Comptroller’s report - Dysfunction sustained by delusion

THE office of the Comptroller and Auditor General (C&AG) has, as it has done for many, many years, uncovered levels of performance in public institutions that are hardly acceptable much less exemplary. 

The C&AG yesterday published two reports, one on the process involved in establishing how floods might be better managed and another on how, and to whom, public service severance payments were delivered.

The default defence for underperformance in public bodies — staff shortages, inadequate funding, a bulging in-tray, and too many agencies with a finger in the pie under consideration — will be offered and they may well be justified.

However, that raises the as yet unanswered question at the very core of the optimism-crushing dysfunction that has come to characterise so much of our public life. Why do politicians commission agencies like, say, the Office of Public Works, to carry out projects like, say, flood risk assessment, without ensuring they have the resources to do the work properly and within a reasonable timeframe?

Secondly, if the agencies have adequate resources but fail to deliver what are the consequences? Or, more likely, are there any consequences? The integrity of our public administration fell, sometimes conveniently, between those two stools a long time ago.

Apart from resource issues the OPW’s stewardship of an essential project was less than inspiring. We live on an island where nearly all major towns or cities are built on estuaries facing the threats, especially flooding, promised by climate change and ill-advised drainage.

Despite that reality the C&AG found “a steering group established to oversee the national catchment flood risk assessment and management programme ... did not meet ... during a four-year period up to November, 2014.

Similarly, a high-level interdepartmental coordination group ... met in the period 2006 to 2009, but did not meet thereafter until the group was reactivated in July, 2015.”

This is incredible especially as the actors, who must know their responsibilities, come from the very culture that allowed asleep-at-the-wheel financial regulators to unleash carnage in this society. Was this inactivity because of indifference?

Was it because the group had nothing to discuss? Was it because they, like some of the lunatics in America’s Republican Party, discounted the threat of climate change? Or was it because they know they are untouchable and will, eventually, collect decent severance pay and enjoy a bullet-proof pension?

Just like our discredited financial regulators did but at least they worked for the public service unlike some of those, as reported by the C&AG, who benefitted from the Central Bank’s generosity without being its employees.

The other side of this coin is that we all demand, at the first whiff of economic recovery, that taxes be cut, utility charges be dropped and, if you’re a public servant, that wages be increased.

We have yet to learn that we can’t have the public cake and eat it and pay a terrible price because social services fall short. How uplifting it would be if the next Government, when it is eventually formed, had the courage and conviction to confront the beliefs sustaining this delusion.


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