Nat O'Connor: There are four stories in the press today that each illuminate part of a big, unanswered question, which is about what is the best way for the State to operate.
The newly elected president of the Irish Planning Institute makes a defence of planners and calls for better planning in future. Two Sandymount residents give a detailed critique of Dublin City Council's planned incinerator. An Taisce and the NRA dispute the data being used to justify the NRA's road-building programme. And NAMA seems set to decide the fate of 35 hotels.
What these stories recall is the balance that should exist between the role of the State in facilitating longer-term strategy and planning, versus the role of commercial bodies to provide more immediate goods and services (ideally within a regulatory framework that trammels market activity so that it aligns with long-term strategy).
Part of the aftermath of the economic crisis must be the widespread realisation that the over-reliance by Government and senior public servants on unregulated market forces led to a poorly planned housing system, an unsustainable hotel industry, and many other problems. Indeed, many public bodies seem to operate as if they are independent entities competing for finance and importance, rather than co-operating as partners in realising a democratically-mandated strategy.
Part of the solution must be the rise of more evidence-based policy-making and a reappraisal of the state's capacity to plan and strategize. (It is incredible that it was already the twenty-first century when, in 2004, a Taoiseach addressed a conference on the issue as if it were a great novelty!)
Yet, despite the need for strategic leadership from the State, the Government seems inevitably drawn by its 'Ireland Inc' reflex to attempt to fix our problems by relying on market-driven approaches. For example, from NAMA's business plan, we know that it will operate "as an independent commercial entity" (page 8). In relation to hotels, "Where a number of NAMA-funded hotels are competing in a location where there is only potential for a single facility, NAMA will make its decision based on the optimal commercial outcome." (page 12).
The Ireland Inc reflex is problematic. For example, NAMA will be the only market player in many situations where it owns hotels or developments of housing. Hence, there won't be a market to determine prices. And the relatively short-term decisions it makes may not reflect the long-term public interest. Hence there needs to be strategic leadership, based on solid evidence, to guide its decision-making.
The example of the incinerator critique suggests that Dublin City Council is acting like a private entity itself, by making a secret deal with Covanta that will last 25 years. The council's motivation seems to be getting a cut of the revenue stream. While I recognise the flawed funding system for local government, having individual councils make these kind of deals in order to raise money does not seem likely to be the most effective outcome for the public interest; because unlike a private company which has to pay its own way, the council is signing off on a deal that taxpayers must fund.
There needs to be a major culture shift within Government and senior public service to recognise that you simply don't run a country in the same way as a large corporation. So much of the logic underpinning the goals and purpose of the State - such as long-term planning, non-profit outcomes (like health and education), protecting the public interest and environmental sustainability - runs entirely counter to how a business operates. Yet, the row between An Taisce and the NRA, as well as the criticism of the incinerator, suggests that there is a fundamental weakness within the public service when it comes to complex analysis of data in order to guide decision-making. The NRA and An Taisce may both be making valid analyses from their different perspectives, one arguing for more roads and the other for more public transport, but where is the central strategy that describes the balance between these competing goals?
We need better quality data from the outset. Which means that public bodies need to be audited for their capacity to provide meaningful indicators relevant to the policy areas they influence. This requires a serious audit of the current data generation and data analysis capacity across the public sector - and how this can be analysed holistically by Government Departments. And, as a matter of course, all of this data should be readily available to citizens, so that secret deals become impossible!As part of public sector reform, serious attention should be paid to whether or not the universities provide enough qualifications to allow us to re-skill and up-skill senior public servants. One good example is the joint professional doctorate in Governance, jointly run by Queen's Belfast and the IPA. We need more people with MPAs not MBAs in the public service, yet nearly all the Irish universities offer MBAs but none offer MPAs.
It's time to do away with the Ireland Inc metaphor and the failed assumption that public bodies can be run along free market lines. We need a more professional approach to the role that Government must play in leading through strategic data analysis.