Monday 26 February 2018

Thomas Molloy: Making proper plans requires that we know what is going on

WE live in an information age but still struggle to obtain basic facts about what is going on in this country.

None of us has any clear idea how many people are emigrating, what is happening to house prices or what is happening to wages.

That the Central Statistics Office no longer tracks emigration is almost sinister. No country in western Europe has been more scarred by people departing in their thousands than Ireland but we make no official effort to keep tabs.

The census evidence suggests that at least one in 10 Irishmen aged between 20 and 30 has left the country but the few people who study these things are always quick to point out that we can only really guess at what is happening. Last year, the ESRI put the figure at 50,000 a year. Three months later, they weren't so sure.

It is a similar story when it comes to property. Few countries in Europe have an economy that is so dependent on a recovery in the property sector and yet we do not track cash purchases of houses when we compile the monthly property price index.

Omission

With a third of house transactions now believed to be cash, this is a significant omission that could easily be remedied by asking the Revenue Commissioners for details.

Wages are another mystery. Recent research and hard figures from several sources now suggests that salaries have hardly fallen at all in many sectors outside construction since the bust.

The Central Bank has been consistent when it comes to warning that apparent gains in productivity might be less than meets the eye but the Government has been too busy boasting in Europe and back home about how much pain the average worker has endured to examine the facts.

To be sure, many people have lost their jobs and almost everybody is paying more taxes but there appears to be dwindling evidence that either private or public sector workers have had to put up with pay cuts; as a society we appear to have made the unpleasant choice of sacking people rather than sharing wage cuts.

There is an answer to some of these planning problems; identity cards. It is not a particularly pleasant answer and it would be a radical step but it needs to be considered.

Light regulation

One of the glories of living in Ireland has always been light-touch regulation for citizens. In the past, we have been pretty much left to our own devices; we could live where we wanted without telling the authorities and come and go as we pleased and this undoubtedly added to the charm of living here.

Today, thanks to computers, we no longer live like this. Phone companies keep track of your movements, government-owned banks track our spending, CCTV cameras in public and private spaces record our movements, spyware routinely trawls through our emails while the Government puts census information on the web despite promises of confidentiality.

We even allow Facebook to make money from our friends.

We have no privacy any more but at present only the private sector exploits this truth for its purposes. The Government's failure to use the same technology to keep track of our movements means that the State is unable to make spending cuts where they are needed.

Welfare benefits are paid to people who are no longer living or living in this country. Schools are built in the wrong places because the authorities don't know how many people live in their areas.

The last census revealed that we had 100,000 more inhabitants than the authorities believed. How can we plan when a census can reveal that we have the equivalent of a major city unaccounted for?

Identity cards are expensive and problematic but it is also expensive and problematic to run a country on guesswork.

We need to give ourselves the tools to keep track of what is happening to the country if we are to cure our ills.

Real information in real time would be a start.

Government can learn from bank response to computer meltdown

THE politicians were quick to criticise Ulster Bank's computer failure, but the reality is that the bank dealt well with the problem and our leaders could learn a thing or two.

The bank failed to sort out the problem quickly and made a serious PR blunder by promising last week that a solution was imminent when this was not the case but it still managed to convince staff to come in over the weekend to help out.

The ability to convince or coerce staff to react to a problem is one of the key tests of any organisation's morale and leadership.

That Ulster Bank's staff were prepared to work hard to make up for somebody else's mistakes in a sister organisation is a tribute to the bank's staff -- both the leadership and the tellers.

Government ministers should remember that nobody was prepared to muck out when payment to around 55,000 social welfare recipients was delayed back in November 2009 when civil servants walked off the job to complain about salary cuts that are nowhere as bad as those endured by Ulster Bank staff.

One day, when the State provides online services that are a fraction as good as the service provided by the banks or companies such as Amazon, we might be prepared to listen to the Government's expertise on matters digital.

In the meantime, we can silently contemplate its inability to manage a simple payroll system for the HSE which is many times smaller than Ulster Bank's customer base.

An organisation that spends €220m on a computer system that doesn't work can't really throw stones.

We are a little tongue-tied in Ireland

NAME the only independent country in Europe that does not insist schoolchildren learn a modern language. You got it, who else could it be but Ireland?

The Government's decision to cut funding for a 14-year modern language 'pilot' scheme for primary schools makes a certain amount of sense (it sounds like a pilot scheme on auto pilot) but it makes no sense at all to allow children to leave secondary school without languages.

The Irish are a little like the English; we appear to believe that we have been excused the duty to learn other languages because most people in Europe speak English reasonably well.

That's fine for the English (although they insist on languages in secondary school) but it makes no sense for the continent's third biggest exporter of goods and one of the continent's biggest exporters of human beings.

It is almost evil to bring up children in a country without jobs and then force them to emigrate to homes thousands of miles away when there are jobs going begging in Germany and France.

In the past, we have been held back by the State's insistence on compulsory Irish but Fine Gael was returned to office last year with a huge vote and a mandate to abolish compulsory Irish.

It is peculiar, to say the least, that the party has not acted on that mandate. Enda Kenny has been very quiet on many other electoral promises but his silence on this issue which could ensure that thousands of Irish people live close to their families in the years ahead is deafening.

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