Wasters is an account of the misuses of state funds, poor governance, organisational failure and cronyism in public bodies in Ireland.  It includes chapters on the growth of semi-state agencies, cronyism and political patronage, ministerial expenses, FAS, HSE, CIE, DDDA/NAMA, PPPs and other ‘bad deals’, and social partnership.  It’s often fascinating, but suffers from a sense that one is reading little more than a name and shame list.  In fact, there is very little narrative beyond an indignant list of issues and their cost to the taxpayer, and the ordering of chapters seems to be somewhat random (in fact, they could be re-ordered and it would have little effect on the read).  At one level this is fine, and provides a useful service, but at another it is a significant shortcoming.

There is very little attempt to explain why the present state of affairs exists beyond a general lack of appropriate governance and oversight, cronyism, corruption and propensity to establish semi-state agencies and public entities.  Analysis is left purely at the level of the implicit and empirical.  I was not expecting a detailed academic explanation of the operations of the Irish state, its political economy, and its underlying ideology – this is after all a general readership book – but I did expect some attempt to make sense of the situation (as with Fintan O’Toole’s Ship of Fools, for example) and to provide a nuanced portrait of the public sector.  In Ross and Webb’s account all public bodies exhibit the same poor governance, and the same levels of waste and inefficiency.  This is clearly not the case.  There are plenty of examples of bodies that do a very good job on limited resources, where senior management have a sense of responsibility and desire to deliver quality services, and do not treat the entity as their own personal piggy bank and jolly expense account.  They also display the same level indignity for all expenses, regardless of whether they are legitimate or not, and the scale of expenditure, with scorn poured equally on a couple of euro for a coffee as for millions of euros on inappropriate property ventures where there are clear conflicts of interest.

More problematic in many ways is that the book makes no suggestions as to what should happen to address the various problems that they identify.  It is simply not enough to say ‘here is the problem and its scale, and it should be dealt with’, as if there is one, obvious solution.  In my view Ross and Webb needed to conclude, not with a sideswipe at the Office of the Comptroller & Auditor General, but rather with a path forward that they would like to see implemented to address the various inter-related issues.

From my own reading, I think the following should happen:

  • There should be a full audit of the total number of public bodies; their role, staffing, costs and benefits (and I know that there’s been the Local Government Efficiency Review Group and An Bord Snip Nua reports.  For a list of public bodies see here).  This is about getting a sense of the size and shape of a public sector that has accreted over many years in odd, contingent ways without necessarily tidying up in the wake of new formations, rather than being the lead in to a simple slash and burn exercise.
  • Where there is duplication or significant overlap in organisation mission and operations there should be mergers and appropriate re-profiling of staffing
  • There should be fully accountability and freedom of information availability for all state-funded entities, including NTMA, NAMA, Dept of Finance.
  • The renumeration of senior staff grades within state agencies and entities should be reviewed.  No public sector salary should be in excess of a government ministers.
  • The awarding of bonuses in the public sector should be scrapped
  • Fees and rates to consultancies and external service providers, including the legal profession, should be reviewed and appropriately capped.
  • All boards should consist of members appointed through a competitive process.  That is, no board should consist of any direct political appointees, but by people best suited to the job because of their experience and knowledge who apply for the position and are interviewed by an appropriate appointment panel.
  • All members of boards associated with public bodies should receive no or very limited renumeration based on ‘real hours’ contributions and expenses should be at cost, based on receipts.
  • There should be no conflicts of interest between board members and other entities they work for or also represent.
  • The expense claims of all employees and board members of any public body should be signed off by an appropriate line manager who is suitably qualified for that task; individual claimants should be legally libel for any mis-use or mis-appropriation of state funds.
  • There should be no business or first class flights for public sector employees and board members and there should be a ceiling on accommodation/food per diems that cannot be exceeded by any state employee or board member.
  • No member of family should be travel on the state’s tab; no exceptions.

These are all relatively straight-forward and easy to implement and do not involve any excessive introduction of an audit society which is often counter-productive, but rather they set parameters and the conditions of good governance.  There are clearly other alternative ways to tackle the issues that Ross and Webb identify and if they had had a go at setting out what they would like to see changed their suggestions would, no doubt, be different to mine. I suspect they would include more about re-inventing some entities, getting rid of some public bodies in their entirety, and introducing rigorous systems of accountancy, oversight, management and governance in terms of key performance indicators, goals and milestones, and the like.

Overall, Wasters fulfils a role in setting out the governance and accountability issues that affect a number of public bodies in Ireland.  Some of the examples will make your blood boil and Ross and Webb provide a great service by exposing some of the excesses and waste.  As a read, however, it really lacks a narrative that seeks to explain why such a system exists and how it should be changed.  In that sense it is a missed opportunity.

Rob Kitchin