Thursday 5 December 2019

Jason O'Mahony: 'The electorate won't repay politicians who hold spendthrifts of the State to account'

Thankless task: Jim Mitchell saved the nation a fortune – but was ousted in the next election.
PHOTO: TOM BURKE
Thankless task: Jim Mitchell saved the nation a fortune – but was ousted in the next election. PHOTO: TOM BURKE

Jason O'Mahony

For 1,000 points, who can tell me what PPARS stands for? How can we possibly forget the hijinks of the HSE's IT system of the 1990s that started out at the barely buy-you-a-nice-house-in-leafy-south-Dublin price of €9m and ended up with a bill of €220m?

A particularly entertaining part of the whole saga was the vast sums run up by outside consultants, presumably brought on board to ensure the taxpayer got good value for money. Positively Flann O'Brien, that.

At the end of the adventure, we got the usual reassurance from the HSE that lessons had been learned and it would never happen again, which was technically correct.

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We tend to find whole new and interesting ways of burning through our money. Like buying €800,000 printers that only work inside Doctor Who's Tardis - that is, a room that is bigger on the inside than the outside.

But that's not the big lesson. The big lesson is that once again we will have confirmed Ireland is one of the most democratic countries in the world, and our Government is among the most reactive to the wishes of the people.

You don't believe me, do you? Nobody wanted the Government to waste money on giant printers or IT systems that don't work, right?

That's true. But nor do they want anyone held accountable. Not really. If they did, names would be named and the ultimate sanction would be applied: people would be fired and (shock horror) pensions would be halted. Sure, we talk about people scratching each other's backs and looking after cronies, but the reality is no one ever pays a price because we don't want them to.

Consider the logic: supposing you had a cabinet minister who wanted to bring in a law to dismiss individual civil servants for things like the printer affair. What would happen?

The unions would kick up, block it, and threaten a strike across the public sector. The government would then have to take on the unions, and have the voting members of the public sector plus their families definitely vote against your party. That's where Ireland diversifies from so many other countries, in that the number of voters that would rally to the minister's party for having the courage to demand accountability would be absolutely tiny. Possibly a few thousand voters.

That's why these things happen. Politicians will go where they reckon the voters are, and that is not in seriously doing anything about this. There are no votes in it.

Look at the late Jim Mitchell, who saved voters hundreds of millions through the DIRT inquiry and was sacked by them the following election.

One suggestion has been that massive screw-ups just be deducted from the nominal Oireachtas pension fund and subsequent size of pensions paid out. If an IT system or printer or children's hospital runs massively over budget, we deduct the amount from the future pension pot of TDs and senators. But would that focus the mind or encourage a cross-party omerta to just shut the hell up about anything dodgy going on? This is Ireland: what do you think?

As voters don't cast their first preferences on the issue of government waste, and indeed will welcome it if it is spent in their parish, how do we get better bang for our buck? Perhaps some sort of competition where we pay civil servants a big fat tax-free lump sum if they come up with ways of saving money that actually work?

Of course, that would require our politicians having the stones not to want to give every single civil servant the payment anyway, out of "fairness", or make the payment more expensive than the amount of money saved.

It might be worth a go.

By the way, PPARS stands for Payroll, Personnel and Related Systems. Not Please, Please Apply Rear-end Salve. It just felt like that.

Irish Independent

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