Talent Deficit in Government

Addressing the Talent Deficit in Government and the Public

Ed Walsh

The democratic institutions of the Republic remain remarkably
unaltered since the foundation of the State. This may be seen as an achievement,
and in ways it is, but it provokes the question whether these are still the
best choice for the governance of Ireland. The STV (single transferable vote) electoral
system, favoured in the English-speaking world when adopted by the first Dail,
is still retained, even though abandoned across the globe by every other democracy
with the exception of Malta. Almost all the states of post World War ll Europe,
and the new democracies of central Europe, have abandoned 19th
century parliamentary structures in favour of systems more fitting to these
times. None has opted for the Irish system.

The intense crisis that now engulfs us highlights the
deficiencies of Ireland’s system of governance.

Talent is the glaring deficit. The 15 people who currently serve
as Ministers are well-intentioned, hard-working people but generally undistinguished
in terms of expertise, experience or achievement.  Not one of the many Irish people who have proven
themselves internationally serves in government. Our antiquated electoral system
results in the election of the large bulk of members of the Irish parliament
from just some 1000 people: members of local authorities.  While a
local authority  may be a source
of popular people it is an unlikely source of the experienced leadership and world-class
talent necessary to guide an advanced democracy.

There is some management experience at the cabinet table: Eamon O
Cuivmanaged a Gaeltacht co-operative, Eamon Ryan has a commerce
degree and ran a bicycle shop and tour business and John Gormley owned a
language school.  More than half the
members were in education (six teachers, one guidance counsellor, one lecturer),
one is a social worker and three are lawyers.
In so far as I can establish only one member of the Government is
scientifically literate: Eamon O Cuiv has a bachelor’s degree in science. I can
find no evidence that a Fianna Fail minister has a business qualification.  A company with such an unimpressive board of
directors would find it difficult to attract investment or be taken seriously.

An analysis of opposition front benches suggests that a change
of government would not much alter the talent and experience deficit.  Similar large numbers of primary and
secondary teachers would dominate.

A ‘Run-a-Sweetshop Rating’ gives a simple indicator of
government and front bench management talent. Ten points are awarded for managing
an organisation, even a sweet shop, and five points for being self employed.  The government gets 30%, the new Fine Gael front
bench is slightly ahead at 38% (unchanged from the previous one), and Labour
comes last with 21%.

Labour takes the lead at 28% in a ‘Scientific Literacy Rating’,
Fine Gael at 15% and the Government at 7%.
These ratings compare rather starkly with that for the Standing
Committee of the Chinese Politburo which scores 100%: each of its nine members
is scientifically literate.

None of the new democracies of central Europe chose to adopt
the Irish electoral system.  All decided
to introduce some form of List System, which provides a means by which national
movers and shakers can be brought into government. Typically half the seats in
parliament are reserved for those who are elected, as in our case, from local
constituencies and the other half from lists of well known national
figures.  As a result when the prime
minister goes to appoint ministers a wide range of proven talent and experience
can be drawn upon.  The list system
reduces clientism and Ministers can take difficult decisions with less concern about
re-election. They are released from the distraction and  burden of constituency work and can give
undivided attention to the ministerial job and the challenge of government.

In recent years a talent deficit has developed within the Irish
civil service. Many of the gifted school leavers who once competed for places
in the civil service opted instead for the more lucrative opportunities in the
private sector.  This reduced influx of
talent has been aggravated by private-sector head-hunting that vacuumed some of
the most capable and smartest from the middle and senior ranks of the civil service.  Unlike the 80s, we now have a civil service seriously
weakened by loss of talent and leadership and disoriented by the
decentralisation gambit.  As a result
Ministers are less likely to receive the firm guidance, astute advice and, when
appropriate, the direct opposition of their civil servants.  The repeated statements made by Charlie McCreevy
and his colleagues that the government, and not the civil servants,  ran the country, showed either a lack of
knowledge of the  legal position or a
disregard for it. The responsibility for safeguarding public funds and for the
efficient administration of a government department lies not with the Minister
but with its Secretary General. Provision is made for facing down a Minister
who exceeds his or her legal authority and informing the Comptroller and
Auditor General.  In recent years, since
the Haughey era, few civil servants appear to have had the courage or
confidence to confront a wayward Minister.

Many of Charlie McCreevy’s ‘If I have it, I’ll spend it’
initiatives could have been frustrated by a confident civil service. In
particular the decentralisation policy, that was blatantly party-political and not
in the interest of the efficient administration of government departments, deserved
to have been stopped in its tracks. It has proven highly inefficient and a
cause of distraction to the leadership of government departments. Many
Secretaries General have been faced with the disintegration of their teams and
the loss of corporate memory.  I
understand that one found himself with some 40 replacement staff.  The arrivals lacked the expertise to do the
job and many were of an age when they had little interest in finding out.

The boards of public bodies also suffer a talent deficit. It
is estimated that 2,300 people serve on the boards of the 188 national
non-commercial state agencies.  Many of
these are ministerial appointees.  Quality
varies considerably depending on the Minister.
In some cases real effort is exerted to select capable and knowledgeable
people. However it has been my experience that the best are more likely to be
bypassed in favour of party faithful.
Such people are often organisational liabilities.  The solution is to limit Ministerial choice
to lists of competent people drawn up by an independent commission.

The current national crisis represents an opportunity for
radical reform of governance and public administration in Ireland.  Ireland needs it: the quality of governance
cannot exceed the quality of those who govern.

Irish Times

6 July 2010

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