Thursday 18 July 2019

State finally coming of age with transparency for board appointments

Fine Gael's John McNulty
Fine Gael's John McNulty
Eddie Molloy

Eddie Molloy

Last year's ham-fisted attempt to appoint John McNulty to the Board of the Irish Museum of Modern Art (IMMA) brought to a head long-standing public disapproval of the political cronyism that all parties have casually practised for generations.

The Oxford Dictionary defines cronyism as "the practice of appointing friends and associates to positions of authority, especially when they are not suitably qualified".

The boards of State bodies are packed with cronies, most of whom are probably well qualified for the job, but there remain several problems with the practice, even when the appointees are well qualified.

Quite apart from being unfair - and the probability that boards are being deprived of even more highly qualified members - crucially, cronyism damages the reputation of the organisation by creating the reasonable suspicion that, whenever political interests are at stake, board decisions will be unduly influenced by political considerations rather than the wider public interest.

The McNulty affair was the last straw for the public, not only because it was such a blatant political stroke but because it demonstrated that the solemn promise of a "political revolution"…a new way of doing politics" had once again been betrayed.

But, on February 5, in the offices of the Public Appointments Service (PAS), the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform (DPER), Brendan Howlin, launched a new system for making appointments to State boards that should end this particular form of political patronage.

Credit where it is due: this is the 'real deal'. It is as watertight as possible and in the hands of the PAS, which has established a reputation for objectivity and integrity in all its recruitment and promotions competitions right across the public service, there is the prospect of an end to stuffing of State boards with buddies, especially as ministers are about to leave office.

In future, anyone - including political friends and associates, such as Mr Lowry's former press adviser - who wants to serve on a State board will first have to apply with their CV on the PAS website.

Boards will be required to set out the particular expertise and skills they require to fill vacancies and PAS will then initiate an assessment process that is "consistent with the values of independence, impartiality, fairness and integrity underlying the exercise of PAS's statutory roles and responsibilities".

Details of this sophisticated process are on the PAS website, www.stateboards.ie.

As the public becomes more aware of this system, many able people who would have refrained from expressing an interest in serving on boards, because they were too politicised, are likely to come forward. This will widen the pool of talent available to boards.

This genuine reform sets the standard for tackling a range of other political indulgences.

The distribution of Lottery funds is a case in point. When Michael Ring was Junior sport minister, his constituency, particularly his bailiwick of Westport, received a disproportionate share of Lottery sports money; his implausible explanation was that in Mayo they had more "shovel-ready projects".

Likewise, Kerry arts projects got the lion's share when Jimmy Deenihan held the junior arts portfolio, and there was the application of "logistical logarithmic progressions" by Dr James Reilly to justify favouring his own constituency in locating new primary care centres.

Clientelism has bedevilled the health service, so it was refreshing to hear Minister for Health Leo Varadkar say he will refuse requests to bump people up the waiting list for treatments, for the good reason that this would be unfair to a person in greater need.

The key to eroding clientelism and cronyism is to publish and rigorously apply clear, relevant criteria for the distribution of public goods, be that a place in a queue, a seat on a board, a sports grant or, a more serious matter, a judicial appointment. The Chief Justice, the Hon Ms Susan Denham, has called for judicial appointments to be de-politicised.

Noel Dempsey adopted this approach when, as Minister for Education, he established a criteria-based process for allocating funds for school buildings to replace a system that was riddled with politics.

Although the people who gain from having an inside track will try to cling to their cosy arrangements, the progressive stripping away of political patronage and what the late Peter Mair called "amoral localism", will ultimately help to restore trust in politics and, importantly, divert politicians towards their primary task of making laws and policies that serve the common good.

Once done, even those who hanker after the good old days of a nod and a wink will come to prefer a culture of fairness and transparency. It's all part of growing up as a State.

Dr Eddie Molloy is a management consultant. He is a member of the board of the Public Appointments Service. This article expresses his own personal views.

Irish Independent

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