Peadar Kirby: When speaking to the NESC on Friday last, the Taoiseach Enda Kenny made a point that, if taken seriously, has the potential to address what has been a major weakness in Irish public policy. According to the report in The Irish Times, the Taoiseach said that council recommendations need not always be based on a consensus view. “It is better to have reports which reflect some variety of views, rather than self-censorship which excludes consideration of difficult questions,” he said.
The Taoiseach’s comments identify what has been a major problem with the policy advice given to successive governments by the NESC, a problem that to my knowledge has never before been identified. This is that NESC reports need to win agreement from the social partners and, as a result, they tend to fudge rather than highlight policy options, often ending up saying quite contradictory things in the same document. Because most of the reports are lengthy, these contradictions tend not to be noticed as different interest groups can find elements that suit their needs. Neither have academics, with a few notable exceptions, studied these reports with the attention they deserve so that they have rarely generated much public debate.
All of this has served to impoverish public debate on the making of policy as quite narrow and technical approaches have tended to dominate, usually limiting access to experts and failing to address the deeper values that inform policies and the goals to be achieved. Enda Kenny’s recommendation of the validity of a variety of views is therefore refreshing and of great significance. Equally, his advice to the council to consider producing more frequent, shorter and more timely reports, if these served to foster debate on the different options facing society, has the potential to make a major contribution to the kinds of debates we so badly need.
In this regard, the methodology followed in Costa Rica is worthy of study. There an annual state of the nation report is drawn up by a team of worthy citizens – usually former presidents and government ministers, retired senior academics and other senior figures, aided by a team of experts. All of this is done under the aegis of the rectors of the country’s public universities. What makes these different to the reports produced by NESC is that they explicitly seek to highlight the different options facing policy makers and the public on specific areas of public policy. Regularly the reports contain dissenting views, making clear the basis for the differences identified. All of this serves to nurture and inform a variety of approaches to public policy, greatly enriching the process of policy making and drawing into the discussion wider sectors of the population.
This may be one reason why Costa Rica stands out in Central America for the quality of its public policy, being a global leader in policies on climate change and avoiding the worst of the recent financial crisis through its regulation of the banking sector and its early stimulus package to maintain demand in the economy. As a result, credit kept flowing and economic recovery kicked in quickly. The main problem now facing policy makers is how to reduce a budget deficit that reached 3.3 per cent of GDP at the height of the crisis!