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John Drennan: Citizens' brainwaves to help slash public sector waste

Hundreds of members of the public, including serving and retired public servants, have responded to Brendan Howlin's appeal for solutions from citizens to the Government's spending crisis.

In a relatively low-key initiative at the end of June, the Public Expenditure Minister launched a Public Conversation on the Comprehensive Review of Public Expenditure.

But despite the absence of a glitzy PR campaign, in an indication of the level of interest in public sector reform, his department received more than 700 suggestions as to how wasteful spending could be eradicated.

The suggestions, which have flooded in at a rate of more than 30 a working day, include ideas such as following the example set by France where you can renew your car tax in local shops or via your insurance company.

This would free up staff currently employed in the Motor Tax Office.

In what has evolved into a real sounding board for the public's concerns, a large number of proposals aimed at tackling social welfare fraud were received.

This concentrated on rent supplement schemes, exceptional needs payments, child benefit and reforming the allocation of social welfare to people who do not participate in training.

Suggestions include the greater use of American-style fingerprint technology to cut down on social welfare and medical card fraud.

It was also claimed controls on the amount of living space social welfare supplementary rent recipients could live in could facilitate a reduction in that €500m-plus bill.

This was informed by practice in Germany, where the state calculated the minimum space a person could live in. Within an Irish context, the contributor suggested that if welfare recipients want "their rent paid it can't be that Social Welfare is paying for a 120-sqm house if there are only three people living in it''.

One critical change that was suggested was the ending of the "institutional fear" in State bodies that if your full budget was not spent you'd lose out in the next year.

Such a development would "act as an ease to conscientious managers" who would reduce expenditure if this did not lead to an automatic drop in resources for the next year.

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The Government has also been told to instigate an awards scheme for Departments who were most successful in cutting budgets, while there were also suggestions on the need to radically reform current civil service travel and subsistence rates.

Among the issues queried were the right to subsistence if civil servants had to be out of the office for more than five hours and further than five kilometres away.

It was suggested that in scenarios such as this public servants should simply bring packed lunches or eat out like the rest of the private sector.

Ireland's much-touted new motorway system also entered the debate via the suggestion that the distance from where civil servants could claim over-night allowances be extended from the current 30 mile average to 50 miles.

The public have also suggested that the compulsory translation of government documents into Irish should no longer be outsourced to outside contractors but should instead be the responsibility of the Department of the Gaeltacht.

Some ideas, though outwardly small, were highly innovative. One such proposal was the ending of the old library fines system by letter, where often the cost of issuing the fine exceeds the amount of money recouped. This could instead be replaced by a scenario where recalcitrant borrowers are sent a premium-rate text for every week their books are overdue. Other ideas include ending the use of pre-paid envelopes and the standardisation of Revenue and Social Protection forms.

In spite of the recent furore over the closure of Roscommon's A&E unit public support was also highly in favour of the abolition of non-essential services in hospitals.

Third-level students did not escape either, for the department has also received proposals to make the payment of grants subject to the passing of exams.

Within Justice, reform of the free legal aid system was also a priority. It is believed the Department of Social Protection was looking sympathetically at suggestions that law graduates be deployed to this system under the Graduate Placement Scheme.

It was also suggested that taxis no longer be used to transfer prisoners. A serving garda officer instead suggested that garda vehicles that are lying dormant should be diverted to the task.

Leafing through a thick, well-marked file in his office Mr Howlin noted "the ideas range from general issues to very detailed specific proposals based on the experiences of public sector workers".

He added that the high rate of contributions from civil servants showed "there is a real internal appetite for reform".

Mr Howlin said many of the proposals were "of a high quality" and noted that the most impressive feature of the scheme was that "the response was entirely spontaneous".

He added: "This is an innovative and important precedent. It is participative democracy in action where citizens and people in the frontline working together with the government to find solutions to the problems we face."