FERGUS FINLAY: Everyone must sing from the same hymn sheet to achieve common good

GARRET Fitzgerald believed in the common good. He talked about it as the cornerstone of public policy, and advocated that government promote it.

When Fitzgerald was Taoiseach, he believed that one way of achieving the common good was through inter-departmental committees. When he took the chair at such committees, he was a good driver. He focused the group on analysing the problem from a shared basis, and on coming up with solutions urgently.

There were two problems. Among his peers — and Fitzgerald regarded the Cabinet he led as his peers — he sought consensus.

Hours could be spent trying to agree a shared analysis of the problem, before ever addressing a solution. Consensus politics sometimes means that you move at the pace of the slowest (or most stubborn) person in the room, and Fitzgerald had plenty of them in his Cabinets.

It was different if it was a group of civil servants. Then, Fitzgerald had less interest in consensus — because he knew the civil servants would take a lead more easily — and was much more focused on outcomes.

Outcomes were the second problem. It’s like that old saying about the difference between hens and pigs in regard to a breakfast of bacon and eggs. The hen is interested in the outcome, but the pig is totally committed. The civil and public service in Ireland is always interested in outcomes, but it’s totally committed to process. That’s why an inter-departmental committee of civil servants, left to its own devices, will put the ‘result’ at the bottom of its agenda. Every member of an inter-departmental committee will come to each meeting with his or her own agenda, dictated by the needs of his or her own government department. It’s never about searching for an agreed solution, but always about protecting the sectoral interest first.

That’s not to say that process doesn’t matter. A public policy that is only focused on results, to the exclusion of rules and regulations, is a recipe for corruption. We know, from too many examples, that ‘the end justifies the means’ is no way to run a country equitably and justly.

But a public policy that is entirely governed by process, where all the i’s are dotted and all the t’s are crossed, is a recipe for stagnation. You never reach the common good if the emphasis is exclusively on applying the rules.

The medical-card fiasco was a good example. Administration was centralised and, from that moment on, it was run ‘by the book’.

Where there was intended to be discretion, it was replaced by rigid rules and procedures. The result was a grave injustice to individuals in extreme need.

Someday, someone will write a thesis about how the common good has been forgotten in relation to the Garth Brooks music concerts. All sorts of people have been involved in this controversy. It would be instructive to know if any of them, at any level, had stopped to ask themselves ‘how can I best serve the common good in this situation?’

Identifying the common good is not easy, because it’s never possible to arrive at a common-good position without creating winners and losers. An equitable and just tax system, for instance, is clearly in the interests of the common good. But you can’t create one without some people being worse off as a result — and, usually, they’re the people with the power to stop it happening.

But one way of looking at the common good is to separate out the vested interests from what you might call the innocent bystanders.

When Brooks first announced his comeback, and that it was starting in Ireland, it created huge excitement, and not just among his fans, although there turned out to be a lot more of them than anyone imagined. (Lest you think I have a vested interest, by the way, I’m not among his fans and I don’t have a ticket).

But the GAA immediately saw the opportunity of a huge financial killing. The promoters saw an early Christmas. The logistics providers, the hoteliers, the caterers — everyone involved in the spin-off — spotted a bonanza.

Only a small number of local residents were fearful of consequences.

Now, the entire thing has fallen foul of process. The law has been applied with rigour. People all over the country have taken sides. And it’s clear that there’s a lot of fault here.

Too many organisations and individuals were ignoring necessary process in the interests of big bucks. Mr Brooks appears to believe that he has a God-given right to deliver his concerts in little ol’ Ireland, whatever way he chooses (he doesn’t make those arguments in respect of the US cities with which he is negotiating).

But an enormous amount of unaccountable bureaucratic rigour was applied to the implementation of the planning rules. In an odd sort of way, mind you.

It seems that the planning laws enable one public official to offer any compromise he chooses. I’m not sure how you can argue that the law only allows three concerts, but that the official who applies the law can offer a compromise of four, and then a further compromise of five, provided two of them are matinees. He can do anything, it seems, but agree to the basic proposition.

But, as things stand (and there is always a possibility of a further compromise, by the time you have read this), there is only one loser. And the loser is the one group entirely free of fault — the 400,000 people who just wanted a great night out, cheering someone they admire, and who were prepared to pay for the privilege.

They’re the innocent bystanders. In the Garth Brooks outcome versus process fiasco, they’re the ones who have suffered collateral damage.

Sure, the promoters, the GAA, Mr Brooks himself, and many others will suffer financial consequences. But they all made a speculative investment. The 400,000 simply bought concert tickets in good faith.

Then, of course, there is the issue of national reputational damage. This is probably overblown — our reputation was far more damaged by the banking collapse than anything Mr Brooks could achieve. But it does cast a cloud over the perception that we’re capable of good organisation.

The other thing Garret Fitzgerald believed was that there were two essential ingredients if the common good was to be achieved — a willingness to compromise, and, above all, a willingness to be accountable. The absence of both those qualities is what makes the Brooks fiasco a good case study.

There’s a mathematical formula that goes PxI = O. Policy multiplied by implementation = outcome. There are all sorts of variations on that formula, but the bottom line is that if any of the elements of the equation are zero, the outcome will be zero. And when the outcome is zero, the common good is the real loser.


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