At the time that the decentralisation plan was announced in Dec 2003, John Bruton described it as the single greatest act of administrative and political vandalism since the foundation of the state.  Well we can probably debate that status given the Anglo debacle and the fact that decentralisation hasn’t unfolded quite as envisaged by its main architect, Charlie McCreevy.  Frank McDonald is writing a three parter in the Irish Times reflecting back on ‘the Big D’ – the plan to move 10,922 public servants and 48 government departments and semi-state agencies to 58 locations (with all the moves to happen before the end of 2006).  The first two pieces are here and here, and a map showing the planned moves is below.  There’s little point re-hashing McDonald’s pieces, but they’re well worth a read to see what happens when electioneering and short term political gain are put ahead of what’s right for the country.

What is striking about the original plan was that it was drawn up in secret by four people (Charlie McCreevy, Bertie Ahern, Mary Harney and Martin Cullen) with seemingly:

  • no wider consultation with affected parties or the general public
  • no examination of examples elsewhere or cases of best practice
  • no evidence-informed analysis and planning of the scheme and what would go where
  • no cost benefit analysis
  • no impact analysis or assessment of how it would affect how departments operated or the delivery of services
  • no assessment of how it would affect workers and their families
  • no alignment with other government policy such as the National Spatial Strategy.

The 2003 decentralisation plan

It’s easy to see why many think that decentralisation was simply an election strategy seeking to look like an administrative policy.  Not only has it failed to be successfully implemented, it has cost the taxpayer a fortune in site, building and fit-out costs.  Successful administration usually works through agglomeration; so scattering units across the country is going to lead to inefficiencies and few gains.  This is not to say that decentralisation is bad per se, but that it would be more effective to decentralise departments and agencies that are complementary to the same location – perhaps all the environment, transport, planning units to one place, all the social, welfare, health to another, etc.  The question now is whether to halt the process, reverse it, modify it or proceed as planned?  One would like to think that the kinds of analysis missing earlier has now been undertaken and whatever decision is come to reflects what’s best for the country and not what’s best as an election strategy (or the fact that we can no longer afford it).

Rob Kitchin