Policy formulation and decision making that is undertaken largely in secret, that affects large swathes of the population, is rarely a success.  Two striking examples from the previous government is the bank guarantee and decentralisation.  Both policy decisions were made with no consultation, even within the cabinet or political parties let alone opposition parties or the public.  Both have proven to be controversial and disastorous.  Interestingly, it is the legacy of the bank guarantee and austerity that has finally killed off decentralisation.

As announced yesterday, a total of 40 decentralisation projects are to be scrapped; a further 32 projects (mainly in locations where permanent accommodation has been secured) will be left in place; decisions regarding an additional 22 projects are pending.  Decentralisation was announced by Charlie McCreevy in 2003 to the surprise of just about everyone except himself.  As an idea, decentralisation has some merits, but not in the cack-handed way that McCreevy envisaged it.  Rather than tying decentralisation to the aims and ambitions of the National Spatial Strategy announced in 2002, with departments and agencies clustered into gateway cities and hub towns, they were scattered across the nation into just about the most inefficient arrangement as possible, almost exclusively ignoring the growth centres identified in the NSS.  As a measure designed to improve governance and local/regional development it was as bad as it got, ignoring best practice around agglomeration effects.  As Proinnsias Breathnach on this blog has argued, decentralisation did not “merely completely ignore the NSS but actually served to undermine it.  This, despite the explicit commitment in the original NSS document  that ‘The Government will take full account of the NSS in moving forward the progressive decentralisation of Government offices and agencies’ (p. 120).  Quite rightly then that Taoiseach Enda Kenny described it yesterday as one of the most “ill-judged, badly planned ideas” of the previous government.

The bottom line is that tactics without (democratically debated and agreed) strategy is a recipe for disaster.  It is somewhat of a shame then that the reform of the public sector announced yesterday follows the same pattern.  The plan is simply to cut numbers – numbers of agencies, numbers of staff.  There is no evidence as to a strategic vision as to why organisations are being cut or merged, or which workers need to be trimmed from the public service, or how the public sector will look in five years time other than thinner.  The tactic for reducing staff is early retirement and to let contracts lapse.  There is no targetting of particular types of job; no re-envisioning of an organisation and its work and work practices; no plan as to how reshape.  The strategy seems largely to pray that the right kinds of staff are left once the labour force has been reduced.

The NSS and NDP were strategies about envisaging the future of Ireland and how we were going to achieve that future.  We need a new NSS and NDP fit for purpose, with budgetary decisions tied to them.  A tactic composed simply of cuts, with no grand plan other than to reduce spend does not form a strategy.  And tactics without strategy is no way to try and get a country out of recession – it relies on serendipity and luck and is as likely to fail as succeed.

Rob Kitchin