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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:

Cogs within cogs

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.

Alistair is a Principal Consultant at Fujitsu in Dublin. He studied Artificial Intelligence at Middlesex University in London and built a career in Information Technology management and consultancy. In his spare time he creates and publishes classical and electronic music on his website

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  • Interesting Alistair, thanks for relaying the bones of the discussion / presentation.
    I would agree with the further chopping, it needs to be done, period. The longer we delay it, the slower we recover.
    In the private sector, the big message is “value for money” and “more with less”. So maybe it’s rubbing off over to the public sector. They’ve heard it enough times, the saying “found” it’s way into their vocabulary, only time will tell…

  • DermotQ

    I can’t see how public sector wage and social welfare cuts *on their own* lead to growth and recovery.

    Removing spending in the form of wages and welfare payments from the economy will reduce demand for goods and services in the Irish economy and further reduce GNP. More deflation, less spending, no growth.

    Most companies in the indigenous economy are SMEs who will be most impacted by this kind of decline in consumer spending.

    These kind of public spending cuts will only work if the money saved is re-purposed and spent in another area of the economy such as export supports, R&D or investment of public infrastructure. If we cut current spending, we must use the savings strategically to invest in capital spending. It’s called trading your way out of a recession and the international markets like it.

    In the globalized environment of modern Ireland, vanilla tax cuts on their own won’t work because gains can easily be wiped out by currency movements outside the Euro zone. For example, the new minority government in the UK will probably lead to a weaker pound / euro exchange rate. This will restore cross border shopping to the level that existed before the cuts to duty on alcohol in the last budget.

    The proverbial gorilla in the room is the fact that in former times we would have devalued the punt to increase competitiveness. The golden straight jacket of the Euro and stability & growth pact disallow this. Cutting costs is only one part of the equation – but becoming more productive and efficient by balancing cost cutting on current spending with more capital investment has to be part of the solution.

    On the other hand, the Euro may join the Dollar, Pound and Renmimbi and devalue ! But that’s another days work!

  • Harry

    Asking friends and family for in investment money is a double-edged sword as you mentioned in the pros and cons in the article.I think there is still value in getting money from them especially in the early stage when not many others are willing to trust you and lend you money.

    My advice is to treat this like any other financial transaction and create a legal contract with appropriate terms and conditions even if you are borrowing at zero percent interest. It will help maintain good relationship.

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