News Analysis

Friday 29 August 2014

How the Government can get its mojo back

Real reform in key areas such as justice and welfare is what the public wants.

Richard Humphreys

Published 13/04/2014 | 02:30

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Taoiseach Enda Kenny and Tanaiste Eamon Gilmore
Taoiseach Enda Kenny and Tanaiste Eamon Gilmore

So what exactly has this Government ever done for us? Apart, that is, from getting rid of the Troika, rescuing the banking system, winding up the remains of Anglo, ending the blanket bank guarantee, tearing up the prom note, reducing unemployment and turning around the economy?

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So where did it all go wrong for Enda and Eamon? Why, after such a good record on so many big issues, have both government parties lost a bit of their mojo in the polls six weeks before local and European elections? How much of a hole are they in, and is there a way out?

As usual, the Government's critics are divided between those who would like to keep them in as deep a hole as possible, and those who want to see a sweeping reshuffle to promote young blood to Cabinet. But a reshuffle without addressing deeper issues is unlikely to have a long-term impact.

The standard reaction of political parties to poor polls over the years has been that "we must communicate our message better". This normally stimulates a pumping out of party propaganda.

But communicating means bringing people into your confidence, being open about what is going on, and listening to the people affected.

Some cabinet members have shown the way. Brendan Howlin has been working on the Open Government Partnership, to promote transparency, better government and empowering citizens. If implemented, it could make a real difference to how people interact with Government.

But it is one thing to state the principles – it is another thing to translate them into actions. This cannot become a management tick-box exercise. And it's the Government that must set the standards. Ministers must find out if their departments are fobbing people off or really listening.

A commitment to genuine communication must be part of the spirit of the Government collectively and both parties individually. The other central element of leadership is the need for vision.

The Government has suffered from the dire pressures of taking office in tough times. It has been so preoccupied with managing the crisis inherited from Fianna Fail that it did not have space to fully articulate a vision for post-recovery Ireland.

But we cannot any longer postpone the need for ambition for root-and-branch changes. Take for example our social welfare and criminal justice systems. Despite some recent changes, the social welfare system still promotes dependency in many respects.

Furthermore, there seems to be very little discussion of how the social welfare system contributes to breaking up families, by paying parents to live apart from each other.

We should take an open-minded look at how the British welfare secretary Iain Duncan Smith has fundamentally reorganised their welfare system around the principle that there should always be an incentive to work.

The criminal justice system is another area where the British have taken the notion of systemic reform a little more seriously. They have longer sentences for violent crime. But in Ireland we still have an unbalanced system with very rigid weight given to offenders' rights.

There is real reform in the pipeline in some areas, such as Alan Shatter's changes to family law, but the government parties need to set out broader goals and ambitions.

We need to ask other hard policy questions too, but at least let's make a start with areas like social welfare and crime. By asking and answering the right questions, and by taking openness to heart, the Government can both get its mojo back and satisfy the public appetite for leadership.

Richard Humphreys is a Senior Counsel and is the Labour Councillor for the Stillorgan Ward in Dun Laoghaire-Rathdown

Sunday Independent

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