Monday 23 April 2018

Water charges - how to make a hames of a good idea

The last Government managed to turn general acceptance of paying for water into furious mass civil disobedience, writes Eoin O'Malley

Photo: Fennell photography
Photo: Fennell photography

Eoin O'Malley

The failure of Irish Water is emblematic of the failure of the Fine Gael-Labour government. It took a good idea - centralise the management of and investment in the water infrastructure and charge for water - and made a bags of it.

It was a tendency of the last Government to second-guess itself. When the Troika was running Ireland, the Government was more popular because it delivered - sometimes painful - policies but it rarely deviated from the task. When Kenny et al took over the actual running of the country, it was never surefooted.

The decision to offer big tax cuts in Election 2016 when it had spent five years telling us of the precarious nature of the public finances was the last in a line of mistakes of making policy on the hoof.

Some think the failure of Irish Water was a communications failure, that Irish Water is essentially sound, but was a PR disaster.

That's not wholly true. The original water policy had some merits, but once it came under attack, the Government lost its nerve.

There were reasonable fears of privatisation, which the Government arrogantly dismissed. The policy cobbled together by Alan Kelly following sustained protests was the worst of all worlds. It kept the charges, but removed any incentives.

Water policy is likely to be a victim to any government-formation deal. Parties will dream up some politically acceptable but ineffectual fudge of the issue.

Instead, it would be a good time to review the policy to learn some lessons from the mistakes made.

It would be a good time, but it probably won't happen.

That's because policymakers (like most normal people) seek to deflect blame.

This contrasts with the airline industry, which, out of self-interest, has procedures in place that seeks to learn lessons from its failures, accidents and near-misses.

Blame-attribution is not a priority for investigations, so people aren't afraid to engage honestly. The result? Per-passenger-mile air travel is safer than any other form of travel.

We can see the same in the polling industry. The errors evident in opinion polling at the UK election didn't cause the industry to spin failure into success, it immediately set about trying to find out what went wrong.

In politics and policy-making, mistakes are for point-scoring, 'near misses' are ignored and success is rarely examined forensically, never to improve the process.

This might be because in policy it is harder to be definitive on success and failure and so creative explanation can turn failure into perceived success. If new legislation and policies had to publish and be defined and observable goals set we might make better policies and learn more from mistakes.

This isn't an Irish phenomenon. Most Western democracies treat accountability as a form of torture that has to be endured, not an opportunity to improve.

We need to do this. Trust in politics and political institutions is at an all-time low. There is a sense that the State is not delivering for citizens.

At a minimum, we expect the State to at least allow us to turn on our taps and for clean water to flow out. Yet many parts of the country endure ongoing problems with water supply, such as weak pressure, stoppages and boil notices, and it's estimated that nearly half of all drinking water is wasted through leaks. So it is not surprising that a majority of people supported the principle of water charges and that pay-per-use was the fairest system.

Why then the wide unhappiness with the policy? Letting Irish Water effectively run itself and set water policy seems like a good idea. You don't want political interference in water supply. The disquiet emanated from uncertainty about the actual costs and that no one really wanted to introduce the policy, or at least no one wanted to make the policy their own.

We can divide policy problems into complex problems and engineering problems. Complex problems are ones we don't know the answers for. They are ones where reasonable people can have alternative views. Engineering problems are ones where we understand how to provide a solution. There aren't interests. There's best practice.

Water supply is an engineering problem and local government has some expertise in providing the solution. So getting a senior local government official with vast experience to run Irish Water seemed reasonable. But the Government ignored the fact that the real problem was financing the water infrastructure, not rebuilding it. This is a complex problem.

Irish Water reluctantly had to take a lead on financing as the various departments it reported to had little interest in doing so. This led to uncertainty about the cost of bills and this fed people's anxiety, eventually causing the Government to respond. It changed policy to make it worse still, with a flat-rate charge that doesn't raise enough for the work needed.

A review might find that a government could consider more innovative financing models. Water bonds could be issued to citizens (some free with an option to buy more), as are used in other places for large infrastructure projects. Structured correctly, this could have provided sustainable financing and allayed fears of privatisation.

We would be more likely to pay our bills if we owned the water authority directly.

Another problem a review might find is that setting up a huge authority on day one doesn't work. The mistake had been made with the HSE. Irish Water took on too much too quickly. It was handed all relevant (and maybe some irrelevant) local authority staff.

Irish Water hasn't been a success so far, but rather than compound the mistake, we should learn that good policy doesn't come from off-the-cuff remarks or close observance of opinion polls.

Dr Eoin O'Malley is senior lecturer in political science and director of Dublin City University's MSc in Public Policy.

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