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Column: Scandal over state board appointees shows there is reform in name only

Ignoring candidates for state boards who apply through formal channels in favour of those with political backgrounds discredits the election promises to tackle cronyism, writes Sarah O’Neill.

Sarah O'Neill

IT HAS RECENTLY emerged that at least two of the six appointees made to the Board of the Heritage Council in January of last year were made by Minister Jimmy Deenihan in contravention to the formal application process. Documents released to The Sunday Times under the Freedom of Information Act show that neither former Labour Party press officer Catherine Heaney or Fidelma Mullane, a close friend of President Higgins, submitted formal applications but were nevertheless chosen to sit on the board despite 76 people applying for the available positions.

A 2012 report by the Institute of Directors In Ireland on the efficiency of state board appointments in Ireland found that the majority of board members of state bodies are concerned by the lack of transparency around the appointment process, and feel that there has been undue consideration given to the skills required to fulfil board positions.

These findings appear to discredit the commitments to tackle cronyism and ensure merit-based appointments to state boards made by both coalition partners in their election manifestos. The only way to achieve these objectives is to make the recruitment process entirely transparent, minimise government involvement in choosing appointees, and actively engage individuals with the appropriate skill set to fulfil these positions.

Reform in name only

Since then, board positions have continued to feature on Government department websites and have been advertised via the Public Appointments Service. Although board positions are open to all citizens, 74 per cent of board members surveyed by the Institute of Directors feel that the appointment process is still unfair and not transparent. One anonymous respondent described the advertising as ‘total window-dressing’, which ‘so far, has made no difference’.

Word-of-mouth prevails as the most popular way current appointees were made aware of the positions they now hold. It is clear that although openly advertising board positions is a necessary factor in reforming the appointment process, the extent and scope of this advertising has proved insufficient and needs to be re-evaluated.

Other reforms include the requirement that candidates for the role of chairperson of a board appear before an Oireachtas Committee for scrutiny. However, only 35 per cent of those surveyed felt that these reforms had improved the functionality of boards, with some respondents expressing concern that the changes had in fact had an adverse affect.

Skills deficit

Without adhering to an open, transparent, merit-based application system, our elected officials are preventing the best and the brightest talent from leading Irish boards. This attitude will have a detrimental effect on the future progress of our country.

At time of appointment, 40 per cent of current board members say the skills requirements of the position were not discussed with them. The current system appears to place greater emphasis on the importance of induction training for new boards but, as Maura Quinn chief executive of the Institute of Directors responded to the results of the institution’s report, “getting the right skills and expertise on the board should always be the starting premise”.

Despite backing the Diaspora 2016 initiative, which seeks to make available the time and expertise of 100 global business leaders, the Government appears to be circumventing previous enthusiasm for the project and evading any offers made.

Former Intel CEO Craig Barrett and Tom McEnery, former Mayor of San Jose, California, are among those who have pledged to sit on Irish state boards. By refusing to prioritise expertise and experience in the appointment process, the Government are depriving our state bodies of the dynamic leadership they deserve.

Snubbing the talent

The snubbing of obvious talent, and revelations of ministerial misbehaviour are disappointing and feed citizens’ perception that patronage and cronyism are alive and well. Transparency breeds trust and only through open, independent processes can the Government earn back the public’s confidence.

Both Fine Gael and Labour committed to putting an end to such behaviour and have failed to implement reforms sufficiently effective to succeed in this endeavour. Ministerial patronage is unacceptable in any context, and we must accept the flaws within our current system that have allowed for this conduct to prevail.

The 2010 CGAI report called for the establishment of an independent Commission to appoint all Public Sector board members. Perhaps this most recent scandal will be the final push the Government needs to implement such a body – just make sure those appointed to the Commission are recruited from outside the political system.

Sarah O’Neill is a TCD student and founder of www.dailwatch.ie, a non-profit, politically neutral platform for direct, public Q&A between citizens and TDs. Dailwatch will be hosting a Twitterchat around Political Representation in Ireland at 12-2pm on February 6. Join the
conversation by tweeting @dailwatch #AskaTD at this time.’ To read more articles by Sarah for TheJournal.ie click here.

Read: Oireachtas committee to vet chairs of State boards>

Read: Minister satisfied State boards appointment process is “fair and transparent”>

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