Directly elected mayors could push through real change
MANY officials working in our local authority system may feel aggrieved at the findings of the local government auditor, believing they are being unfairly treated and singled out for criticism at a time when they have been forced to do more with less.
In many respects, they are correct. Staffing levels and funding has dramatically reduced in recent years, at a time when central government has demanded more. The abolition of dozens of councils has been a huge administrative drain on resources, while the creation of Irish Water has also added a considerable burden to workloads.
But notwithstanding all of these issues, the auditor points out that many simple things are not being done well, matters which call into question how our entire local government system operates.
Best value for money is not being achieved because tendering rules are not being followed.
Capital projects are sometimes undertaken without the necessary funding being in place, and in some cases are running considerably over-budget.
Special rates are being paid to staff in some local authorities, and there are serious issues around corporate governance, with many councils lacking internal financial controls to ensure public money is well-spent.
The councils are not helped by the actions of elected members, many of whom were facing difficult local elections in the summer of 2014.
During a period when central government was slashing spending, the only thing local councillors could offer constituents was a list of achievements they had delivered.
In many cases, these achievements came at the price of over-spending, something which councillors had approved.
It begs the question as to whether there is a better way of doing things?
The creation of a directly elected mayor for each county, with real powers over budgets and policy, is a real solution.
Backed by officials, mayors could drive through change and would create a system of real accountability where balancing the books would be a prerequisite to holding on to the job, and not a suggested course of action. But it would also prove useful in preparing such politicians for national office, as they would have valuable experience of overseeing large budgets, gathering consensus on projects of local and regional importance and helping drive job creation in local communities.
But our current political system does not allow for such considerations.
Until local government is given real power, we can all expect the current litany of cost overruns, poor financial management and expensive mistakes to continue.