Stephen Kinsella

Thursday 31 July 2014

Time for joined-up thinking to help councils

Published 21/05/2013|04:00

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N ATIONAL politics is all about spin, about message management, about pushing through big-ticket items that often have little to do with the lives of the country's citizens. For example, on the order of business in the Dail today was the Ministers and Secretaries (Amendment) Bill. Important, yes, but it won't get your bins collected.

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Local authorities don't have the luxury of spinning, of delaying, or really of thinking at longer time scales. They have to 'do'. Local authorities are the coalface of 'do' in the same way that universities are the coalface of 'think' in our society.

When the local authorities don't do their jobs properly, when they are underfunded and underpowered, when they hide themselves behind legislation and exposure to potential liability as excuses for inaction, then people can get hurt.

That fact alone exposes the need for a rethink not of how local authorities function. There have been two large-scale reviews in recent years, both for efficiency and for structural reform, but a rethink of how local authorities can innovate, and change to meet the needs of the citizens they are supposed to serve, makes sense by connecting them to Ireland's universities and ITs more fundamentally.

The vision for local government is very ambitious. In the recent Action Programme for Effective Local Government, the vision was that:

"Local government will be the main vehicle of governance and public service at local level – leading economic, social and community development, delivering efficient and good value services, and representing citizens and local communities effectively and accountably."

Local authorities can't do this on a shoestring. They are simultaneously underfunded and undermanned.

In the period 2008-2012, revenues from the central government to local authorities went down by €736m, or around 14pc, and they had to reduce their total staff by 8,250, or around 22pc, across all local authorities. Nobody is arguing local authorities are temples of efficiency and value for money, but I don't buy the argument about administrative paralysis and bureaucratic sclerosis.

There is always scope for reform, but as the interface between local public policy and the citizen, especially on key services like housing, like water provision, like environmental services and recreation, local authorities should be resourced appropriately.

How can universities help local authorities? There are lots of ways. When the efficiency review group reported to the minister in July 2012, Section 2.58 page 14 recommended that a cost-effective graduate trainee programme be put in place to provide a future stream of talent. Universities can provide the spaces in which these programmes could take place.

That's just the start.

Universities do suffer from a lack of real-world focus. Local authorities don't have the luxury of blue sky thinking. The interaction, between the academics and local authority members across the country and nationally, would discipline the academics and provide more of a policy impact to what they do. Here's an example of what I mean.

There are seven economics departments of various shapes and sizes in the seven universities, all teaching students at undergraduate and postgraduate level.

Every local authority should have economic development units built into them to evaluate whether the programmes they are running make sense to keep running.

The students need to translate their knowledge into real-world practice, and the local authorities need that expertise – the efficiency review cries out for it in several places. So task every head of every economic department to make these links. Everyone benefits.

THE same is true of almost every academic specialism I can think of, from experts on queueing theory helping shorten housing lists to geographic information systems experts helping the local authority to plan services more effectively.

There are also experts on taxation helping the authorities implement government policy and designers thinking how best to lay out and beautify the areas to make people's lives better.

Here's the thing – academics are dying to help, for their work to have an impact. In fact, it's a part of the vocational nature of academic work. A lot of this happening right now, but in an ad hoc manner.

Universities and local authorities. We can be so much more effective, with a little joined-up thinking and some time to think, and to do.

Stephen Kinsella lectures in economics at the University of Limerick

Irish Independent

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