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Column: The groupthink in decision-making positions in Ireland must end

Groupthink, cronyism and lack of accountability are largely to blame for the disastrous mess Ireland is now in, writes Clara Fischer.

Clara Fischer

IN THE PAST fortnight, two significant contributions to Irish political discourse were made.

One was a column appearing in the Irish Times by Dr Eddie Molloy about the importance of organisational culture. The other was the repeated claims about what, and indeed who, should and shouldn’t be targeted in the next Budget. Neither phenomena have been understood in connection with each other, which is rather unfortunate, given that they are intimately bound by the idea of homogeneity in decision-making and some people’s capacity to make possible harmful or detrimental decisions on behalf of others.

Let me begin with the issue of organisational culture. Many of the failures of governance at public bodies, banks, and certainly in government departments, are to a large extent attributable to dysfunctional organisational cultures. Indeed, the ‘groupthink’, cronyism, lack of accountability and fear of critical questioning characterising Irish economico-political life are largely to blame for the disastrous financial mess we now find ourselves in, and the horrendous impact it is having on our living standards and general well-being.

What is interesting though, is that mainstream discussions of ‘groupthink’ – now quite a fashionable word – are devoid of any deeper analysis of the agents involved in thinking uncritically, uniformly, and often self-interestedly. Rarely is the linkage made between the homogeneity of the very people in decision-making positions, and the decisions they actually make. Is it really that surprising that decision-making bodies made up entirely of a small segment of Irish society – white, middle-to-upper-class, middle-aged and male – should result in conformism? The issue is not so much that members of this particular group can’t think critically, can’t be innovative, and can’t question, but rather that a uniformity of people in positions of power tends to result in uniformity of decision-making.

The research on women’s under-representation in politics, business and economic governance clearly shows us that lack of diversity in boards or parliaments correlates with lack of diversity in decision-making. For instance, there is a large body of work on the impact a ‘critical mass’ of women representatives has on policy, but also on the way in which politics is conducted. Studies on devolved parliaments show us that as the numbers of women have increased, the tone and style of political debate have become less adversarial and more constructive.

Also, policy priorities tend to change, with women having a significant impact upon social welfare provisions, such as childcare. This fact is hardly earth shattering given that women are still predominantly the primary carers for children in our societies. Importantly, though, it highlights a self-evident truth: different people have different priorities and concerns.

The overwhelming presence of only one strand of Irish society in decision-making positions is not good

The crux of the matter is this: women and men, migrants and non-migrants, young people, old people, working-class people, upper-class people, disabled people, non-disabled people, lone parents, children, married people, people in civil partnerships, and the plethora of other diverse human beings forming this society – we all have differing life experiences, experiences that mean we bring with us different priorities and ways of looking at the world. The overwhelming presence of only one particular strata of Irish society in decision-making positions, though – be it in politics, the Civil Service, or banking – means that only one particular set of life experiences feeds into the decisions beings made.

That is not to say that the traditionally privileged group in question can’t stray outside of itself, to introduce women-friendly or youth-friendly policies, for example. It does mean that the systems and organisations historically propagated by and for only this very narrow strata of human being – of a certain class, sex, age, and ethnic background (in politics, even from certain families and professions) – maintain a culture that does not incorporate in equal measure the priorities of the rest of society.

This much is captured by the admittedly rare, but all the more important, analyses undertaken on the differing effects of economic policies on specific segments of Irish society. Research by Tasc, for example, on Budget 2011 shows us that cuts and tax hikes were imposed disproportionately on certain members of society. Their study found that people on lower income lost proportionally more than people on higher income, while lone parents lost 5 per cent of income compared to 3 per cent of income lost under the same budget measures for other households. Given that both of these groups – people on low incomes and lone parents – are made up largely by women, it is clear that women have been disproportionately affected by Budget 2011.

The people excluded from decision-making are disproportionately bearing the brunt of austerity

In light of indications that inequality is on the increase in Ireland, we should ask ourselves why it should be acceptable that certain members of our society are more adversely affected by economic policies than others. We should additionally question why it is precisely the very people who are largely excluded from the decision-making structures of this country, who are also disproportionally bearing the brunt of austerity.

Finally, we should question why there is such scant information available on the differing impacts of economic measures on certain sections of society. Is this deliberate – an obfuscation of the unjust meting out of austerity? Is government worried that collation and publication of such information might draw attention to the privileging of certain groups over others?

The propensity for economic policies favouring or disadvantaging certain sections of society is a problem that is, of course, not just limited to the Irish context. Indeed, international best practice in Australia and Canada, for example, tries to mitigate such effects through the publication of shadow gender budgets alongside traditional budgets, and the provision of gender impact analyses or equality audits.

In its programme for government, the current administration sets out is commitment to “forging a new Ireland that is built on fairness and equal citizenship”. In this spirit of equality and fairness, one would hope that the government will do its utmost to ensure its economic policies are gender and equality proofed, thereby avoiding the kind of disadvantaging of specific sections of society we have seen hitherto. Recognising that one’s position excludes the alternative life experiences of others is one step toward understanding the significance of the linkages between homogenous decision-making and exclusionary cultures on the one hand, and the capacity to make decisions on behalf of others (often with detrimental effects) on the other.

In the end, the answer to truly bringing about “fairness and equal citizenship” lies in the redistribution of power among the diversity and plurality that is our society. At the very least, though, we can demand to know how economic policies affect us differently.

Dr. Clara Fischer holds a Ph.D. in political philosophy and feminist theory, and is a co-ordinator of the Irish Feminist Network. The network is currently inviting expressions of interest for a campaign on the introduction of equality audits and gender budgets. Email: irishfeministnetwork@gmail.com

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Clara Fischer

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