Saturday 23 September 2017

Revealed: Ross and O'Donnell in showdown, as road deaths mount

Minister and RSA chairperson had 'bizarre' clash over typographical errors in record year for road fatalities

Transport Minister Shane Ross Photo: Fergal Phillips
Transport Minister Shane Ross Photo: Fergal Phillips
Jody Corcoran

Jody Corcoran

The Sunday Independent today reveals details of an extraordinary exchange between Transport Minister Shane Ross and Road Safety Authority chairperson Liz O'Donnell which took place at a time when road deaths nationally were dramatically increasing.

The correspondence between the two public figures ultimately responsible for road safety relates to the appointment of board members to the RSA, their attendance at meetings and, bizarrely, to typographical and other errors contained in a draft of the RSA annual report.

Road Safety Authority chairperson Liz O'Donnell
Road Safety Authority chairperson Liz O'Donnell

Last September, Mr Ross decided to reduce the RSA board membership by two to six members at a time when the RSA was seeking additional board members.

In a letter seen by the Sunday Independent, Ms O'Donnell appealed to the Transport Minister to reconsider this decision, noting with disappointment that the country was "experiencing a significant increase in road deaths".

She said the increase made it "all the more important" that the RSA board perform its statutory functions to its full potential, supported by board members with the necessary expertise.

There were 187 road deaths last year, a 15pc increase on 2015 when there were 162 deaths on the country's roads.

To date, the Transport Minister has declined to reconsider his decision.

The Sunday Independent has now obtained correspondence which informs the background of the Transport Minister's decision to reduce the board membership.

In an email to, and letter exchange with Ms O'Donnell, he accuses the RSA of being "amateurish and inexplicably cavalier" in its approach to detail; describes its annual report as a "sloppy piece of work" with "embarrassing" misprints and "grammatical howlers"; accuses board members of having "sporadic interest" in board attendance and says he is not convinced that the reappointments of certain board members "are in the interests of Road Safety or assist in the mission of the Authority".

In reply, Ms O'Donnell "regrets that the tone" of his letter is "unnecessarily confrontational"; takes exception at his suggestion that the RSA is "amateurish and inexplicably cavalier"; describes certain of his comments as "ill-judged and offensive"; refers to another comment as "untrue and misleading"; questions other of his assertions, expresses surprise at a statement at one point and also says his suggestion of poor performance by board members to be "misconceived".

At the conclusion of one letter to the Transport Minister, Ms O'Donnell said Mr Ross's correspondence suggested that he did not share the high regard in which the RSA was held "and for good reason" by the public and members of the Oireachtas.

The correspondence was exchanged following a meeting between Mr Ross and Ms O'Donnell on July 25 last, which was followed by a letter from the RSA chairperson to the Transport Minister on August 26. In reply to that letter, Mr Ross sent an email to Ms O'Donnell's private email account at 6.56pm on September 9 last, stating that it was timely that she had brought to his attention the imminent expiry of the board membership of four RSA directors.

He stated that he had considered her request that all four be reappointed, but that while he would ensure that the board was not left without the necessary numbers to function properly, he was "not convinced that such automatic reappointments are in the interests of road safety or assist the mission of the Authority".

In reply on September 12, Ms O'Donnell said she was "surprised" to receive his email and letter to her private email, stating that she had hoped to receive a "formal response" to her earlier request in July about RSA appointments about to expire in September and which required a decision by Mr Ross.

To be clear, she said, the request to have four existing board members reappointed arose as a result to discussions between officials in Mr Ross's Department and RSA officials. "It is incorrect to state that what is being sought are 'automatic reappointments'. What was under consideration was the filling of existing and upcoming board vacancies by way of new appointments and re-appointments," she said.

Ms O'Donnell was "surprised" that the Minister was not convinced that the appointment of the four outgoing board members was in the interests of road safety or assisted the mission of the RSA. Mr Ross had been sent detailed biographies and additional information on the board members, outlining their contribution beyond that of attendance at board meetings, including subcommittee participation, expert advice representation on academic and educational events and conferences. "These board members have all served during a period prior to my appointment when the Authority was expanding its remit and establishing itself as a highly regarded State Agency under the chairmanship of my predecessor. Since my appointment I can vouch for their commitment and hard work," she said.

In his letter, Mr Ross said he was surprised to discover at their meeting that the RSA board had never commissioned an evaluation of itself. He was glad to learn that she had now agreed to undertake an evaluation and effectiveness review in October. She had also decided to undertake a board self-assessment evaluation questionnaire.

But without the benefit of such a review, he said, it fell to him to decide whether to reappoint the sitting directors. It was a pity that he would not have such evaluations and self-assessments available before, rather than after the deadline. "I have very little basis for making the re-appointments, except of course your personal recommendation. Luckily, at least there is the annual report," he said.

Ms O'Donnell, in reply, pointed out that each board member had received corporate governance induction training and the Authority had become a member of the IPA Governance Forum.

Some of the more testy exchanges took place when Mr Ross turned his attention to a draft copy of the annual report, which he said was "normally the main source of information about directors", but the draft report contained no biographical information except for names and photographs. When he pointed this out, he said, brief biographies of the directors were provided and it was agreed to print a corrected report "at considerable expense" including these biographies.

The Transport Minister then said "the lack of such basic information" was not the only "deficiency" in the annual report.

On reading the section about 'Employee Benefits', he said "an embarrassing misprint jumped off the page. A figure in the item was a hundred fold wrong".

One "glaring misprint" might be understandable, he said - although he had never seen such a significant unnoticed mistake in an annual report. "Unfortunately, it was accompanied by at least 40 others, some of material nature, which made the RSA look amateurish and inexplicably cavalier in its approach," he said. What worried him was how none of the directors who are "seeking re-appointment" spotted the "extraordinary number of misprints".

He said: "There are mistakes on graphics. There are mistakes on diagrams. There are repetitions, spelling mistakes, inconsistencies, grammatical howlers and other errors." After the report was reprinted, it remained "riddled with errors", only some had been corrected. He said: "Yesterday, it went back for a third printing as it could not possibly have been allowed to appear in the public demesne in its unacceptable condition - although it had been passed by the directors." The directors, he said, were responsible for reading the annual report, amending it where necessary and passing it when satisfied. "How do we explain the RSA directors' unanimous satisfaction with such a sloppy piece of work? Did they take their eye off the ball?"

In reply, Ms O'Donnell questioned the Minister's assertion that the annual report was normally the main source of information about board members. She understood that other State bodies did not include such detail. However, she had no difficulty including the details.

She regretted that there were errors in the draft versions and that some remained in the final draft. "However, I am assured that none were of a material nature." What he referred to as a 'howler' was immediately corrected. "In fairness, this error was clearly a printing misalignment of a column in a table. Errors should not occur but I take exception to your suggestion that the RSA is 'amateurish or cavalier' in its approach to any aspect of its remit, on the basis of such errors in a draft document," she said.

In his letter Mr Ross also examined the "limited information" about some directors' attendance at board meetings.

One had missed 43pc of board meetings already held; another missed 43pc in 2016, after missing 30pc in 2015 and 50pc in 2014; another had missed 29pc in 2016 after missing 40pc in 2014 and 17pc in 2014. He said: "It is difficult to look sympathetically at your requirement to increase the size of your board, when some of the incumbents and treating their current positions as a la carte directorships.

"If you are permitted to increase your board to 12 members, it will be as big as Iarnrod Eireann, AIB or the DAA. In the circumstances outlined above, I see little justification for such an enlarged board."

He added: "Indeed, I should be interested in what you have done about the low attendance records of some of your board members, whether you think those with such apparently sporadic interest in board attendance should remain on the board, and how the annual report, the flagship document from the RSA, was published in such a cavalier condition." Ms O'Donnell said the Minister's suggestion of poor performance by board members in relation to the annual report was "misconceived". While board members were presented with a draft and made amendments and suggestions for edits on content and layout, it was not the function of the board to do a final proof read of the report for typographical or other errors which were not of a material nature. This was the responsibility of designers and technical staff.

While she regretted any errors, and would strive to avoid any such errors in future, she pointed out that the annual report was a 116-page document with 27,000 words and the executive had identified 44 punctuation/grammar errors, 27 typographical errors and 19 spelling errors in the latest version of the report.

Then she said it was "untrue and misleading" to state that the four board members were seeking reappointment, and she again pointed out that the recommendation to reappoint was made by her at the "instigation of your officials".

She said it was true that some board members had missed meetings due to "personal or professional reasons" but said his charge of "a la carte attitude'' by named board members was "ill-judged and offensive".

In his letter, Mr Ross also raised questions about the process used to select candidates for the three new positions Ms O'Donnell wished to add to the board, whether interviews were carried out, and what additional steps were taken to test the suitability of candidates.

"Did the panel really manage to complete the process of examining 62 applicants and selecting 21 candidates in a single day? The number of names sent up to me for appointment suggests a very shallow process," he said.

After considering "all aspects of the situation" Mr Ross proposed to reappoint two of the sitting board members, thereby ensuring a functioning board. Ms O'Donnell replied: "Regarding your well-known concerns about the new system for board appointments which you outline in your letter, I suggest you raise these with your colleagues in Cabinet." She assured him that the process to fill the additional places was "rigorous and time consuming" and confirmed that no candidate was interviewed as this was not provided for under the system. She noted that because of his concerns about the statutory process of appointment he did not propose to enlarge the board. "That is your prerogative as Minister". However, of more "immediate concern" was his decision to appoint only two of the four outgoing board members which would result in the RSA having a Chair and six ordinary members - the minimum requirement under the Road Safety Authority Act. "This will inevitably lead to the cancellation of meetings if two board members are unable to attend a meeting. In addition to reduce the board by two will disrupt the skill set and diversity of the board."

Later, she regretted that the "tone of your letter is unnecessarily confrontational" but took comfort that Mr Ross had taken no issue with the content of the annual report "other than typographical and grammatical observations".

She outlined the RSA's success in reducing road deaths since its establishment in 2006 from 365 to 166, and said the RSA was highly regarded by the public and members of the Oireachtas "and for good reason". She said Mr Ross's letter suggested he did not share this regard.

Ms O'Donnell then noted with disappointment a "significant increase" in road deaths in 2016, stating this made it "all the more important" that the board of the RSA could "perform its statutory functions to its full potential" supported by the necessary expertise by way of board members to oversee proper governance of the Authority. She respectfully suggested that Mr Ross reconsider his decision to reduce the board by two. The Sunday Independent understands that Ms O'Donnell has further written to Mr Ross at least once, and possibly twice to ask him to reconsider his decision to reduce the board membership.

To date, the Transport Minister has not reconsidered his decision, but is understood to be not adverse to doing so.

Sunday Independent

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