Summer 2011 Lead Article
Full text of Article by Eoin O'Malley, Summer 2011, vol.100, no.378
In 2011 for the first time, the political system and its component parts were the subject of debate on doorsteps. All the political parties devoted large parts of their manifestos to political reform. It was informing, if not surprising, that Fianna Fáil’s leader, Micheál Martin, tried to bring particular focus to the problems in the political system. While this may have appeared a self-serving attempt to shift some of the blame for the disastrous management of the country from the governing party to the less tangible ‘system’, it is still important that there was an acknowledgement that Ireland’s problems are largely of its own making. The attempts of Bertie Ahern to internationalise the crisis have been dismissed in many quarters as without foundation.
If the crisis is home grown, what is to blame? We can point to poor policies, a lack of foresight, failures in planning and optimistic forecasting that had more to do with the hopes of the political classes than with any rational expectation of what would actually happen. Our politicians, it was suggested, were ‘clowns’ – inept, inexpert and, worst of all, dishonest. For many, the blame for the crisis lay with the system; it is a system that rewards those who think in the short-term, who look after vested interests and will concentrate almost exclusively on local rather than national concerns. We want a system that will ensure that good policies are chosen and poor ones rejected, where long-term goals are chosen over short-term ones, where the whole of society is preferred over narrow interests and one where our politicians consider the whole country and not just their constituency. We are certain that ours does not deliver these.
But when we are more specific about what aspects of the system cause this and what changes could stop the country sleep walking into another crisis in 20 or 30 years’ time (as Ireland did in the 1930s, 1950s and 1980s), most point to the electoral system, and the type of politicians it produces. They look at the whip system, through which TDs subject themselves to their party’s will, and some even look at the quality of the civil service and its generalist nature and the type of advice it provides.
Ahern and others mismanaged the Irish economy in a way that was catastrophic for Ireland. Their defence is usually that they were following best advice. The conclusion must be that the advisers were wrong. Did they just have inexpert advice? Was this because the civil service has disimproved in quality? It is often overlooked that the mismanagement of the Irish economy was a carbon copy of economic management in the US and the UK (where, presumably, the best advice was from people who really were economists). Ireland, of course, allowed the bubble to grow too big in relation to our real economy. Some point out that the advice was right, but the tone was wrong. Brian Cowen and Brian Lenihan arguably made one of the most catastrophically stupid decisions ever when they introduced a Bank Guarantee Scheme in late 2008. But they are not stupid people. Nor are they dishonest. So if it wasn’t the lack of expertise, and it was not dishonest or stupid politicians mucking things up, what went wrong?
In this article, I suggest that some of the faults of the Irish political system are not really faults at all. And I will argue that solutions suggested in many quarters, including some of the new government’s proposed reforms, will not have the intended impact. The underlying problem in the Irish political system is that it is too respectful of authority and pushes too much power for decisions into the hands of single individuals, who are rarely challenged. This obsequiousness in the face of power means that poor ministerial initiative and inertia is accepted. When civil servants tone down their advice, because the minister cannot be spoken to in certain ways, we have a problem with the organisation and culture of policy making.
If we are to recast out political system, we need to consider how to retain some of the many good aspects of our political system, while improving those that have been found wanting. That will lead us to a system where those with power live uncomfortably in the knowledge that poor proposals will be exposed and rejected, where inaction will be challenged, and because of this, they will work hard to deliver policies which are defensible in the face of serious scrutiny.
The electoral system is not to blame for original sin
There is an almost religious fervour to the belief that changing the electoral system will cure all the ills of the Irish State. Not unlike Pádraig Pearse, who believed that in an independent Ireland the grass would be greener and the sun would shine more brightly, there is an assumption that, with a new electoral system, all Ireland’s ills will magically be driven into the sea. It did not take long to realise that Pearse was hopelessly wrong, and we can tell in advance that the advocates of electoral reform are wrong.
The electoral system is blamed, because it structures electoral competition in such a way that TDs compete against other members of their own party. Because they cannot compete on policy (sharing the same party, presumably they share party policies), Proportional Representation – Single Transferable Vote forces TDs to spend most of their time in the constituency. It is true that TDs spend a lot of time in their constituency, though some voters may actually want that and it could be seen as something positive (in many other countries, politicians are far removed from the real lives of ordinary voters and it may not be a coincidence that the reaction to the crisis in those countries has led to violence on the streets). It may also be true that TDs are often more at risk of losing their seat to a party colleague than to a rival from another party. But the assumption that the electoral system is the cause of their avid attention to constituency details is misplaced. MPs in the other country in Europe that uses this system, Malta, do not spend large amounts of their time on constituency work. And the alternatives that we might find acceptable would not reduce the incentives for TDs to ‘nurse’ their constituencies. We can see in the US, where there are no party colleagues to compete with each other, congressmen put delivery of constituency ‘pork’ high on their list of priorities.
If it were true that the electoral system caused the focus on constituency work, then we should expect that TDs for parties without multiple candidates in a constituency would not be under such pressures and thus should do less constituency work. There is no evidence that this happens. And there is no reason inherent to the electoral system why TDs or candidates who compete with party colleagues cannot compete on some other factor. Some voters, faced with two candidates from the same party, presumably could choose that candidate more likely to make useful Dáil contributions or produce better policy papers.
But there’s the rub. It is difficult to make incisive Dáil contributions and thankless to produce policy papers. The Dáil is structured in such a way that the government has an inbuilt advantage. It controls the two most useful resources – time and information. TDs will find it difficult to bring up issues of national importance if the government does not want them raised. Even major pieces of legislation, such as that on the National Asset Management Agency (NAMA), were subject to guillotine, limiting the time that could be spent debating this issue. Even if there had been a limitless amount of time, a second problem hindered those who wished to debate the issue. Joan Burton TD, as Labour finance spokesperson, pointed out that there was a huge information deficit that prevented real debate about NAMA and the earlier bank guarantee scheme.
..nor is the whip system at fault.
Another reform that has a cult following relates to the whip system. Many commentators decry the notion that TDs herd like ‘dumb driven cattle’ into the voting lobby. Maybe they do, but I cannot think of any way of preventing this that does not also damage some central element to our democracy. How can you legislate to stop people who agree with each other voting together? You cannot force them not to vote as they wish! You could use a secret ballot. But voters surely have the right to know how their representatives have voted?
And this assumes there is something wrong with people being forced into voting together. The whip system solves a collective actions problem. It is quite a rational response for a legislator who has strong opinions on certain issues, but less strong ones on others. A legislator might vote even against her own wishes on some votes, but at least she knows that on other areas she will get her own way. It also protects against interest group capture and acts as a deterrent against more egregious forms of vote buying. Would we be better governed if we had more Healy-Raes or Lowrys selling their votes to protect their constituency interests? Indeed, normal government would arguably become impossible without a system that gives government some expectation that their measures might be passed. And remember sometimes TDs do revolt against government. We have seen it recently on cutbacks, but also saw it on tax individualisation and the café bar proposals. OK, these tend to happen behind closed doors, but they do happen and sometimes have an effect.
One factor that people rarely point to when discussing why TDs spend a lot of time filling out forms or pursuing cases on behalf of constituents with the public service is that of problems with our administrative system. Despite the Irish public service’s penchant for producing reports praising itself, there are reasons why ordinary citizens approach TDs to speed up their passport application form or advance their social welfare claim – because it works. TDs have ‘hotlines’ to departments, which means that constituent’s queries get answered with a speed that would never happen ordinarily. TDs can jump queues, so it is perfectly rational for voters to contact TDs to jump queues on their behalf.
So, advocates of these reforms are misdirecting their venom. The electoral system is a way of choosing politicians, and there is an assumption – a not unreasonable one – that a different method of election might get you different types of politicians. But if you do not allow TDs have a reasonable shot at interrogating government through Dáil rules, they will not be able to do. This is what we might call the Opportunity requirement – that legislators must have the opportunity to provide vigorous oversight. There is a second requirement that tends to be overlooked. We could call this the Incentive requirement – that legislators have an incentive to engage in vigorous oversight.
Opportunity and incentive for oversight
It is arguable that the Oireachtas is the parliament in Western Europe in which members are most restricted from overseeing the government. The rules give government almost complete control of the agenda. By the time a TD can raise an issue on a topical item, it will have become a crisis or passed out of the public’s mind. Questions to ministers are only answered when the minister wants to answer them and there is no means available to allow members to put pressure on a minister.
A number of things need to change. The Standing Orders should be rewritten to remove the executive dominance that exists. The right to guillotine has been abused and can be removed. If there is genuine emergency legislation, it can be agreed to be fast-tracked by an all-party agenda committee.
There could be a smaller number of more powerful committees, with chairs elected from within their number, not by the Dáil (effectively the Taoiseach) and government ministers should not have a vote. Doing this will remove the inbuilt government majority.
The Ceann Comhairle should be a defender of the Dáil’s interests. If he/she were elected by secret ballot, this might take some of the power of patronage away from the government. The Ceann Comhairle could also be much more active in asserting the rights of the Dáil to oversee government and be someone who will insist that ministers answer questions in a timely and forthright manner. We pay the Ceann Comhairle as if he/she was an important officer of state, but few in politics take the job that seriously.
There is little or no reason why government secrecy should be as extensive as it is. The rules on Cabinet confidentiality were brought in to protect the government from the power of the Crown. The power the Crown once had now rests in the Dáil, and there is no reason why we should want to weaken the Dáil.
It is very difficult to have an informed debate when only the information the government chooses to release is available to the Dáil. An extended and reformed Freedom of Information regime, in which the state actively releases information, would reverse the direction of requirement for access to information, from the citizen to the state. The government could apply to keep some things secret. A State Commission made up of, say, the President, the Speakers of both Houses, the head of the civil service and the party leaders, could make a decision as to whether a piece of information should be exempted.
The current government’s reform proposals offer some efforts at increasing the opportunity of the Dáil to strengthen its oversight, but on their own they will not be enough. The Dáil is legally quite powerful. No body could have stopped a government TD from voting against the Bank Guarantee Scheme, but that did not happen. TDs had no incentive to vote against it. So, there is not much point in having more time in the Dáil (especially where there will be fewer TDs, and no Seanad) or a Ceann Comhairle with more power to censure ministers or even more opportunity to ask questions on issues of topical interest, if the TDs and Ceann Comhairle have no incentive to upset or embarrass the government.
It is pretty obvious that opposition parties have strong incentives to oversee government. If the opposition can show that the government is doing a terrible job, then it has a better chance of replacing it. One way the government can counteract this is by doing a good job and introducing policies that it can stand over in a rational debate, with evidence and argument to defend its decisions. Another option is to hide the policy from public scrutiny and evade answering questions to as great an extent as possible.
Others, however, tend not to have an incentive to engage in policy oversight. Government backbenchers, who make up a large proportion of the Dáil, may also wish that their government introduces good policy, because this can be rewarded by voters. But it will not have any interest in exposing government failures. This is particularly the case because of the current career structure of politicians. We have an increasingly careerist political class, but there are no career paths not effectively controlled by party leaders. This removes the incentive for critical engagement by the Dáil of government activity.
Though there is a constitutional reference to a separation of powers, it has no real meaning, because the institutional architecture of the state means there is almost complete fusion of the legislative and executive branches. Add to this the reluctance of the courts to interfere in the relationship between the other two branches of state.
A more complete, yet workable separation could be achieved by widening the pool of recruitment for ministers. In practice, all ministers come from the Dáil. It means we have a government with a rather limited world view and limited expertise, but it also means that TDs view government as the place they wish to reach. Given that ministers are chosen by the Taoiseach, there is little incentive for TDs to be critical of the Taoiseach, the person who effectively controls their career.
If ministers could be chosen from outside the Dáil and if there were a requirement that ministers resign from the Dáil when they take places in government, this could have the effect of distancing the two branches and offering incentives for the Dáil to engage more critically with government.
Government is part of the problem
It would also go someway to solving the problems of government. This is, after all, where most decisions are effectively taken in parliamentary democracies. On paper, the cabinet system is a good one. Proposals are made by ministers, usually on the basis of a point in the programme from government, in turn based on inter and intra party negotiations and subject to scrutiny by the media and maybe even the electorate. The elite of a country’s political system then subject the proposal to rigorous scrutiny and from their different perspectives, poke at and punch holes in the argument, until bad proposals are rejected and acceptable ones are improved.
This does not seem to happen. Why not? One problem is ministerial overload. Ministers are busy with their own departments and do not have time to start thinking deeply about other ministers’ responsibilities. Nor do they have the capability. The Minister for Education’s advisers might be able to tell her all about education, but will not be of much use in other areas. There is also log-rolling – whereby a minister who wants to get her proposal through cabinet will refrain from questioning another minister’s proposal, so they will return the favour and support her proposal. No one can or wants to challenge a minister.
Another problem is the type of ministers. In juries we think that if twelve people’s opinions converge, they are likely to converge on the truth. The same assumption can be made of cabinet government. But if jurors and cabinet ministers’ convergence on an issue is to make it more likely that they got the right answer; then their opinions should be independent of each other. In statistical theory two events are said to be independent if the occurrence of one event does not affect the probability that the other will occur. We may assume that cabinet ministers (and jurors) are independent. But we would be wrong. Most ministers (like jurors) follow what goes around the table. So if a minister’s proposal appears to be gaining acceptance, sceptical ministers might remain silent – what in public opinion theory is known as ‘the spiral of silence’.
And why would they be independent when the political system throws up a remarkably homogenous lot? Many in the current government were school teachers or union representatives before they entered public life - and most entered politics at an early age. There are few who had real careers outside politics. All of these people live in a strange world around Kildare Street and, while hardly cocooned from the real world, view the real world through an unusual lens, and, crucially, almost all have the same lens. So, instead of having fifteen different points of view, government is centralised into one or two particular points of view. So the cabinet fails to do its job because no one thinks differently enough to bother questioning ministers.
The Civil Service
Another problem in government is the capacity of the civil service. While it is formulaic to claim that the Irish civil servants are among the best in the world, saying it does not make it true. Certainly the Irish civil service is pretty competent and efficient. But it lacks expertise and self-confidence. Too much of its work is farmed out to consultants, because the civil service is afraid of giving advice or taking risks. Those consultants rarely have more expertise, but the profit motive means that they do not say this. The civil service’s aim is to serve the government, but this manifests itself in a guiding principle of protecting the government. The uniformity of civil service training and the lack of turnover in the civil service mean that the hierarchy is respected too much.
Andrew Turnbull, a former UK cabinet secretary and permanent secretary in the Treasury, when asked in 2010 about why the UK failed to see the problems with its economic policies and foresee the economic collapse, responded that there were no voices countering the mainstream view. The UK has created an Office for Budget Responsibility, which will make economic forecasts that the government will use, make a pre-Budget recommendation on fiscal policy and comment on the government’s budget. This differs from the system in Ireland, where the Department of Finance makes predictions which have been way off the mark and are, one suspects, made more in hope than in expectation. An independent office, such at the British one, would have made it more difficult to continue the pro-cyclical budget policy that has us in the mess we are in at the moment.
Our political system needs to encourage a variety of views and opinions, and divide power a bit more evenly throughout the system. It should be designed to encourage conflict – not to lead to deadlock – but to encourage real debate.
Making government work – focussed, flexible, and flat
Government is structured in such a way that ministers have a lot of power. That is fine; it enables decisiveness. But while we should not dilute their power, we should make it harder for them to do their job badly. Government is too hierarchical and, for various reasons, no one who has the opportunity has the incentive to question a minister. Social partnership has added to this consensus-laden policy-making system, where those who should have been in open conflict and debating opposing views were bought off by governments averse to conflict. Government can be improved in a number of ways, and these will alleviate the need for some big ticket political reforms.
Government should also focus on what are our key strategic needs today, not on what they were 80 years ago. So, do we need a Department of Agriculture with 5,000 civil servants, when all the policy-making powers are in Brussels? Would it not make more sense to move agri-business into Enterprise, Jobs and Innovation, and food safety into Health?
One of the problems with the governmental system is its lack of flexibility, which means that it takes too long a time to respond to needs. No one would say that, if we were starting from scratch, we would design the structure of government that we currently have. Is a permanent civil service that seems congenitally averse to risk taking suitable for our current needs? We currently have a system which pushes the incompetent around to where they will do least damage.
The structure of public decision-taking is necessarily hierarchical, but the decision- making should be much flatter than what we currently have. We do not have a system that fosters and embraces dissent. Accounts of the decision-making process in the insurance company AIG(FP) show the director of that section that lost about $20bn, Joe Cassano, was a bully (see Michael Lewis, The Big Short, 2010). People did not like to give him bad news. The descriptions of him accorded somewhat with the descriptions of the atmosphere in our Department of Finance in late 2008. Apparently, there were people within Finance who would have advised against, if not the Bank Guarantee Scheme, at least the extent of it and its retrospective nature. But the structure meant that it was difficult to access the minister and give him the right advice. The hierarchical structure meant that the minister did not have access to the plurality of views that good policy-making requires.
Decisions such as that required a lot of people asking basic questions regularly. That cannot happen in a culture where policy makers cannot speak forcefully with decision takers.
Don’t leave it up to politicians
If we want a political system in which ideas can be challenged at the top, we also need to ensure this starts at the bottom. There is a tendency in this and other countries to think of politics as somehow external to people’s lives. We care about politics when things go wrong. Ordinary people complain about politicians, but never try to engage them in a meaningful way. For a political system to work, it needs people to be more involved than just every four or five years (when there is an election). This does not mean they need to be continually contacting TDs or ministers (politics would become dysfunctional that way), but politicians should be able to assume that voters think about policy.
This might, for instance, induce some to break the link between the amount of money spent and how much the politician cares about a problem. In the last fifteen years Ireland has undergone a huge (and expensive) natural experiment, where we could see if spending more money on issues has an impact on the underlying policy problem. So huge amounts of money were spent in health, social welfare, security and any other area regarded as a problem by the public. That the tripling of the budget on health did not have an impact might not be a surprise. Most of the increased spending went on increased salaries and more expensive drug treatments, but did nothing to actually reform and improve the health service.
This could only happen because most of the public is policy illiterate and it is easy for some politicians to claim that they care more than others because they want to spend more money. The public also has to face up to its responsibilities.
Eoin O’Malley is a lecturer in political science at the School of Law and Government, Dublin City University. His book Contemporary Ireland has just been published by Palgrave Macmillan in the Contemporary States and Societies Series