Strategic policymaking should remain central if the new system of government is to work, writes Breda O'Brien
IT IS rare, but occasionally it does happen, that replacing one piece of jargon with another actually sheds light on a concept. The recent review by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), Towards an Integrated Public Service, declared that it would not be using the Government's own term, decentralisation, to describe the scattering of Government departments to the four winds, but would use the term, "administrative relocation".
An unlovely phrase, to be sure, but it manages to sum up the central problem with the process Charlie McCreevy set in train before gracefully accepting exile to Brussels.
We have the weakest local government system in Europe. Decentralisation does not involve devolution of power by central government or departments to regional government level. By moving the departments to more than 55 locations, we may have made central government less efficient as well.
The OECD is also sharply critical of the way agencies charged with specific tasks have proliferated. Estimates vary, but there are now anywhere between 800 and 1,000 Government agencies. This has inevitably led to fragmentation, which will only be compounded by so-called decentralisation.
With the exception of the Department of the Taoiseach, each of the remaining 14 departments are being relocated to some extent, with eight being moved in their entirety outside Dublin. Parts of some departments will end up, not just in different counties, but in different provinces. To give just one example, Minister for Agriculture Mary Coughlan lives in Co Donegal, but the Department of Agriculture's administrative headquarters is in Portlaoise. Other parts of her department are moving to Enniscorthy, Fermoy, Macroom and Clonakilty.
Given that when the Dáil sits, the Ministers and senior civil servants of all departments will have to be in Dublin, most of them will be more familiar with the interiors of their cars than with any of their official offices. Perhaps a better term for "administrative relocation" may have been "administrative incoherence".
There are other serious problems. While transfer applications have been brisk among lower grades, there has been a notable reluctance to move among senior people.
Also, decentralisation has led to a serious loss of morale and expertise, as people with specific knowledge built up over years apply to transfer elsewhere. Some sections have seen up to 90 per cent turnover of staff. This has serious implications for efficiency, a quality that becomes even more important in a time of economic downturn.
The OECD has warned about a loss of cohesion in the Civil Service. It is possible that because the Department of Arts, Sport and Tourism will now be located in Kerry, that people from Kerry and Cork are much more likely to apply for posts there. There will be even less cross-fertilisation than at present between departments, as people who have applied to work in a certain area will be reluctant to move elsewhere in the future.
Perhaps the most important function of the public service is long-term policy planning. Arguably, Ireland's success in the last decade resulted from policy decisions taken long ago by people like Ken Whitaker, secretary of the Department of Finance in the 1950s, and former taoiseach Seán Lemass. More recent decisions, such as investing in research, have also been significant. While the Civil Service has great strengths at the level of strategic planning, where we have fallen down is in delivery of services - most notably in health, and to some extent in education.
There is a case to be made for devolving the delivery of services to regional and local levels of government, but to continue to centralise longer-term strategic planning. To give just one example, it is insane that the Department of Education has to approve and plan every new school, given that planning departments of local authorities have all the knowledge of the real needs, as they plan housing. Provision of new schools should be devolved to local authorities in consultation with patron bodies and the Department of Education.
When it comes to policy, we need more "whole government" thinking, not less. Take a major social issue like alcohol. Certainly, it is a concern of the Department of Health, but it has implications for the Departments of Trade and Employment, Justice, Education, and Arts, Sport and Tourism. How easy will it be to co-ordinate policy across departments when it will now involve hours of travel? Technology and new means of communication still cannot replace face-to-face contact.
While some of the sillier decisions regarding decentralisation might still be reversed, it is unlikely that the policy will be. It is wildly popular in the regional areas expecting a boost for local economies. It would be a brave politician who could countenance losing the votes of entire towns.
More importantly, we need to strengthen local government - no easy job given the way that it is tainted by allegations of corruption.
Councillors are paid part-time job rates and, often, talented and ethical people are deterred from entering local politics because it is held in such low regard. Our current system grew out of a sop to Home Rulers by the British, and then, in the 1930s, in response to a specific crisis in Cork, we bolted on city managers, drawn from an American model.
Local government is overdue a complete overhaul. Although many of the city and county managers are exemplary, there is a definite democratic deficit because local councillors have so little real power. No wonder they are keen to throw their weight around in the few areas where they have influence, such as planning and rezoning.
The broad, strategic policymaking functions of the Civil Service should ideally be left in a centralised location, so as to interact efficiently and easily with the whole of the Government and with outside agencies.
However, until local government is strengthened, we will have no genuine devolution of power. Real change will not come about through dispersing and fragmenting central government, but by giving budgets and responsibility to local government.