FERGUS FINLAY: Bodies in receipt of taxpayers’ funds must be fully accountable

Pat Hickey, president of the Olympic Council of Ireland, had held that position since 1988. Picture: INPHO/Ryan Byrne

One of the great clichés in Ireland is “best practice”. It’s time for some basic practice, writes Fergus Finlay

LIKE most of us, I suspect, I’m sick of reading scandals and shenanigans involving organisations that are publicly funded, and never seem to give more than lip service to any notion of accountability for the money they get.

Some of them don’t even acknowledge their dependence on public money — almost as if they take it for granted.

I’ve come to the point now where I believe that no one should be allowed to take investment by the people of Ireland in their activities for granted any more. If they want to be trusted, they should earn that trust.

Every public body in receipt of public money, certainly above a nominal amount, should be required to do a number of simple things before they get a penny.

I know I have a vested interest in the matter — but I’m guessing you know that too. There are probably some who believe I shouldn’t write about this subject because my day job is in an organisation in which there is also public investment, as well as money contributed by the public. But as a citizen I’m sick of the damage being done by a lack of willingness to be accountable.

I actually believe that the Government should take a decision immediately that with effect from January 1 next year, not one penny of public money will be given out to any organisation that depends on a grant from the public purse until each and every one of them signs a comprehensive charter of standards and governance.

Part of that charter must be a complete willingness to publish, openly and in full, how they conduct their affairs.

If they don’t sign, they shouldn’t get a penny. If that affects services to the public, it has to be seen as their fault, and not the government’s.

I don’t make this suggestion lightly. There are thousands of such organisations in Ireland, and they do vital work. Services to sick people, elderly people, and people with disabilities are all crucially dependent on such organisations.

Bodies in receipt of taxpayers’ funds must be fully accountable

So is the development of sport, the sustaining of art, culture, and theatre. So is the work of growing literacy, helping to break cycles of disadvantage, dealing with homelessness, mental health, autism, loneliness, and rural and community development. And a lot more.

And it’s not just that. Tens of thousands of people work in these areas, the enormous majority of them diligently and honourably.

They do work that deserves to be valued by the wider community, many as volunteers, and many others, in jobs that demand specialised skill and qualifications, in paid jobs. I’ve worked alongside hundreds, if not thousands of them, over a long working life, and there is nobody I admire more.

Many of the organisations involved (though not all) have charitable status. Charitable status confers tax advantages, and therefore an additional onus of accountability. It also generates a higher premium on trust.

Every time trust is damaged by what goes on in one organisation, it damages the vital, humane, compassionate and dedicated work of thousands of people in other organisations.

That’s why we have to say to everyone — in future there will be a clear, comprehensible, simple and direct set of standards that have to represent the only common denominator.

Just look at two examples. We’ve all been fascinated by the bizarre goings on in the Olympic Council of Ireland (OCI) over the last couple of weeks. That will take its own course — although the almost equally bizarre proposal by the minister for sport to set up a non-statutory enquiry into the matter, with no powers and no protection, will get to the bottom of precisely nothing.

But there are other, deeper, issues. On the Olympic Council’s website there’s a message from the president, that says among other things “the OCI is a fully autonomous organisation, independent of governmental or commercial influence”.

 

Bodies in receipt of taxpayers’ funds must be fully accountable

Maybe so — but why does that prevent them from acknowledging, or even mentioning, the hundreds of thousands of euro that we, the people of Ireland, have invested in them? They may be free from commercial influence, but their website is littered with commercial logos.

And why no accountability? Why no statement of annual finances? No profit and loss account, no balance sheet? No indication of how much and from where, and how it was all spent?

We know from the full reports of other bodies, like the Irish Sports Council, that the Olympic movement has got millions from us over the years.

But how it’s managed is apparently none of our business. And of course there is a fundamental failure of the most basic tenets of governance in the fact that the board is presided over by the same person since 1988, as if he owned the place.

Then let’s look at the really odd recent story surrounding the Order of Saint John of God. For some reason which they have chosen not to make clear, they divided €1.64m among 14 of their senior managers, with the lion’s share going to the chief executive.

According to the HSE’s annual report, the John of Gods get between €130m and €135m a year from us. They get that money to provide services to people with an intellectual disability of all ages. Many, though not all, of these services, are of a good standard.

I learned everything I know about this situation from reading the newspapers, and also from a bizarre and condescending letter many of us received from the provincial of the Order, Brother Donatus (we got it because we are parents of a person receiving a service from the order).

In the letter, the only explanation offered for these payments is that they were “to settle potential pension risk and contractual liabilities to the Order” (although the employees in question are not, in my understanding, employees of the Order). All done in good faith, according to the letter, despite the anxiety and hurt acknowledged.

Bodies in receipt of taxpayers’ funds must be fully accountable

However, the letter tells us the Brothers pray for us daily, and because of all the media coverage they have now reserved a special place for us in their prayers.

I suppose I should feel grateful for the prayers. But citizens need answers. You won’t get them from their website, although you can download the 2014 Annual Report.

A single page of spare financial information, no audited accounts, none of the detailed notes you’d expect from an organisation that keeps insisting on its compliance with the highest standards.

I did make the unexpected — and I have to admit shocking — discovery from the annual report that the chief executive who benefitted from all the largesse is also a member of the board of directors.

One of the great clichés in Ireland is “best practice”. It’s time for some basic practice. A simple, mandatory charter of governance and standards is long overdue. All public funding, without exception, should be made subject to the charter.

The bottom line has to be — no secrecy where public money is concerned. And it should never again be allowed to be used to build self-serving empires.

Those of us who benefit from public funding have to be willing to let in the light. Or else it should be turned off.

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