Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Review of Wasters by Shane Ross and Nick Webb (2010, Penguin)

Wasters is an account of the misuses of state funds, poor governance, organisational failure and cronyism in public bodies in Ireland. It includes chapters on the growth of semi-state agencies, cronyism and political patronage, ministerial expenses, FAS, HSE, CIE, DDDA/NAMA, PPPs and other ‘bad deals’, and social partnership. It’s often fascinating, but suffers from a sense that one is reading little more than a name and shame list. In fact, there is very little narrative beyond an indignant list of issues and their cost to the taxpayer, and the ordering of chapters seems to be somewhat random (in fact, they could be re-ordered and it would have little effect on the read). At one level this is fine, and provides a useful service, but at another it is a significant shortcoming.

There is very little attempt to explain why the present state of affairs exists beyond a general lack of appropriate governance and oversight, cronyism, corruption and propensity to establish semi-state agencies and public entities. Analysis is left purely at the level of the implicit and empirical. I was not expecting a detailed academic explanation of the operations of the Irish state, its political economy, and its underlying ideology – this is after all a general readership book – but I did expect some attempt to make sense of the situation (as with Fintan O’Toole’s Ship of Fools, for example) and to provide a nuanced portrait of the public sector. In Ross and Webb’s account all public bodies exhibit the same poor governance, and the same levels of waste and inefficiency. This is clearly not the case. There are plenty of examples of bodies that do a very good job on limited resources, where senior management have a sense of responsibility and desire to deliver quality services, and do not treat the entity as their own personal piggy bank and jolly expense account. They also display the same level indignity for all expenses, regardless of whether they are legitimate or not, and the scale of expenditure, with scorn poured equally on a couple of euro for a coffee as for millions of euros on inappropriate property ventures where there are clear conflicts of interest.

More problematic in many ways is that the book makes no suggestions as to what should happen to address the various problems that they identify. It is simply not enough to say ‘here is the problem and its scale, and it should be dealt with’, as if there is one, obvious solution. In my view Ross and Webb needed to conclude, not with a sideswipe at the Office of the Comptroller & Auditor General, but rather with a path forward that they would like to see implemented to address the various inter-related issues.

Overall, Wasters fulfils a role in setting out the governance and accountability issues that affect a number of public bodies in Ireland. Some of the examples will make your blood boil and Ross and Webb provide a great service by exposing some of the excesses and waste. As a read, however, it really lacks a narrative that seeks to explain why such a system exists and how it should be changed. In that sense it is a missed opportunity. For a longer review, see here.

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