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Sunday, November 18, 2007

Irish Public Sector Biggest and most Powerful Consumer for Private Sector

Dr. John Crown

Self-censorship has been in the news in recent times when it was disclosed that a senior manager in Ireland's public broadcaster RTE had excluded the well-known cancer specialist John Crown from a television panel discussion on the lamentable state of Irish cancer services. RTE wished to create "balance" by excluding the one person who was in a position to speak with direct knowledge on the service.

Crown is on record as a critic of the establishment e.g. “It is a shame that the Department of Health have had to be cajoled, humiliated and bullied in public into doing something about it. The disastrous health service we’ve had over the past ten to twenty years reflected a complete lack of planning on the part of the Department. It wasn’t until certain people started to make very public criticisms of the state of the cancer service that they were shamed into doing something about it. I think it’s an awful pity that that’s the way the public discourse has to work in a democracy.”

The same senior RTE manager apparently had no qualms about balance on the same programme before the general election when two leading apologists for Taoiseach Bertie Ahern appeared on a panel of three. Ahern subsequently appointed one of them to the Upper House of the parliament at a cost of €150,000 annually in a redundant role. Small change, some might think but add all the rest of the featherbedding - e.g. the Green Party office manager likely trebled his salary to €161,000 when be became aide-de-camp/gofor for Minister for the Environment John Gormley. The Cabinet and Ministers of State have nearly 130 civil servants and privately-recruited staff working solely on constituency queries, costing the Exchequer at least €4 million annually. Gormley has seven staff working in his private office on ministerial duties and four more in his constituency office.

Senior RTE managers are working in the public sector and compared with an SME manager in the tradable goods/services sector, they have well-paid cushy numbers and why would they wish to rattle the cages of their political masters?

So why would IBEC, the principal representative organisation for Irish business also behave with a level of timidity that is a welcome bonus for politicians?

One obvious explanation is that it doesn't want to get listed on Bertie Ahern's "little black book."

Politicians, in common with adults can have thin skins and act in infantile ways. Look at our history and De Valera's jealousy of Michael Collins. Last May, the Bagehot columnist in the Economist wrote in relation to current British Prime Minister Gordon Brown's petty reaction to Tony Blair's chief of staff Jonathan Powell: According to those in a position to know, Mr Brown has not spoken to Mr Powell since soon after Mr Blair became leader of the Labour Party in 1994, even though he is forced to pass his desk every time he visits the prime minister. Mr Powell's transgression was to laugh when Mr Brown suggested that some of the money he was raising to run the new leader's private office should be handed over to the shadow chancellor.

Many Irish business firms also have a pertinent reason to resist rocking the boat of the permanent government.

The Irish public sector has huge power over the private sector because it is the biggest consumer of goods and services in the State. That power simply buys silence despite the incompetence, waste, lack of accountability and failure to match a modern economy with a credible system of governance.

Last September, the Tánaiste and Minister for Finance confirmed that Budget Day 2008 would include "a major innovation" with the change that “all new spending measures, as well as tax changes, will be brought together and announced as one in a unified way on Budget Day, instead of on a piecemeal basis, as at present”.

Given the glacial pace of change at governance level in Ireland, the "major innovation" is in reality a baby-step.

There is no detail provided on spending across government in say up to 20 categories e.g what is spent on energy, marketing, consultants, information technology etc.

I was advised by the Department of Finance earlier this year, that I would have to go to each Department via Freedom of Information requests to get information on the top 100-200 suppliers to the State. The catch is that each Department can charge the cost, at its discretion, of providing the information.

Senior RTE managers are not the only ones who find it expedient to toe the line (btw that is the correct spelling for the phrase!)

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