Getting real about transforming Ireland’s public sector
I’ve just returned from the Transforming Public Services Conference held at Croke Park in Dublin. There was lots of stimulating discussion, which I’ll come to in a moment. But what I found a tad distracting right from the start was the Conference logo suspended above the panelists’ heads:
At first glance it’s a strong image. The cogs within cogs graphic conjures up positive concepts such as ‘integration’, ‘joined up thinking’ and ‘working in partnership’, which was no doubt the intent of the conference organisers. However, look closely and you’ll see the red central cog doesn’t actually connect with the lower cogs. How revealing!
But the content of today’s presentations was very encouraging. To me, the central message is clearly about ‘getting real’ with what’s happening right now, and not just that, but specifically outlining what action needs to be taken.
Graphically illustrating this point was the lively discussion prompted by a blunt, and for some, controversial presentation by Tony Foley, a senior lecturer and head of the economics, finance and entrepreneurship group in Dublin City University Business School. A self-confessed optimist, he came on stage to explain that the public financial situation was far worse than generally perceived. Thank goodness he was in good mood.
Foley conducted in front of everyone’s eyes a forensic dissection of the official Government tax and expenditure figures. His analysis suggests that the paybill for Public Services needs to be cut by a further 30%. Ouch. Social welfare rates must be reduced; borrowing levels must be reduced, and all other significant expenditure must be reduced. You’ve heard of Bord Snip; this requires a Bord Strip.
Although the other speakers didn’t pitch their messages quite as hard, there was a definite sense of reality coming from all of them. The most promising sign that the Public Services really do want to transform is recognisable from a slight change in language. A year ago the presenters would have been talking about ‘doing more for less’. Now they talk about ‘doing more with less’. It’s a subtle difference, but symbolic that they recognise the situation for what it is. As with all change, getting real about the actual situation makes it eminently possible that change can and will occur.