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Aaron McKenna: There's no room for quangos in today's cash-strapped Ireland

We ought to cull almost all state bodies and quangos and send them back to being offices within their respective departments – in order to free up government money to alleviate stresses on our frontline services, writes Aaron McKenna.

Image: Mark Stedman/Photocall Ireland

THE CHILDREN’S OMBUDSMAN received powers during the week to oversee a further 180 state bodies that she considers of interest, as legal reforms passed last year came into effect. That’s an interesting number, being 35 more quangos and state bodies than the 145 Fine Gael had promised to abolish or merge in their pre-election crusade to change politics and save the nation.

The post-election story has been a little less assured than their “145 Quangoing… Going… Gone” photo opportunity, and is almost neatly summed up in the tale of the Western Development Commission. The body is one of hundreds focused on promoting economic and social development, which is a good thing that would perhaps be better accomplished if there weren’t so many bodies like it tripping over one another.

Spending review

When the government came to power it immediately set about long-fingering their commitments in time-honoured fashion by having a spending review come back to them with recommendations on what they had seemed so sure about only weeks before. Anyway, the review came back and proposed abolishing the Western Development Commission and rolling its function into other bodies for a saving of €1.5 million per year.

The government ignored the advice and then appointed a new man to head up the body, a former Fine Gael councillor who had run the very successful election campaign for the party in the Taoiseach’s constituency. Paddy McGuinness complained bitterly about the criticism of his appointment at the Oireachtas Environment Committee prior to his taking up the post that being a friend of Enda Kenny is seen as some sort of a crime.

He might be right that it’s an unjust criticism that he was appointed without much competition by a Fine Gael minister to head up a quango that Fine Gael election promises said should be abolished.

Reforming a quango – how difficult is it really?

Paddy’s quango isn’t the only one that avoided the chop since the present government arrived on the scene. At the beginning of 2012 we were told that 48 quangos would be abolished or merged during the year. A way short of 145, but one supposes that it’s more complicated to restructure government bodies than it is private sector organisations that have had to adapt on the turn of a dime or die since the beginning of the recession. After all, when you want to reform a quango you have to, umm, do, emm, well, erm… It’s complicated, ok?

By the end of 2012 it turned out that only a third of the quangos, 17 in all, would complete the byzantine process. So much for Labour Minister for Public Sector Expenditure and Reform Brendan Howlin’s solemn promise that government would press ahead “resolutely” (a favourite word of his, deployed recently in reference to public sector pay should Croke Park II fail) on the rationalisation plan.

Even when a quango is merged or abolished – and it’s mostly the former – the savings are minimal compared to what they could be. Quangos are large and self-sustaining organisations, most of which carry a quasi-private sector administrative overhead that was put in place to make government look more businesslike. State bodies have CEOs and boards of directors stuffed with political hacks who meet occasionally at great expense. They have directors and senior managers and junior managers and strictly regulated hierarchies of administration in order to, well, administer the administration.

Mergers

When you pull apart many quangos that have a specific purpose, say to keep track of the environment or our food supply or whatever else is being regulated, you’ll find that the organisational overhead is often quite a substantial portion of their costs; sometimes matching that of the cost of actually carrying out their stated function.

Merge quangos and, of course, there can be no compulsory redundancies of staff. A merger of two large state bodies might need more HR and IT people and so on, but with efficiencies of scale they will likely not require all that the merger would bring. In simple terms, move them into the one building and they won’t need the doubled capacity of receptionists; but doubled capacity is what we’ll get rather than freeing up money and posts to hire a few gardaí or nurses.

The quango culture emerged mostly under Fianna Fáil rule as a way for ministers to hold a launch and appear to be doing something on issue X or Y. Never mind that many quangos overlapped in their duties, the electoral effect of having a body set up to mind the problems in as parochial a manner as possible was worth any amount of other people’s money.

Fine Gael and Labour have carried on the quango culture and are now just as responsible for the glut of nearly 1,000 bodies – some major and critical, others that carry on only occasional work – that they have failed to show any mettle towards dealing with. They’ve instead carried on the age old tradition of handing out posts to trusted crony’s in true Bertie Ahern style.

We ought to cull almost all state bodies

It’s not acceptable to be only able to manage to merge 17 quangos of 48 planned. If there is organisational foot dragging going on, and one can only imagine there is, then an immediate saving might be made by ejecting the logjams from government administration. But the government ought to be more ambitious than even Fine Gael’s 145 quango plan, which one can almost inevitably see being reheated for the next general election.

We ought to cull almost all state bodies and quangos and send them back to being offices within their respective departments. Get rid of the massive overhead it takes to administer the bureaucracy and keep the specialists, the scientists, the people who actually do something that was – long ago – the intended positive benefit of the quango. Free up government money to alleviate stresses on our frontline services.

But then I suppose there’d be less goodies to hand out to political friends, the unions would probably have a major difficulty with the idea you’d fire anyone; and we do of course risk the possibility that the entire world might stop turning without all these state bodies to coax the sun up in the morning. Climb back into your trolley there and be thankful while we try and find you a nurse.

Aaron McKenna is a businessman and a columnist for TheJournal.ie. He is also involved in activism in his local area. You can find out more about him at aaronmckenna.com or follow him on Twitter @aaronmckenna. To read more columns by Aaron click here.

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