There is widespread belief that we do not have accountability in this country. At least for the elites or those in positions of authority. Whether it be the harrowing Cervical Smear scandal, the incredible National Children’s Hospital cost overrun or any other high profile scandal or error. The Public perception is that no one is accountable. No one is ever fired. Maria Bailey is yet another high profile example of this. Even if there are casualties, they usually take the form of early retirement on a great pension. Hardly death row.
This public perception is completely undermining politics in Ireland. We have seen populist waves around the world and like it or not, we are heading in that direction. That is unless confidence is restored. The first step in doing this is clearly identifying the problem.
The best way to avoid being blamed for making a bad decision is to make no decision at all. Even better if you can find someone else to blame for every decision. All while taking home a very good wage which is presumably based on the high level of responsibility that your role contains. Many of our national politicians are having their cake and eating it.
Many of the methods for passing on responsibility have been welcomed by the public. Clever stuff. The Citizens Assembly was widely welcomed and did some very good work. The existence of the assembly gave the Fine Gael Government the cover they wanted before they would call the Abortion referendum. It’s hard not to think this was deliberate. You could argue that it was a cynical ploy to avoid taking responsibility for calling what was a very necessary referendum.
The National Children’s Hospital cost fiasco is another good example. Multiple Boards reporting into multiple departments. A procurement system that works almost automatically with regard to decision making. In fairness E.U. rules lay out much of how this works but the result is that nobody is responsible. The procurement process incentivises low bids. Contractors make their money on contingency issues during construction. It’s nobodies fault.
The White Elephant that is the proposed Event Centre for Cork further illustrates this point. The procurement process here involved BAM being awarded preferred bidder for the project before any detailed design talks had taken place with Live Nation, the proposed operator. Think about that for a second. Politicians basked in the glow of an event centre supposedly going ahead, with €20M of state aid supposedly committed, and the proposed builder had not engaged in detail design talks with the proposed operator. It should not have been surprising to anyone that these talks led to a change in the plan and cost. The whole point of detailed engagement is to make plans. This whole situation reeks of decision avoidance and credit seeking. Everyone is regretful about the delay, but of course it’s nobodies fault.
The current Government make up is a result of skilful decision avoidance. Fianna Fail did not want to go into coalition with Fine Gael. They also didn’t want to cause another immediate election. They didn’t take either option. They sit on the opposition benches with the power to bring the government down at any time. That would require making a decision though.
Fine Gael aren’t much better. They seem to have been happy enough to hold the ministerial offices while having very little actual power. The budgets in particular are an example of blame avoidance. When you try to keep everybody happy you often end up doing nothing for anybody.
How do we get Accountability?
It’s not at all surprising that the trust is gone. Politicians and decision makers have gotten too good at avoiding blame and thus decisions. This might keep them in position for now but it could end up bringing the whole system down. We need real leadership. Real leadership involves taking decisions and taking responsibility for those decisions.
The electorate has responsibility here too. Mistakes are a part of the human condition. We should not expect perfection from decision makers. We should expect honesty. We should expect diligence and informed evidence based decision making. We should use our vote to elect those that display these qualities. We should be wary of salesmen who talk a great game but leave us confused as to what they actually stand for. That’s how we can get accountability. That’s how it can become the norm. It’s a long way from here to there.
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