistaken: the public service slows us down when we’re going fast – it has little effect when we’re already stalled. Second, if the Taoiseach really believes what he’s saying, does he seriously expect the Secretary General of the Department of the Environment to support the sort of planning service reform a serious taskforce could not avoid recommending?

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