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Time to decide which quangos can make the cut

IRELAND is said to have a special relationship with Newfoundland. Generations of Irish people migrated to the Canadian province to fish off its shores. Half of its population are said to descend from Irish settlers.

John Bruton was so struck by the Irish influence in Newfoundland that as Taoiseach he signed a memorandum of agreement to foster that special relationship with his Canadian counterpart.

Bertie Ahern went one further and dedicated a quango to the cause in 2001.

The Ireland Newfoundland Partnership was born in an era of Celtic Tiger excess, complete with a director, an advisory board of 10 made up of public servants and academics, and two civil servants seconded from the Taoiseach's office. The quango has done good work.

It has paid for scores of student exchanges with Newfoundland, awarded numerous research grants, helped organise an annual festival and set up a centre of Newfoundland studies in Waterford Institute of Technology.

It has also helped to foster business relations, supporting, for example, a development of 10 luxury holiday villas in Newfoundland by Irish investor Brian O'Reilly and a luxury hotel resort by FK Developments.

Its budget was modest enough.

In 2007 it spent €372,000, of which €203,732 went on salaries and overheads; €41,280 travel; and €19,270 on official functions and events. The remainder went on grants and bursaries. In 2008, it cut its spending back to €334,000.

The Ireland Newfoundland Partnership is typical of the quangos that multiplied into what the OECD called an "organisational zoo" during the Celtic Tiger madness. Well-meaning and worthy, but weren't there already agencies that could do the job?

Last year, An Bord Snip Nua, Colm McCarthy's report on trimming the public sector, said the quango should be abolished in the absence of any "significant economic rationale" for its existence, saving the taxpayer €300,000 a year.

The Ireland Newfoundland Partnership clings on, albeit with its budget slashed to €40,000, stripped of a director and its work subsumed into the Taoiseach's office. But there are hundreds of other agencies that the country can no longer afford but which inexplicably and expensively limp on.

In July last year, An Bord Snip called for 43 quangos to be cut or rationalised, saving the taxpayer €170m in the process.

Along with the Newfoundland Partnership, An Bord Snip singled out the Dormant Accounts Board for abolition. The board effectively acts as watchdog in the disbursement to good causes of unclaimed money languishing in bank accounts and insurance policies. The 10-member board meet 10 times a year to provide "independent advice" and to act as a "critical appraiser".

The most recent accounts show that the board members were paid €79,498 in fees and €8,208 in expenses in 2008.

The rest of the board's €199,907 budget went on a €41,000 contract that runs for three years to a consultant who advises the board; €39,000 in fees paid to Goodbody consultants; and €3,887 paid to Q4 public relations, the firm co-founded by the former Fianna Fail general secretary Martin Mackin and government press secretary Jackie Gallagher.

The Department of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs said this weekend that the board will be abolished but it has not said when.

Then there is Grangegorman Development Agency, which was launched in 2006 to develop a super campus for Dublin Institute of Technology colleges. McCarthy called on the Government to cut funding to the agency, saving €1.5m a year. But it too is still here, spending taxpayers' money on tenders for building projects. Although Education Minister Batt O'Keeffe is preparing a memo for Government on its future, his department has shown no appetite to see it go.

There is little disagreement that at least some of the quasi- autonomous non-governmental organisations should go. It's been more than a year since Finance Minister Brian Lenihan announced the abolition or amalgamation of 41 State agencies in his Budget speech in 2008. Despite pronouncements more than a year ago, the cull is proving protracted.

The Department of Finance has now revised its figures to 30 agencies targeted for closure, of which 16 have either shut or merged, or are in the process of doing so.

The cuts will save the taxpayer €10m. The National Crime Council was one of the first quangos to go.

The Combat Poverty Agency was subsumed into the Department of Social Welfare. The Adult National Learning Council and the Centre for Early Childhood Development have also gone.

Last week, Mr O'Keeffe added another to the list -- the National University of Ireland, which will be wound down gradually over the next year or two, saving the state €1.3m. Curiously, the NUI does not feature on the Department of Finance's hit list of agencies for the chop.

Nor does the Newfoundland Partnership, nor the Taoiseach's quango, the National Economic and Social Development Office, which is effectively a superquango incorporating three talking shop/policy quangos populated by union and business figures. Its budget has been quietly cut by almost €1m to €3.8m a year.

Perhaps it would help matters if the bean counters knew exactly how many quangos there are. No one seems to know, mainly because various agencies disagree on the definitions of public bodies.

The Department of Finance lists more than 80 non-commercial bodies, counting only those that are directly funded by the exchequer.

Tasc, the independent think tank on social change, has counted 482 national agencies; the OECD has counted more than 800; and the Institute of Public Administration 605 -- including local agencies such as enterprise boards.

In a bid to crack the imponderable riddle, Sean Sherlock, the Labour Senator, took the trouble to ask every Government department how many agencies came within their remit and how much they cost. But only seven of the 15 departments provided a full set of figures. Even so, he calculated the cost to those seven departments at €2.6bn. The true figure is much higher.

In a paper published last year, Paula Clancy, Tasc's director, wrote that public bodies have been developed in "an ad hoc manner, without a coherent rationale underlying their establishment" resulting in "at best, a fragmented public service and, at worst, in high levels of duplication and 'dumping' of responsibilities from central government to public bodies, and between public bodies". Appointments to State boards too were "ad hoc and politicised", with no clear mechanism for ensuring they are "free from undue political or other influence".

"Our current system has given rise to the suspicion -- whether well-founded or not -- that a small minority of appointees are motivated by self-interest (or by narrow political interests) rather than by a desire to serve the public good," she wrote.

The system of serving on a State board without pay may have been designed "to foster a culture of volunteerism and public service" but had "resulted in an increased focus on daily allowances and mileage.

In general, though the Celtic Tiger spawned a new breed of private public servant, the successful individuals -- often moving in the political milieu -- regard it as their civic duty to sit on State boards.

The new breed of "quangolians" include trade unionists, business people and a large measure of political supporters. John Gormley, the enivornment minister, appointed two former Green Party councillors to the Private Residential Tenancies Board, which adjudicates in disputes between landlords and tenants. Celia Larkin, Bertie Ahern's ex-girlfriend, was appointed to the board of another quango, the National Consumer Agency.

Some are serial appointees. Peter Cassells, the former general secretary of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, has chaired the board of Forfas, is executive chairman of the National Centre for Partnership and Performance and a member of the Institute of European Affairs and the Council of the European Movement.

Gilian Bowler, whose company Budget Travel went into liquidation last year, served on boards of Failte Ireland, the Irish Museum of Modern Art and the Independent Radio and Television Commission.

Olive Braiden, the former director of the Rape Crisis Centre who once stood as European candidate for Fianna Fail, not only chaired the Arts Council for five years, but is a Human Rights Commissioner, sits on the board of the Courts Service and is a member of the Judicial Appointments Board.

She was appointed to the Public Service Benchmarking Body by Brian Cowen. Arts Sports and Tourism Minister Martin Cullen appointed her to the London 2012 Task Force.

Dr Maureen Gaffney, a pyschologist, chairs the National Economic and Social Forum and serves on the board of the Health Services Executive.

In fact, she has called for restraint in the current quango-bashing climate.

Dr Gaffney has publicly defended the system as a necessary way to distribute funds and aid where it is most needed in society.

Government departments are large and bureaucratic, she wrote, while good State agencies can respond rapidly and nimbly when problems arise. Some of the flood victims forced out of their homes in the pre-Christmas deluge might disagree.

Despite an array of quangos overseeing various aspects of drains and waterways, no one body took overall responsibility for the clear-up.

The Government promises we will we be 30 quangos lighter by the time its rationalisation programme is finished. Whatever about being leaner, they also need to be more accountable, according to Leo Varadkar, Fine Gael's spokesman on enterprise.

But the wheels are grinding slowly.

"At long last there is some progress on reducing the number of State agencies. But the programme is extremely slow and extremely painstaking. They have delivered less than half of their commitments to date and that was the bare minimum."

Sunday Independent