Review: Wasters by Shane Ross and Nick Webb
Penguin Ireland, €16.99, Hardback
The reader would be well advised to get a full health check before starting this book. If it doesn't send your blood pressure right off the systolic scale, it will certainly burst a few blood vessels.
Authors Shane Ross and Nick Webb take readers on an all-inclusive tour of the Celtic gravy train. It is crammed tight with white elephants, quangsters and junketeers. Along the way you will visit some famous sights -- the Glass Bottle site, the demolished pier in Kenmare, the magnificently landscaped Thornton Hall, the spacious warehouses where e-voting machines have been stored (these alone cost the taxpayer a cool €200m).
The first stop on the journey is Fagans Public House in Drumcondra. This hostelry offers not only the finest food and wines and a mean pint of Bass, but also doubles as one of the best apprenticeship schools for members of state boards. Fagans, it appears, can turn otherwise ordinary chums into people who can run our airlines, ports and airports, develop our enterprise policy and attract overseas investors. You get a chance to meet many other politicians along the way and see the lavish foreign travel itineraries of John O'Donoghue and Mary Harney, who seem to top the league.
The big beasts of waste are Fas and the Health Service Executive, but they are joined by CIE and the Dublin Docklands Development Authority, and for each this book gives you an individual guided tour. Fas takes the Wasters top award, as the authors analyse its premium boxes and first-class travel, its appalling mishandling of decentralisation and public procurement, and the most gilded of all golden handshakes.
The poor practices in both Fás and CIE reflect badly on the culture of management in these institutions. However, the courage and determination of internal auditor Terry Corcoran in FAS and HR executive John Keenan in CIE shine like a beacon in an otherwise grim litany of waste.
The authors go to work with particular gusto on what is described as the 'social partnership industry'. The wheels of this industry have, it seems, been greased by myriad appointments to state boards. A dozen dedicated partnership bodies all dotted with well-rewarded positions for the main players were set up as the Government wrapped the social partners in a loving embrace.
The book relies heavily on the Comptroller & Auditor General for his penetrating analysis of bad deals, mismanagement, incompetence and waste. However, the authors also take the opportunity in what they describe as an 'Epilogue' to turn their beady eyes on the spending behaviour of the office of the Comptroller & Auditor General itself. Even the watchdog, it appears, is not immune from the lure of elegant foreign travel or classy meals out.
The authors have undoubtedly assembled a formidable amount of information. However, it is a bit like visiting a huge art gallery. After looking at the first few pictures with great attention , your capacity for wonder is drained and you quickly find yourself flashing past even the works of the great masters with barely a glance. What the book lacks is some evaluation of the huge catalogue that has been put together. The authors are content to leave readers to make up their own minds.
Anger will undoubtedly be the main reaction. However, as we struggle to take back control of our destiny from the ruins in which the governing elite has landed us, there needs to be a debate about how this unholy mess can be fixed. Many of the institutions people depended on to protect them were asleep on the job. They were captured by the insiders. They were also engaged in extraordinary extravagance and waste. We cannot simply rebuild over those same fault lines without fundamental repair to the foundations so that this waste never happens again.
The book does not try to answer the question 'why'. Why did the idealism of partnership and public service get deflected to create these big beasts of waste? Why did the privilege of playing a leading role in these organisations degenerate into a belief in an entitlement to take? Is this the product of 'original sin' as my generation was taught in school? Or can it be designed out by proper checks and balances within the system?
One thing is sure -- if the political system does not answer this question, it will not re-establish the authority to lead people on the difficult journey necessary to rebuild our country.
Some of the remedies have been discussed elsewhere -- a whistleblowers charter, a more far-reaching Freedom of Information Act, accountability with consequences for the perpetrators, a transparent system for board appointments based on suitability.
In my view we need to go much further, but that is a debate for another day.
Richard Bruton is Fine Gael spokesman on Enterprise, Jobs and Economic Planning