Friday 31 October 2014

What other country would refuse free help from respected experts?

Published 03/10/2013 | 05:00

One of my secret pleasures is a film called 'The Prince and The Showgirl' in which music hall performer Marilyn Monroe is pursued by Laurence Olivier, who monocles up to play a would-be seducer with both blue blood and red blood rushing through his veins.

Which leads me directly to the Global Irish Economic Forum in Dublin Castle tomorrow and Saturday. I'm not anticipating beautiful young women being pounced on by boardroom Goliaths over champagne suppers – not unless the itinerary changes dramatically in the next 24 hours. Apologies if I raised your hopes.

But every time I watch that film, featuring Olivier as the prince regent of a Ruritanian-style country, I think of Ireland: how our leaders, like Olivier's pompous and self-aggrandising character, continue to behave in a self-centred fashion at the expense of the national interest. Even after the economic collapse.

At the last global forum in 2011, a raft of business leaders from among the diaspora, high achievers in their fields – including Craig Barrett, former chief executive of computer chip maker Intel – volunteered to sit pro bono on state boards. They were willing to use their expertise to help our recovery. Successful Irish-Americans, in particular, have a tradition of philanthropy: they give both their time and their money.

You might suppose the offer would have led to ministers, their advisers and senior civil servants high-fiving and forming a conga line. Imagine having that wealth of business expertise to tap into – and free of charge.

Now imagine not taking up any of those internationally acclaimed heavy-hitters on their proposal – de facto rejecting it. Imagine hanging on to the seats on state boards and doling them out for political patronage purposes instead.

Appointments to state boards are the gifts of ministers. Despite Fine Gael and Labour both promising reform of state appointments in their election manifestos, it remains conspicuous by its absence. Reducing government involvement in the appointments process is the answer, of course, but I suppose it is counter-intuitive to expect anyone to surrender power once they achieve it.

"There is an immense resource available and Ireland would be foolish not to take advantage of every ounce of it," said Dr Barrett, when he made his offer to serve, as part of a project called Volunteer 2016 developed from the 2009 forum.

How prescient his comments were. Indeed, it would be foolish to say "thanks but no thanks" – but that hasn't stopped the Government. Two possible reasons for this readiness to look a gift horse in the mouth spring to mind. Firstly, they won't allow policy to be influenced by businesspeople from abroad, although some external expertise would be invaluable. Secondly, politicians seem to prefer to retain the option of placing proven supporters on state boards, even if it means giving the brush-off to top-ranking international executives who would be more useful to the national recovery.

That offer was made in a spirit of altruism and practical patriotism: these businesspeople are willing to serve on boards for free until 2016. State boards are almost as plentiful as pebbles on a beach – there are some 120 such bodies – so plenty of scope to accommodate the best and the brightest. But as another forum revs up at Dublin Castle, I can't help wondering whether an imaginative think tank to tap into the Irish diaspora has been neutered: downsized into a series of choreographed media events. If cracking ideas are quietly parked when they risk interfering with the pursuit of narrow party interest, the bona fides of the entire enterprise are compromised. That's not the fault of the people generous enough to participate, but the fault of the organisers.

"Ireland's rebound in the world economy will be driven by smart people and smart ideas," Dr Barrett has said. It is not smart to turn down free help from experts with a track record as impressive as his. Damn those do-gooders, you can hear politicians and civil servants mutter between gritted teeth. I don't suppose Dr Barrett is accustomed to having his mentorship offers rejected. And I doubt if there are too many countries where his help would receive such a lukewarm reception.

He is one among 20 or so corporate decision-makers from around the world willing to serve on the boards of the IDA, Enterprise Ireland and the Science Foundation of Ireland – boards where they could make an impact.

The Government's response is as enthusiastic as if a neighbour was twisting their arm to hire a wayward teenager for a summer job. What are they running scared of? Outsiders showing them a more efficient way of doing business? Shaking up cosy cartels? Taking positions earmarked for the party faithful – and doing them better? The Coalition pledged a more transparent process of appointments, including advertising vacant positions. It hasn't fully lived up to its promises.

Innovation keeps being trumpeted as the way forward but when a genuinely innovative approach emerges it seems to paralyse the Government.

This resourceful idea to tap into the Irish family abroad is only being embraced half-heartedly. (By the way, it originated with my fellow columnist David McWilliams and was laid out in his book, 'The Generation Game'. David is chairing the opening and closing sessions at the forum.)

"What are words where deeds can say so much more?" asks Olivier, just before he makes a predatory move on Monroe as the showgirl. The Government says it wants the help of the Irish abroad to revive the economy and create jobs. But when it isn't prepared to implement one of the forum's most original ideas, we must conclude that actions speak louder than words.

Irish Independent

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