As in previous recessions, concern about gender equality has been one of the first casualties of this one.  On International Women’s Day, let’s take a moment to reflect on how, and why, topics popularly called “women’s issues” have disappeared from the front pages, and consider how the gender-blind implementation of austerity is reversing some hard fought gains.

The conundrum of care – and women’s roles in providing it – is at the heart of gender inequality.  When Betty Friedan’s Feminine Mystique inspired a second wave of feminist activism, the expectation that most care would be provided by unpaid, full-time homemakers was the principal obstacle to equality for women.  Since that time, changed social values and a dramatic increase in female labour force participation have transformed the lives of women and men.  But that transformation also brought changes in the provision of care that created new pathways to differences amongst women, and to the reproduction of gender inequality in society as a whole.  There are three parts to the story.

First, more women in the workplace means greater demand for services to support families as they strive to look after children, the elderly and others who require additional care because of illness or disability.  (We all require care, of course). In ‘liberal’ welfare systems like that of Ireland, many of these services are provided by low wage workers, workers in the informal or black market, and extended family members, including grandparents.  Most of these poorly paid or unpaid workers are women.

Second, much of the growth of comparatively ‘good’ female jobs can be attributed to the rapid expansion of professional care systems – particularly in health and education, and mainly in the public sector.  There is unequivocal international evidence that where the proportions of women employees are high, wages tend to be lower.  However, across Europe, public sector employment has helped to reduce the wage gap for women.  So as care work has expanded outside the home, it has tended to reinforce occupational segregation by gender – which has been shown to put downward pressure on women’s earnings in the long run – and to create (or worsen) sectoral divisions amongst women.

Third, even in good times, the challenges of combining paid work with family caring put significant pressure on women and their families, as they struggled to cope with the ‘second shift.’

The measures that have made Ireland the ‘poster-boy’ (sic) for the austerity agenda in Europe have worsened the situation for women and families across the board.  Cuts to home help for the elderly have directly hit comparatively poorly paid and unprotected female carers, and increased pressure on the families of those older people who are fortunate enough to have family members living nearby.  Reductions in pay and deteriorating conditions of work in the public sector will increase the gender wage gap.  The ‘reform’ whereby public sector pensions are calculated according to career average earnings, rather than final salary, will disproportionately affect women who tend to have lower lifetime earnings than men, largely because of how childbearing affects their careers.  Deteriorating public services push the burden of care back onto families, a burden which in practice falls disproportionately on women.

When I teach about gender inequality, I am often at pains to emphasize the degree to which women’s lives have improved in countries like Ireland.  There are legitimate concerns that opportunities for young working-class men have diminished.  However, our failure to address the conundrum of care – and its obliteration from public discourse in the crisis – means that gender inequality remains, and is worsening, in these sorry times.

Jane Gray


Former Minister for Finance Charlie McCreevy conjured up his own epitaph when he uttered the now legendary description of his budgetary tactics that went something like “When I have it, I spend it and when I don’t, I don’t”.  This phrase has become somewhat folkloric.  Its attribution is cited as sometime in the mid 2000s and the exact wording changes depending on the telling.  It is a tale of legendary negligence, a legitimation of the burn after earning that characterised the production of Celtic Tiger wealth.  It was a warning sign of the inevitability of hard times to come that we mostly chose to ignore.

McCreevy’s comment is iconic of the era in which it was uttered.  During the Celtic Tiger period a collective consciousness was arguably created in which most of us believed in the myth of eternal economic growth (or if we didn’t, we at least did not think about the consequences of collapse so often).  In a way the Government had convinced people that they didn’t really need state support.  On some level we all knew that the Government were squandering the tax intake but it didn’t somehow seem essential to (most of) our daily lives.  We were producing our own wealth, creating our own opportunities.  They had pulled off the neoliberal trick of convincing the country that it wanted less and not more state intervention.  And this produced new types of citizens.  In the space of a generation the Irish had gone from a people that saved before they bought, questioned any extravagance, and were wary of debt, to a nation only too happy to blow their paycheque on nights out, put the bills on the credit card, and become sodden in debt to buy their dream home and all the trimmings in one go.  For a long time the Irish had been a people who simply didn’t have it to spend.  Now that we had it, by god we were going to spend it.

This attitude was actively encouraged by the Government in almost everything they did.  They transferred the tax burden to assets, property in particular, and talked up the property market at every turn, encouraging people to buy, buy, buy.  They generated an economy based on consumption and called it growth, and they dealt in macro-economic statistics to obscure the uneven and precarious nature of this ‘expansion’.  (more…)

The National Spatial Strategy Update and Outlook, published on Tuesday, identifies the NSS as a ‘critical instrument for prioritisation and coordination of scarce resources ‘.  Integration between strategic spatial planning and capital investment prioritisation is further identified as a key means of delivering the objectives of the National Spatial Strategy. Indeed academic and policy advocates of European spatial planning have long argued that strategic spatial planning is a means of saving money, through its focus on coordination across policy sectors. The NSS itself is recognised as internationally as a leading example of national scale spatial planning in large part due to the formal links between spatial policy and capital investment allocation advanced through the 2007-2013 National Development Plan. See here for further details – ICLRD Briefing Paper 2.

The Update and Outlook seeks to strengthen the capacity of the NSS to act as a vehicle for the spatial coordination of sectoral policies through the re-establishment of a high level inter-departmental ‘NSS Coordination Team’. The focus of this team will be on ‘capital investment prioritisation’ which may be interpreted as Orwellian for spending cuts. Sitting high level representatives of the main spending departments ‘around the table’ in the context of spatial coordination is laudable but one must wonder where the momentum was lost following the initial launch of the NSS in 2002. It is also of concern however, that a new White Paper on Rural Development is under preparation in the Department of Community, Equality and Gaeltacht Affairs with apparently no direct input to date from the Planning Section of the Department of Environment, Heritage and Local Government (who are responsible for the NSS).

At the regional level the Update and Outlook stresses the role of Regional Authorities (RAs) and the new Regional Planning Guidelines (published this year) as a framework for ‘monitoring the integration of national, regional and local planning’ and strengthening arrangements for policy coordination between government departments, public sector agencies and local authorities. Indeed the Regional Reports published by each RA in the late 1990s set out a strong agenda for joined-up governance at the regional level. The reports, however also point to significant obstacles, many of which remain equally relevant today. These include an incompatibility of regional boundaries used by different agencies, a culture of competition among agencies and a lack of incentives for coordination and collaboration. In order for the cross-sectoral policy coordination potential of RAs and regional planning strategies is to be realised significant changes in governance cultures will be necessary as well as substantial changes in funding structures and related resource allocation mechanisms.

The diagrams below contrast two distinct models of regional governance relationships which I term ‘traditional hierarchical’ and ‘multi-level network structures’ (see NIRSA Working Paper 61 for further details):

(Click on images to view full size)

As Regional Authorities in their current form must be seen as relatively minor actors, it may be argued that current governance arrangements resemble the traditional hierarchical model presented here. Relations between government departments, public agencies and local authorities are characterised by a mix of strong and weak hierarchical links with limited horizontal or networked linkages at national, regional or local levels. The multi-level network model in contrast is characterised by a multiplicity of network links. The model draws on the international literature on multi-level and network governance and indicates the potential for regional governance bodies to play a critical role in ‘organising connectivities’ across diverse policy sectors and institutional arenas. A multi-level governance framework takes the principal of subsidiary seriously in recognising the autonomy of regional and local government but sets this within the context of policy influences from both national and European Union levels. It also raises the prospect of a non-hierarchical relationship between regional authorities and central government. The German ‘counter-current’ principle (Gegenstromprinzip) may be instructive in this regard. In this case a balance between strategic direction and regional and local autonomy is achieved through an institutionalised process of negotiation across the different levels of government. Significantly the international literature suggests that this coordination role for regional authorities is not dependent on significant resources or implementation capacities attached to the regional body itself. Indeed a regional authority, supported by a relatively small number of core staff may perform better in this regard than a large bureaucratic structure.

The National Spatial Strategy is as much about joined-up governance and policy coordination across the public service as it is about planning policy per se. The importance of getting this right should not be underestimated in context of the current recession and assocciated pressures for ‘capital investment prioritisation’.

Cormac Walsh

“In fact, I’d say the real war was a war over swibbles.  I mean it was the last war.  It was the war between people who wanted swibbles and those who didn’t… Needless to say, we won” (Philip K. Dick, ‘Service Call’ 1955).

In Philip K. Dick’s short story ‘Service Call’ the world is (about to become) policed by biological telepathic organisms encased in mechanical housing.  These entities called ‘swibbles’ were developed and sold as a way of stopping conflict ensuing from ideological differences.  When a swibble comes across an individual that holds an ideological perspective different from the mainstream they are literally ingested by the machine.

'Service Call' by Philip K Dick available in Volume 4 of the Collected Stories (Gollancz)

Therefore people install swibbles in their homes to monitor their thought process and ensure they do not stray from the established ideology, a way of demonstrating their adherence to the hegemony.  As the swibble repairman in the story proudly proclaims:

“There won’t be any more conflicts, because we don’t have any more contrary ideologies.  It doesn’t really matter what ideology we have; it isn’t important whether it’s Communism or Free Enterprise or Socialism or Fascism or Slavery.  What’s important is that every one of us agrees completely; that we’re all absolutely loyal.  And as long as we have our swibbles… You know the sense of security and satisfaction in being certain that your ideology is exactly congruent with that of everyone else in the world.  There’s no possibility, no chance whatsoever that you’ll go astray – and some passing swibble will feed on you”

Dick’s story offers a science fiction metaphor for what Foucault terms the practice of ‘Governmentality’.  Governmentality accounts for the range of practices and discourses that are encompassed within the apparatus of the state.  Part of this process involves the construction and prescription of ‘truth’ which are produced through tactics of governing, and reproduce systems of power.  Foucault argues that the emergence of modern government has resulted “…on the one hand, in the formation of a whole series of specific governmental apparatuses, and, on the other, in the development of a whole complex of knowledges [savoirs]”.  (more…)

Am I alone in feeling puzzled as to why revelations about the scale of our banking crisis seem to be followed so swiftly by outpourings of rancour towards the public service?  (The chart shows how interest in the public sector, measured by number of web searches from Ireland, surged after the first anouncement of the bank guarantee scheme in September 2008, and again after the publication of the NAMA legislation in September 2009.  The current surge, following the fallout from Minister Lenihan’s speech and the conclusion of talks on the proposed public sector agreement on March 30th is too recent to appear clearly on the chart). After all, there is no direct connection between the financial burden that the failings of bankers have imposed on the state on one hand, and the perceived failings of public servants on the other.  There is, of course, a fiscal connection: the property bubble that fed reckless behaviour in the banking system also promoted (through its accompanying stamp duty receipts) the political fantasy that it was possible to increase spending on public services and reduce taxes at the same time.  But it is unclear why this mismanagement of the economy should have resulted in such extraordinary levels of hostility to the public sector as a whole.

The argument in favour of urgently addressing the ‘structural deficit’ created by the collapse of the property market through dramatic cuts to public expenditure – even as the state makes almost unimaginably high financial commitments to the banking sector – appears to centre on the reaction of the notorious ‘bond markets’ which, we are told, will punish us if we don’t mutilate our society in this way.  I am unqualified to comment on the merits of this argument – although Michael Taft has an amusing commentary on it over on progressive-economy.  But even assuming that the argument is correct, and that we have no choice but to reduce our public services and lower the standard of living and working conditions of our public servants, why should the process be accompanied by such bile?

There are two kinds of explanations discernible in public discourse.  One is that there has been a spontaneous upsurge of mass anger at the extravagant terms and conditions prevailing in an inefficient and ‘bloated’ public sector.  But there are reasons to be more than a little suspicious about this.  The hostility has come in surges marked by subtle but interesting changes in the terms of the debate – from a focus on the supposed ‘pay premium’ to one on the security of tenure enjoyed by (some) public servants and on our ‘gold-plated’ pensions.  The argument about pay differentials appears to have lost some energy in the face of unarguably severe reductions in pay, and also, I suspect in the context of the reversals of pay cuts to senior civil servants, and of pay increases at NAMA and Anglo-Irish Bank.  Furthermore, research showing that pay differentials between public and private employees were greatest at the lower end of the income scale must have increased the risk that people might begin to think unacceptably bad terms and conditions in segments of the private sector formed at least part of the problem.   The current hyperbole surrounding job security and pensions will likely diminish in the face of similar ‘real world’ insights.  It will dawn on us that not all employees in the public sector enjoy permanent positions.  We will remember that security of tenure is indeed one of the reasons why, historically, so many Irish families encouraged their children (daughters in particular) to enter the public service – but that these are our relatives, friends and neighbours.  And anyone who takes a deep breath and thinks calmly for a moment will realize that the absence of pensions in the private sector is the real pension problem faced by the country.

So what other explanation is there for the waves of public sector bashing?  Members of the union leadership have suggested that anti-public sector hysteria has been cynically orchestrated.  They have argued – as Jack O’Connor did on Monday’s ‘The Frontline’ – that the underlying motivation has been to reduce pay across the board, in the private as well as the public sector.  A venerable strand of labour market theory in sociology suggests that employer groups are better able to foment divisions amongst employees when the workforce is ‘split’ across ascriptive social categories like race and ethnicity.  So what, if anything, makes the public/private divide in Ireland so amenable to this kind of manipulation?  The recent growth in public sector occupations has largely taken the form of an increase in professional female occupations.  The numbers of people employed in public administration, education and health grew by about 180 thousand between 1998 and 2007, but fully 130 thousand of those people were women working in education and health. (The data are derived from Table 1.2 in a report by the ESRI to the Equality Authority. Women comprise the great majority of public sector employees (about 70 percent in 2007 if we treat those three sectors as a rough approximation; 64 per cent in 2006 according to an analysis of the National Employment Survey).  Correspondingly, the public sector accounts for a substantial proportion of all female jobs (about a third in 2007).  In this context, a comment reported from one of the recent teachers’ conferences  – “We are not overpaid babysitters” – is telling.  I believe that when the history of the present moment is written, the anger directed at the public sector will be understood as part of a wider pattern of social contention surrounding the transformation of social care and education from a vocation – associated mainly with religious organizations and with women whose primary role was perceived to be that of unpaid worker in the home – to a set of modern professional services.

There is more to it, of course.  The cynical amongst us will think it rather convenient that the public should be so distracted when vast public resources are being transferred to zombie banks and ghost developments.  And it must be acknowledged that some commentators are sincere in their belief that the private sector is always and everywhere superior to the public sector, even though their unwavering faith in this dogma seems extraordinary in the face of the global financial crisis.  But it is no coincidence that, over the coming weeks, so much will depend on the votes of teachers and nurses.

Jane Gray

The front page of this mornings MetroHerald ran with a story claiming that the government had issued a “tacit threat” to Passport Services that the division could be outsourced if proposed strike action continued.  The article claimed “Passport Services could be shifted to another department or even outsourced, top Government officials warned yesterday”.  Tucked away on page 5 was a story about Brian Cowen’s backing of the board of Anglo’s decision to give salary increases to 78 staff.  The front page of the Irish Independent advertised two opinion pieces: One by Martina Devlin titled “My passport nightmare” and another by Brendan Keenan titles “Nursing the banks back to health”.  The rhetoric implied by these headlines is another example of the current trend of pitting ‘public’ and ‘private’ sectors against each other.

The image of Irish society that this paints is disturbing.  Are we living in a country where the ‘audacity’ of the public sector mobilising any sort of union power to assert their grievances is met with veiled threats, but where an obscenely inept bank which has guzzled tax-payers’ money to the extent of state ownership is allowed to give its staff pay raises while the same Government steps politely aside?  Responding to appeal by Eamon Gilmore to halt this salary bump, Brian Cowen suggested that “The board have my and the Government’s confidence”.

But what, pray tell, has inspired this ‘confidence’? Is it that the bank operates in the loosely defined ‘private sector’ and, like NAMA, can be trusted to make its own decisions with regard the mechanics of its operations?  Meanwhile, because Passport Services operate in the realm of the ‘public sector’ they must toe the line or face dissolution and privatisation.  Within the current climate of bail-outs and cut-backs just what actually defines the line between ‘public’ and ‘private’ sectors?  As suggested here recently, the Government’s position is disingenuous: on the one hand extolling the benefits of free market neoliberalism and on the other correcting any free market mistakes with tax revenue.  Perhaps if Passport Services was to be outsourced, the unit would then be in a position to dictate its own rates of pay, resist cut-backs, and siphon Government spending.  The inverse logic of this boggles the brain. The horror, the horror.

Cian O’ Callaghan

IBEC have been up to their usual public sector bashing calling for radical reform that cuts costs and boosts efficiency, productivity and flexibility. Perhaps its time for IBEC to look in the mirror at how some of its members have milked the public purse and seek suitable reforms?  There has been, and continues to be, a huge chunk of public purse finance spent hiring the private sector, a huge chunk of which has been squandered – think of the huge overspend on public infrastructure projects, or the massive fees paid to consultants for often quite shoddy pieces of work, or the PPP contracts that funneled huge guaranteed funds to the private companies over long periods of time.  And, just as there is excellent work undertaken in both the public and private sectors, there are slackers, jobsworths and inefficiencies in both.  We’ve all experienced poor service across the service sector; this is not something unique to the public sector.  The private sector would clearly like public sector work to be transferred to them, where it will be supposedly dealt with more efficiently and cost effectively (and certainly more profitably for those companies who would benefit).  There is clearly a wider debate needed here about whether we want vital public services privatised, and under what terms, but in the meantime perhaps IBEC should look at itself, its agenda, and the way its members have been milking the public purse during the Celtic Tiger period whilst it pushes its neoliberal agenda.  Any talk about reform of the public sector should be accompanied by significant reform of private sector contracts driven by an agenda of openness, transparency, good governance, and most importantly value for money.  It’s pretty difficult to believe that we were getting value for money during the boom.  It wasn’t called Rip-Off Ireland for nothing.  The mirror’s this way …

For those interested in earnings data, and the debate about private versus public sector pay, the CSO has just published its Earnings and Labour Costs report.  The results come from the new Earnings Hours and Employment Costs Survey (EHECS), which covers all sectors of the economy other than agriculture, forestry and fishing,  For the first time this report gives a breakdown of earnings across different NACE sectors.

Average weekly earnings for different NACE groups

The headline figures are that between Q2 2008 and Q2 2009 the workforce shrank by 6.2% (109,500), and average weekly earnings fell by 1.1% from €706.03 to €698.43.

Earnings in the private sector fell by 3.1% compared with a rise of 1.3% in the public sector (although the latter does not include the pension levy deduction introduced in March 2009).  Of course there are all kinds of reasons as to why you would expect differences in public and private sector pay, including differences in the nature of the jobs, employee education and skill levels across job types, structural organization of employment, salary cuts and job losses in the private sector, and so on.

Headline figures really do not really illuminate the issue to any great degree, and the debate as its currently expressed is largely a red herring, designed to divide and conquer and distract attention to the real issue – the mismanagement of the economy over the past ten years and the massive hole in the tax base created by naïve neoliberal policies.  That’s not to rule out per se all forms of structural adjustment given the depth of the financial crisis, but that the argument used to justify such adjustments should have some level of legitimacy and not work to undermine social harmony by pitting different kinds of workers against each other.  Getting ourselves out of this hole will be a lot easier working together and the public/private, zero-sum debate seems largely unhelpful to me.

Anyway, enjoy the xmas break.  There might be a couple of posts next week, otherwise normal service will resume in the new year.

Rob Kitchin

The public sector has been hit hard in the last year and the impact of the latest budgetary cut is now being realised across the country. The pain will be a lot more acute in some areas than others. The latest round of salary cuts are as follows:

• Public sector pay cut of 5 per cent on first €30,000 salary, 7.5 per cent on the following €40,000 of salary and 10 per cent on next €55,000
• Permanent pay reduction of 15 per cent for public sector workers in higher pay bands earning more than €200,000; 12 per cent for €165,000 to €200,000; 8 per cent for those on €125,000 to €165,000

Nearly 420,000* of those at work in ‘06 were employed within the public sector (21.75%). Levels of public sector employment varied throughout the country with many rural and peripheral counties, particularly in the north-west, having a much higher rate than the national average. Counties Sligo (29%), Leitrim (26%) and Donegal (26%) had the highest rates with Limerick City (19%) and Carlow (19.5%) the lowest. The rate within Dublin (4 administrative counties) was above the national average at 22%.

The highest pay reductions are due to slice into the salaries of those at the top end of the public sector, the severity of the cuts are less for employees further down the pay scale . Over 7% of the public sector were classed as ‘employers and managers’** in the 2006 Census with a further 9.4% classed as ‘higher professionals’. The spatial distribution of this group of higher earners is very much skewed to the Dublin commuter belt in the east of the country with additional pockets outside our other major cities. The ‘lower professional’ group make up 37.5%, ‘non-manual and manual skilled’ are 31% and the ‘semi-killed and unskilled’ make up an additional 13.69%.

Regardless of a public sector employees existing level of salary/socio-economic group, this budget will hurt. Certain cohorts could find themselves in real financial difficulty in the coming months – for example: parents (reductions in child benefit) who are owner occupiers of a new property with heavy mortgages (probably approved on a higher level of income than they are now receiving) and who also commute to work by car (prices have already gone up by 5c per litre) will certainly feel the full effects of the governments cost reducing measures.

Tough times ahead for the public sector worker. Taking one for the team is difficult, let’s hope there arent too many casualties. Still, steady employment is a rare thing at the moment.

Justin Gleeson

* Census 2006 Volume 7 Principal Economic Status and Industries

** Data from Socio-Economic Group (SEG) in 2006 CSO PoWCAR

Castlebar, Portlaoise, Sligo, Mullingar, Kilkenny, Letterkenny. These six towns have most to fear from the public sector pay cuts just announced by Brian Lenihan. The reason? The proportion of workers employed in the public sector – around 40% in each of these towns, according to CSO data from the 2006 Census (see Table 1). (more…)