in government, Ireland

Government and brokenness

Conor O’Neill writes about ‘where does Ireland go from here?’

I agree with Conor on what is wrong but I basically disagree with his views on how it should be resolved. Basically, Conor’s view is that:

(a) we should make government better;

(b) we should make the government responsible for more things (for example, infrastructure for broadband).

And if we do this, we will surely have better services. (I know that is boiling it down and simplifying it to a large degree)

However, my view is that it is very difficult to do (a) to any great extent (although we should undoubtedly try, I have no problem with that). As a result, (b) is just not going to work.

We have to look beyond government as a way to solve our problems. If we want to have decent broadband, for example, we need decent broadband providers. If there aren’t any, we have to start one, or help someone else start one. This is the way it used to work. When Ed Rice realised there was no education and no opportunities for young people, he didn’t ring a government department to demand action. When John Hume wanted to reduce the grip of moneylenders on people with low or moderate income, he went and did something about it.

What won’t work is trying to take over these functions and putting them in government hands and expecting that to result in an improvement, because it won’t.

If we want to improve government, we can’t be just talking about extra things that people have to do. That just adds to the bureaucracy. We have to see if we can strip stuff away. Are all the functions of government really relevant anymore? Do we really need all these offices and all these people to administer such a small country?

That isn’t to say we should have less public services. If anything, we should have more. But we should measure public services by the amount and quality of services delivered, not by the number of people involved in delivering them. And we should look at better ways of delivering these services, which take advantage of voluntary sector, private sector and overseas expertise to deliver the best.

None of this is because public servants are ‘bad’ people or ‘lazy’ or anything else, because they’re not. But the problem is that government is not particularly good at looking after large numbers of employees. It creates all sorts of problems when it gets involved in the workforce like this. It constrains and destroys the individual creativity and initiative of individuals, rather than rewarding it.

The advantage of having a better political system (which I hope we will develop, although it will take time, perhaps decades) should be that we get it to focus on setting the tone for growth and for public services, without having to micromanage the whole thing. Our job as citizens is to take responsibility for ourselves and our environment and try to improve it in direct, tangible ways.

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  1. Hi Antoin,

    Good article. The country certainly cannot afford the monster that the public sector has become and it also most certainly does not offer value for money. The quangos just add to the burden and are another problem entirely. Just look at the health service and the mess that is. As a small nation we must look to doing things differently and the government must seriously look to outsourcing key services to the private sector.

    Regarding the appalling state of Broadband in this country. I live in a modern estate about 20 minutes walk from the local exchange in Swords and the best I can get is 1.3mb. Absolutely horrendous in this day and age. The government talks of building a “Knowledge Economy” but there isn’t a prayer of that happening until they bite the bullet and get to grip with the appalling state of the broadband infrastructure in this country. I certainly see no hope that Eircom, the incumbent operator being capable of doing anything meaningful as they are totally broke. According to the Independent, Monday June 21 2010 “Eircom is now the fifth riskiest company in the world in terms of the chances it will default on, or restructure, its debt, bond market data shows.” Just look at billions that BT in the UK are pumping into building a Next Generation Fibre Broadband network. The government urgently needs get this mess sorted as the problem will become more and more relevant to companies looking to invest in this country. John