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Thursday 24 August 2017

Quangos still springing up as agency bill tops €13bn

Cash-strapped Government can't stop adding to 800 State bodies

FIONA O'SHEA

Two years after Minister for Finance Brian Lenihan announced a cull of quangos only 16 or so of the mere 41 targeted have been closed.

But while one door was closing another was opening up -- with public sector reform a breeding ground for new quangos.

We've had the Decentralisation Implementation Group, five Performance Verification Groups linked to public service pay increases under social partnership agreements, three implementation groups so far for the Croke Park Agreement and a Public Service Body due to be announced shortly which the Taoiseach says will "bring greater focus and energy to the task of public service transformation".

This proliferation of groups and bodies is actually far more likely to bring increased costs, duplication of work, confusion and delay to the process of reform. Red tape caused by EU requirements, social partnership agreements and the increased involvement of citizens is leading to spiralling costs now estimated to have reached €13bn a year.

The OECD report pointed out: "Agencies have been established on an ad hoc basis with no clear vision or policy goals."

This lack of transparency gives credence to the view that appointments to State bodies are made on the basis of political affiliation rather than merit. Former Taoiseach Bertie Ahern said in 2006 about board appointees: "I might have appointed somebody -- but I appointed them because they were friends, not because of anything they had given me."

Ministerial appointments have come in for stinging criticism, with Fine Gael TD for Louth Fergus O'Dowd accusing Transport Minister Noel Dempsey of "stuffing the boards of many of these agencies up and down the country with Fianna Fail henchmen, which is what they are, [bringing] the whole process into disrepute."

At a time when the Government has declared an intention to scrap quangos new ones are springing up.

The recently established National Transport Authority comes into an area already groaning under the weight of bodies and authorities. In addition to the Minister and Department of Transport, we have the National Roads Authority; the Road Safety Authority; the Railway Safety Commission; the Railway Procurement Agency; the various Port Authorities; the Harbour Commissioners; the Commissioners of Irish Lights; the Irish Aviation Authority; the Commission of Aviation Regulation; CIE; the Dublin Carriage Office; and the Commission for Taxi Regulation.

And, as if that wasn't enough, a National Advisory Council is also due to be set up, with a chairperson and 23 ordinary members.

It is now believed there are 800 state agencies.

Over the past 20 years, new bodies were set up such as the Office of Tobacco Control (cost €1.6m, due to be absorbed into the Health and Safety Authority); An Coimisineir Teanga (€1m); the National Employment Rights Authority (NERA -- €8m); the Food Safety Authority (€18m); the Food Safety Promotion Board (€5.6m); the Private Residential Tenancies Board (€1m); the Limerick Northside Regeneration Agency (€2.8m); the Limerick Southside Regeneration Agency (2.8m); Science Foundation Ireland (€175m); and a couple of hundred more, each with their budgets and boards.

The overall cost to the State of these agencies is close to €13bn. We're told by the Government that an "adjustment" of €15bn is going to have to be made over the next four years to deal with the budget deficit. Following through on its own proposals to reduce the number of quangos would surely be a place to start.

Despite numerous reports setting out the risks associated with the ad hoc development of agencies without a clear plan or lines of responsibility, they continue to be set up, complete with boards and budgets. And now we seem to have moved into the territory of setting up new agencies to review agencies.

The Minister for the Environment John Gormley has set up an Environmental Protection Agency Review Group with the sole purpose of assessing the performance of the Environmental Protection Agency when this should surely be the responsibility of the agency's parent department.

Why, in our current straitened circumstances, is the Government not making any real progress in reducing the number of quangos? Of course, there are issues around transfer of work and letting staff go, some of whom may have civil service conditions of employment. These may well figure in the lack of progress being made in closing the agencies, though it would not explain why the Government persists in setting up more. An increasingly disaffected public can't help feeling that the lack of progress is closely related to ministers reluctance to give up the perk of appointing their political cronies to the boards of State agencies.

Sunday Independent

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