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Analysis/Comment Last Updated: Aug 23, 2010 - 8:24:15 PM

Irish Public Spending: Pre- IT/Web official policy prevails - hide as much information as possible from taxpayers
By Michael Hennigan - Founder and Editor of Finfacts
Sep 29, 2008 - 8:22:50 AM

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Finance Minister Brian Lenihan will wield the traditional public spending scalpel on Budget Day Oct 14, 2008 - - it would be a radical departure if the opaqueness of the era of the donkey and cart was jettisoned.
Irish Public Spending:
Despite advances in IT and the platform provided by the web over the past decade, official policy in Ireland reflects both a conservative mindset and the self-interest of politicians:  hide as much information as possible from taxpayers.

The Cabinet met on Sunday to discuss the Budget, which is due to be presented on October 14th and it is reported to be seeking spending cuts of €1.5 billion. No doubt, there was no discussion on cuts that would hit ministers themselves. In the context of a €70 billion budget, issues such as the 120-strong group of constituency "helpers" and so much other feather-bedding, may seem like small beer but if it was possible for outsiders to delve into the black hole that is Irish public spending, an astounding amount of misuse would be found - most of course would be legitimate in a legal sense, but approved by people who do not have to worry about having to defend it.

"Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants," Louis Brandeis said in 1914 - two years before he became a justice of the United States Supreme Court. He wasn't referring to a brand of soap.

The public sector is the biggest purchaser of goods and services in the State. Not only is there no information available on the main suppliers to the State, for Budget purposes, the Department of Finance issues limited spending details for each Department and units such as the President's Establishment.

"Incidental Expenses" is one of the significant categories. There is a category "Consultancy Services" but that could include a multitude of services - IT, the Taoiseach's make-up services and so on.

The State purchases €16 billion worth of goods and services each year.

Simply, the biggest business operation in the country produces nothing that even comes close to a detailed Profit and Loss Account.

So breakdowns of categories of expenditure become available on a piecemeal basis via parliamentary questions and Freedom of Information Act (FOI) requests.

In 2007, Finfacts contacted the Tenders Section of the Department of Finance for information on the top 100 suppliers to the State. We were advised to issue FOI requests to 15 Government Departments and to very relevant local authority. The catch is that they can each charge for the time involved in collecting the information.

So when the many former teachers in the Cabinet who have had no experience of operating a budget are aided by the opacity of the current system, they can sign off on multi-million IT projects, without asking relevant questions or simply put public money down a sink hole.

When Transport Minister Noel Dempsey authorised spending of almost €3m on advertising the Transport 21 programme in newspapers, TV and radio -- even though many of the key projects were delayed, or €70,000 on designing a new logo for the programme, despite the fact that the existing logo was developed in-house for free, was he more worried about value for money or marketing his agenda?

Environment Minister John Gormley, the man who presented the evils of "Planet Bertie" to the nation, approved €15m on a climate change advertising campaign - to promote his own agenda or self?

So what is the total public spending for such advertising?

You won't find it in the published expenditure estimates and for a good reason of course.

In 2004, three ministers and 21 civil servants travelled to Hong Kong for the Doha Round talks even though Ireland was represented by the EU in the talks. Would seven have been enough? Who cares? It was lucky dip time to jump on the gravy train.

Former Taoiseach Bertie Ahern has been receiving "severance" payments monthly, which will total around €68,000 by November, in addition to a substantial ministerial pension and TD's salary.
In addition, two sitting Fianna Fáil TDs will get €53,000 each after they lost their non-jobs as junior ministers in May.
The Department of Finance has confirmed it is to award the severance payments to John Browne from Wexford and Cork East deputy Michael Ahern. 

The list could go on and on.

The Oireachtas Commission under the chairmanship of the Ceann Comhairle, publishes an annual report and as with the Oireachtas website, there is no spending detail that would bring any discomfiture to members.

So that may well explain why the Opposition are like compliant pussy cats when it comes to transparency on public spending.

Professor Paul Hare of Edinburgh’s Heriot-Watt University said at the recent conference, which celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of Economic Development, the seminal work on the Irish economy, that Ireland’s economic institutions “seem inherently quite vulnerable to corruption, special pleading, ‘jobs for the boys’ and other such undesirable distortions”.

“If the boys (and girls) who actually get the jobs are sufficiently deserving and competent, then the system need not be so bad (though it is never fair). But how does a country build up the ‘ethos’ that makes this happen and sustains it? In a small country like Ireland, where at elite level everyone knows everyone else, this is surely immensely difficult. To ensure both fairness and high standards, I would therefore favour extensive use of international panels of experts, along with a high degree of openness and transparency. To achieve this, Ireland still has some way to go,” Professor Hare said.

So despite the advances in IT and the web, world-class American companies dominate our key business sectors, while in governance and public sector reform and areas such as broadband, infrastructure and competition, which are under Irish control, it's conservative Ireland on full steam ahead, at the speed of a glacier!

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