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Aaron McKenna: Gender, geography, age – focus on everything but quality in government reshuffle

Conspicuously absent from the talk about the reshuffle was an evaluation of intelligence, skills, capabilities or temperament.

Aaron McKenna

SIMON HARRIS IS one of the most intellectually capable members of the Oireachtas today. He has been a stellar performer at the Public Accounts and the Finance, Public Expenditure and Reform Committees. Not that you’d know it to look at much of the coverage in the news, on social media and elsewhere about his appointment as Minister of State at the Department of Finance.

“We have hats older than he is!” was a headline that about summed up the appointment of Harris, who is 27.

Meanwhile, pretty much the same constituency of commentators were lamenting the lack of women promoted in the reshuffle, particularly on the Fine Gael benches, where none at all made the cut for junior posts.

Much of the speculation and talk around the reshuffle at the cabinet and junior ministerial level considered gender, geography, age, loyalty, longevity and electoral prospects in the next general election. Conspicuously absent was much talk of intelligence, skills, capabilities or temperament. Not one single piece I read about the reshuffle, and very little of what was talked about, considered in any great detail the CV of a potential applicant.

Picking the right people for the right job

Have they ever directed an organisation even a tenth the size of a government department? Apart from a political staffer, have they ever managed and motivated people? What’s their background towards the brief they’re being sized up for?

There is a holistic approach to picking the right people for the right job, and one doesn’t necessarily need years of direct experience in the field to be a good candidate. Dr James Reilly had a poor run as Minister for Health. Dr Leo Varadkar was an excellent Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport; even winning praise from Ryanair, never a shrinking violet towards Ministers in the past.

What is different between the two men is perhaps management style, temperament and other qualities that are a lot more difficult to pin down than geography, age, or their position in a heave that happened four years ago. Now the frankly unenviable task of trying to marshal Health has fallen to Varadkar, where the hope is that his qualities as an organisational leader will lead to more success than we’ve seen to date.

Women at the top

The lack of women at the top is lamentable. Of the 15 Cabinet ministers, four are women. Of the 15 Ministers of State, two are women. Including the Attorney General, 22.5 per cent of the Government is female. This is quite low, but actually women are overrepresented at Cabinet versus the makeup of the Dail from which it is plucked, where the 27 female TDs represent 16.25 per cent of membership.

I’m generally a sceptic to both sides of the argument around gender quotas and enforced balance in places like the Cabinet. On the one hand, the best people should get the jobs; but on the other, I don’t believe that there is a dearth of good quality women out there to fill them.

I think the issue in Government, as distinct from corporate boards for example, is that there is a tiny pool to choose from. If the Cabinet comes from the Dail alone (as it usually does), you would need to over-represent women by over 200 per cent on the number elected by the citizenry. Twenty of the 27 women in the Dail are in Fine Gael or Labour, and you’d need to promote 15 of them to get balance.

Now, I believe that the Taoiseach was wrong to not promote a single woman to the junior ranks; but the notion of full equality at cabinet from the pool available is either unworkable or highly unwise. Not all of those 20 candidates would make a good minister, just the same as many of the men available for promotion are better suited to other pursuits.

An inherited the system from the UK

Politicians are a very specialist bunch. Their first skill, though they may have many, is electioneering and inner party manoeuvring. There are 166 of them at present, soon to be reduced. This Government and its super majority aside, most governments barely scrape a majority with 80 to 90 TDs.

From this number, 30 must be chosen to form a government. The rest get the scraps of committee chairs, deputy chairs and regular cheap seats. To suggest that they’re all suitable or do a good job is fanciful, given that even organisations that rigorously select candidates for jobs via competitive recruitment regularly get it wrong.

We are actually relatively unusual to draw our government ministers from among parliamentarians. We’ve inherited the system from the UK, where they also have a concept of ‘safe seats’ into which parties parachute their intellectual heavyweights, and they have a pool of 650 MPs to our 166 TDs.

It has been long suggested that a Taoiseach looking for gender balance could parachute a few good women into the Seanad and appoint them to any but the Finance portfolio, which has to be a TD.

Scrap the notion of parliamentarians as Ministers 

Another idea would be to scrap the notion of parliamentarians as Ministers altogether. Become a Minister in France and you have to resign your seat in parliament. We would have to make quite a few changes to make it work here, particularly with razor thin majorities. In principal, however, would it not be better to recruit a government from a pool as large as the whole nation, and leave elected officials to scrutinise them?

It would make it easier to achieve balance, and would also remove from the party leaders of the day the weight of expectation that comes from promoting within the ranks.

When an interviewee sits in front of me looking for a job, it is both wrong and in certain cases illegal for me to consider many of the qualities we weigh so heavily for those who run the country. We should change the criteria we consider, and then open up the recruitment pool beyond 166 people whose job should really be to approve and monitor the performance of Ministers; not simply wait around for their turn.

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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