Tuesday 16 January 2018

Moving in the wrong direction: the decentralisation debacle

Charlie McCreevy
Charlie McCreevy
Paul Melia

Paul Melia

There's nothing new about grand schemes to boost economic development in the regions.

In the past there have always been suggestions that such initiatives are little more than political manoeuvrings, aimed at delivering a windfall for a minister's constituency rather than improving services for the wider public.

This kind of criticism stems as far back as 1980, when the-then Fianna Fáil government announced plans to move 3,210 public servants to 12 locations across the country.

The plans were shelved when a Fine Gael/Labour administration took office in 1981, and in December that year, Labour junior minister Barry Desmond outlined his ­concerns in the Dáil.

"The most striking thing I found in my examination of the file was the extraordinary coincidence whereby each area selected for decentralisation coincided with the fact that there was a minister in each of the particular centres," he said.

"The Fianna Fáil Party have a concept of decentralisation whereby every town in Ireland will have an army barracks, a health board headquarters, a regional hospital, a psychiatric hospital, an airport, an international sports complex, a huge AnCO training centre, half a dozen civil service departments working all in that town of 5,000 or 10,000 people.

"That is not decentralisation. It is political nonsense. It is promising people benefits which we all know cannot be delivered."

At the time, around 40pc of the public service worked outside of Dublin, and notwithstanding Mr Desmond's pithy remarks, over the coming years there was a further trickle of moves to the regions. Between 1987 and 1994, almost 2,400 people left Dublin, but the experience of those years should have taught future governments that moving swathes of public-sector workers from Dublin was fraught with difficulty.

In some areas like Sligo, where the Department of Social Welfare was located, there were significant levels of staff turnover. Other areas, particularly in the midlands, proved hard to sell. But despite these concerns, by 2000, decentralisation was back on the political agenda, with Fianna Fáil Finance Minister Charlie McCreevy promising a "more radical" programme than that previously envisaged.

In December 2003, details were outlined of the biggest re-organisation of the public service in the State's history.

It involved the Office of Public Works and eight departments - Agriculture, Communications, Arts, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs, Defence, Education, Environment and Social and Family Affairs - moving in their entirety, ministers and senior management included. Some departments were literally scattered across the State - Communications, Marine & Natural Resources was based in Cavan, Clonakilty and Carrick-on-Shannon. Finance was across 13 locations ranging from Listowel to Claremorris and Kildare.

In all, it was planned that some 10,300 civil and public service jobs would move to 53 centres across 25 counties. "I believe that over time, decentralisation will lead to a radical change of culture in terms of policy formation in this country. No longer will policy be made entirely in Dublin on the basis of a Dublin mindset," Mr McCreevy pledged.

While Progressive Democrats' OPW minister Tom Parlon wasted no time in erecting 'Welcome to Parlon Country' billboards in his Laois-Offaly constituency, it was the fact that the plans flew in the face of national policy which caused controversy and stuck in the craw of so many.

Just a year earlier, the government had announced its first National Spatial Strategy, which designed nine 'gateways', including Dublin, for growth, and nine subsidiary 'hubs'. Of 77 projects, just 20 were destined for a gateway or hub. The Association of Higher Civil and Public Servants also expressed dismay at the suggestion they were to be "distributed as trophies in advance of local elections" due in June 2004.

It was a disaster. Up to April 2010, some 3,148 staff had moved - just 30pc of the mooted number. That said, more than half the public sector was now located outside the capital. Among the only positives from the debacle was the fact the State turned a healthy profit of €40m disposing of offices because so many prime Dublin buildings were sold at the height of the boom.

Conversely, an audit from the Comptroller and Auditor General in 2009 found that 12 sites valued at €43.8m had been purchased in locations where decentralisation was not being progressed.

In November 2011, the programme was cancelled by the Fine Gael/Labour coalition on cost grounds, along with ongoing staffing cuts and a reorganisation of the civil service.

Just months later, the third report of the Organisational Review Programme (ORP), established in March 2007 to examine the capabilities of the civil service to meet future challenges and deliver services, set out the impacts.

The fears of the unions had come to pass, and there had been a "major haemorrhaging" of corporate knowledge. There was pronounced staff 'churn' or turnover, and significant additional costs arose as senior management had to work from two different locations. In some cases, staff in decentralised offices didn't have enough work to do.

The ORP noted that the programme did not comply with what was traditionally understood as 'decentralisation', as it did not involve transferring decision-making to local or regional government. In effect, there had been no new policy formation driven by the regions, as had been promised. The 'Dublin mindset' remained.

"Instead, decentralisation within the Irish context…involved the dispersal of certain units of central government away from the Dublin region to other locations in the country," it found. "As such, the programme should be understood to mean the administrative relocation of staff from the Dublin area."

Environment editor Paul Melia

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