Dropping members of cabinet into their new posts without any real induction process is like allowing the most popular passengers to fly the jumbo jet, says Enda O’Coineen

WHEN someone starts a new job involving massive budgets and huge numbers of personnel, they are given training and brought up to speed on what the work entails.

Unless, that is, they are elected to the Government. Indeed education and policy, scarcely got a mention in the recent election — not least lifelong learning and the radical reform necessary.

Surely there is no more important business than the one which oversees matters that impacts on all our lives and the future prosperity of the country.

Yet there is no special training for ministers once they are given their portfolios. All they get is a briefing over a few hours from their new officials on the current issues of the day and they are then expected to get on with the task in hand.

It’s the equivalent of putting the most popular passengers upfront to pilot an airliner.

I believe that new ministers in the next Government should be sent back to the classroom before taking up their posts. They need to grasp the enormity of their ministerial brief and start to develop the skillset needed to implement the strategies they were mandated to do.

Many Government departments involve very complex and often technical issues. The ministers will, of course, have the support of senior civil servants with in-depth knowledge of the issues involved. But ministers have to understand and be able to act on these issues as quickly as possible, lest they become ‘captured’ by their departments, which has happened all too often in political life.

The next batch of ministers may be very astute or politically ‘cute’ in many ways but the reality is that many of them will have had little or no experience of management during their working lives.

New ministers should get proper training before taking office

Running a successful political clinic and re-election campaign is not the same as running a multi-billion euro department of government.

For some new Cabinet ministers and ministers of state it will be a whole new world where they have to know everything from how to get legislation through the Oireachtas, build relationships with civil servants and fellow ministers with often competing demands, and keep up to date with developments on a multitude of fronts.

With proper training and mentoring through an induction course that could be conducted over, say, a period of two weeks, by experts from within the public service and from the world of business, they can become effective members of the Cabinet much sooner.

This notion of professional development and training for ministers is a world away from the view that the only training a successful politician needs is how to handle the media and how to look good in front of the camera.

Historically, it has taken ministers, especially those who are new to Cabinet responsibilities , time to settle into their portfolios. What I am suggesting could see all those at a heart of the next administration ‘firing on all cylinders’ sooner, which can only help to raise the performance of the government.

It’s not just the new ministers who need training, but also the special advisers who are often more powerful than the general public realises. They are the eyes and ears of their minister; they act as a conduit between the minister and officials; and are often the gatekeepers who can block or allow ministerial access to individuals or organisations.

New ministers should get proper training before taking office

Because they are unelected and come from very divergent backgrounds, the special advisers have particular training needs and responsibilities both to their ministers and to the general public.

But we also need our politicians to look beyond the next election to the major issues facing the country into the future where technological changes will transform our world and ricochet around every aspect of our lives.

It goes without saying that the fundamentals of Ireland’s future lie in education — however, not its present form. It needs to be totally reinvented. We are training and developing young people for 20th century jobs, many of which do not exist in the 21st century.

The speed and nature of changes in work are so rapid that ‘Lifelong Learning’ needs to be institutionalised. Many of the jobs that our current crop of secondary school students will fit into when they leave college do not even exist at present. Half of the current jobs in IT, for example, did not even exist five years ago.

The culture of entrepreneurship, intrapreneurship, change, ongoing development and disruptive thinking should be woven into the DNA of every student from primary school level. And it needs to imbue ministers in the next government who should be better prepared for what lies ahead than the outgoing Government was.

A new approach and attitude towards a belief in Lifelong Learning and in re-inventing education could be the new quiet revolution for the next 100 years. It needs to start at the top.

Enda O’Coineen is an independent candidate for Seanad Éireann in the NUI constituency.

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