Political patronage and overlap in state bodies tell their own story

THE most derided pillar in Irish public administration, the quango, has come to symbolise what is wrong with our bureaucracy.

The organisations the term “quango” envelops are thought of as agents of cowardly ministers fudging accountability by keeping policy at arm’s length.

Yet there is little consensus on the definition or scope of the term. Fittingly there is a similar lack of clarity on the cost, nature, effect and reporting structure of the bodies labelled quangos.

In reality these are a mesh of more than 350 authorities, boards, committees, workings groups, tribunals, council services, task forces, agencies, offices and positions.

The Government has so far been unable to carry out a remotely satisfactory audit or census of this sector, despite the criticism they have faced and the costs linked to them.

Ahead of this article some departments — Agriculture, Health, Environment, Community, Foreign Affairs and Defence — supplied member lists for the majority of bodies under their remit.

The Department of Communications has already developed an online portal for appointments to most of its quangos.

However, many of the departments responsible for policing and populating these boards were unable, or unwilling, to list the appointees installed by present and previous ministers.

Theses included the departments of Finance, Justice, Education, Transport, Enterprise and the Taoiseach.

Divulging fees and expenses was also considered too onerous.

The fact such lists and budgets had not already been completed, despite unsuccessful parliamentary questions being submitted on the issue for years, exposes the dim priority various departments have placed on policies to curtail or economise the quangos.

Tellingly, the Standards in Public Office Commission, a body that includes the Information Commissioner Emily O’Reilly, refused to reveal the fees and expenses paid to its members.

The lack of transparency in this office is symptomatic of a reluctance to reveal the full cost of quangos.

The database of 3,363 appointees tells its own story of political patronage within state bodies and the overlap between them. It also shows a lack of diversity in the sector. Two thirds of appointees are men and in key policy areas the gender chasm is even greater.In many cases women have been sent to the traditional caring roles in education and health, where they account for 42% of posts.

In the Department of Finance women have only been selected for 17% of the appointments under the minister’s remit.

Comparing the census of quangos with recent election candidate lists shows how Fianna Fáil used the layers of boards, bodies, authorities, committees and agencies to reward its councillors and supporters.

This continued unabated until the present Government was installed.

In the final days of office Taoiseach Brian Cowen publicly called a halt to political appointments. However, between the dissolution of the last Dáil and the start of the new one 110 appointments were made.

Two local allies of Mr Cowen, councillors Peter Ormand and Danny Owens, were given prized positions on the boards of An Post and the Irish Sports Council in the dying hours of the government.

This was in addition to former party candidate Luke Moriarty getting a place with the Railway Procurement Agency, Jim Donlon — a constituency organiser — getting seated on the National Roads Authority (NRA).

Donegal councillor David Alcorn completed his hat-trick by adding the National Transportation Office to spots on the NRA and Údaras na Gaeltachta.

The benefits of these positions is not always obvious and, in many cases, reflect a spirit of public service.

A LARGE number of multiple appointees are placed on boards by virtue of their responsibilities within the civil services.

However, these altruistic elements are sullied by a blurred rewards system. In many cases this comprises of a clear fee but in others is made up of costs per meeting, expense entitlements or indirect business benefits.

For example, prison committees come with an annual remuneration of €7,695 but on top of that there is the less transparent visitation fee of €149.75 and the daily expenses’ rates.

The highly populated and convoluted Employment Appeals Tribunal offers various levels of sitting fees from €591 to €193.

Other body’s, such as An Bord Pleanála and the Environmental Protection Agency are set up with full-time salaried positions.

Fine Gael had promised to cut 145 quangos, although in office it has already promised to create more with review groups for the Thornton Hall Prison, the national paediatric hospital and the cross border electricity connector.

Cutting quangos does not necessarily eliminate costs.

The Rent Tribunal has been subsumed into the Private Rental Tenancies Board (PRTB), though its membership overlaps.

In 2008, before the merger, the PRTB’s fees were €151,368 the tribunal members’ fees were €269,182.

In 2009 the PRTB figure fell to €147,147 but fees for the supposedly defunct tribunal rose significantly to €363,053.

The perception of political patronage in appointments has angered people of all parties but little has been done to reform the system.

The Government came into office promising a complete overhaul of appointments.

It has committed to putting proposed chairmen before members of the Oireachtas.

But two positions to be appointed under the new administration were handed their spurs before this system was even set up.

Agriculture Minister Simon Coveney placed Carlow businessman Phil Meaney at the head of Bord na gCon.

Justice Minister Alan Shatter installed a committee to review the Thorton Hall Prison project. This included retired judge Catherine McGuinness, Mr Shatter’s special advisor Tom Cooney, auditor Brendan Murtagh and Brian Purcell of the Irish Prison Service.

The merits of each individual cannot be disputed. But what cannot be overlooked is that Mr Meaney was the chair of Fine Gael’s organising committee in Carlow before the election.

During the last Dáil Mr Cooney, a lecturer in UCD, wrote letters to the Irish Times lauding Mr Shatter’s foreign policy platform. Mr Murtagh co-authored a family law paper with Mr Shatter in the 1990s.

Various ministers, including Mr Coveney, have said once the Oireachtas is settled all chairmen, including Mr Meaney, will have to appear before a committee for questioning.

However, there has been no clarity on the definition of roles which will fall to be scrutinised.

Neither has there been an explanation of exactly where the remaining board positions will come from.

Already Foreign Affairs Minister Eamon Gilmore has appointed a new Emigrant Services Advisory Committee in London without looking for the belt and braces of Oireachtas approval.

Meanwhile, the Government has yet to reveal how the committee system could cope with the additional workload of interviewing so many people if the sector itself is not radically reduced.

A first step would be to replicate this census of bodies and publish the identities of all appointees online. In that way the public could at least keep a casual scrutiny of the stuffed quangos.

Quango statistics

* EVERY effort was made to verify the currency and accuracy of all bodies and members in this census of quangos. However, lack of co-operation and up-to- date data within departments and from bodies themselves made it logistically impossible to cross -reference all names and confirm recent changes in personnel, fee structure or status. The Irish Examiner has — through a selection of departmental lists, agency websites, company records, archives of Iris Oifigiúil and parliamentary questions — done everything in its power to make sure this list is complete and up to date.

But we accept there may be a small number of unavoidable errors.


Lifestyle

Like it or not, video meetings are here to stay. Home editor Eve Kelliher gets an expert's secrets to preparing interiors for their close-up.How to ensure your home is always camera-ready in the Zoom era

Tougher plants, smaller plots and more communal spaces will grow in popularity, says Hannah Stephenson.What will gardens of the future look like?

Ciara McDonnell chats with four women who’ve decided to embrace their natural hair colour after time away from the salonBack to my roots: Four women who've decided to embrace their natural hair colour

Allowing your children to lead the way is the key to fun outdoor play, and there are many things you can build or buy to help them along, says Kya deLongchampsGarden adventures: Allowing your children to lead the way is the key to fun outdoor play

More From The Irish Examiner