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Friday 1 December 2023 Dublin: 1°C

Denis Naughten The only winners in the Holohan job debacle will be large consultancy firms

The independent TD says the mishandling of a potential move by the CMO to Trinity College is a wasted opportunity.

FAILURE TO FILL the role of Professor of Public Health Strategy and Leadership in Trinity College could have a long-term detrimental impact on the need to strengthen the relationship between policymakers and our research community.

This would be damaging for strategic policymaking in Ireland, which is so badly lacking at present, and the only winners would be the consultancy firms who charge millions of euros each year to produce reports that in many instances are telling the Government what it wants to hear, not what it needs to do.

Advice to government

In the Dáil last November, I expressed a hope that the one thing that comes out of the Covid-19 pandemic is a greater appreciation of the need for independent scientific advice in policy and decision making in our country.

While I was not at all happy with the manner in which Tony Holohan’s secondment was handled, I believe that he more than anybody was very aware of this deficit in terms of a greater appreciation of scientific advice and I have no doubt that in his new role he would have helped to overcome it.

The Trinity College role within the research community could have built a bridge between the Department of Health and science and acted as a template for other Government Departments and agencies.

The fact remains that there are very few technical postgraduates throughout the public service with too few linkages to our universities. As a result, we are far too reliant on external advice, which is important, but it must complement expertise within Government, not replace it.

Powerful consultants

Every time a complex decision has to be made in Government or by a Government Department, a team of consultants are hauled in and they are accountable to nobody.

We exclude direct advice from the experts in the specialist fields who are funded by the public (through research grants or third level institutions) and whose individual academic reputation is based on providing impartial advice. Instead, we splash out more public funds to get a consultant’s interpretation of that evidence; evidence that the public has already paid for in research grants.

We need to explore how we can allow public sector policymakers an opportunity to step outside their daily role through secondment to an academic institution to undertake a specific piece of policy analysis informed by their professional expertise.

While badly mismanaged, this was the original objective behind Tony Holohan’s move to Trinity College.

Right across our public service, we need focused incentives for those within the public service to upskill and attract analytical skills into Government Departments thus providing a better understanding of technical advice.

This needs to be stitched into the Public Service Reform Programme or else we’ll continue with lip service reform. But this also needs to be a two-way flow of expertise, connecting science with policy, fostering a network of science and engineering leaders who understand government and policymaking, and who are prepared to develop and execute solutions to address societal challenges.

Wasted opportunity

Instead of creating greater ties with our universities, I’m now afraid that this debacle will see our public service withdraw even further away from such initiatives.

This has at least in part led to a situation today where we’ve relatively low digital integration within our health system as health managers withdrew from information technology developments due to the PPARS (personnel, payroll and related systems) computer debacle in the early part of this century.

Today, patients are impacted by this lack of IT investment, and without the ingraining of critical thinking into public service that will be brought about by greater linkages with the research community in our universities we are just waiting for another group think disaster to happen. Sadly today, we’re all still paying for that approach to our banking system.

On that occasion, within the banking system, Central Bank, and Government there was no-one with the capacity to confront the property mania that had gripped the country and financial system or to question the poor-quality decision-making that had led to a Government budgeting model built on a property bubble. All of this came crashing down, leading to a near economic collapse that sadly we’re all still paying for today within our taxation system. 

Independent thinking must be encouraged and supported throughout our public service and within the corridors of Government. We need people who are willing to question and confront the existing policy approach or address the latest challenge in a constructive manner, by networking into academia to provide practical solutions that make Ireland a better country for everyone, not the few that have access to the right ear. 

To achieve this we require a Government decision-making ecosystem that’s based on a critical analysis of all the options – and that can only happen with the building of bridges between the policymakers and scientific community, through roles like the Professor of Public Health Strategy and Leadership in Trinity College.

Denis Naughten TD is a member of the Inter-Parliamentary Union Working Group on Science and Technology which is developing greater linkages globally between researchers and policymakers.

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