Alan Ahearne, Director of the Whitaker Institute in NUI Galway, and Economist Jim O’Leary, author of the report and Senior Research Fellow at the Whitaker Institute in NUI Galway
Sep 13 2018 Posted: 09:11 IST
  • The over-arching goal of the water sector reform programme was to establish a water utility that could independently borrow to finance a heavy programme of investment in water infrastructure
  • For this to happen, the water utility had to be classified outside the general government sector by passing the so-called ‘Eurostat test’ which was a treacherous basis for policy
  • There was a serious disconnect between policy design and implementation

NUI Galway’s Whitaker Institute will today (13 September 2018) host a conference on ‘How (Not) To Do Public Policy’, and launch a report which examines the failure of water charges and the success of the Local Property Tax in Ireland.

The conference will gather senior policymakers, public servants, academics, and other experts to evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of the policy-making process in Ireland with a view to suggesting how the quality of policy-making might be improved, including how policies are conceived, designed, implemented, communicated, and reviewed. 

The new report, meticulously researched and based on exceptional access to senior policymakers, looks back forensically at a recent policy success, the Local Property Tax (LPT) and a recent policy failure, water charges, and explores what it was about the policy-making process in each case that contributed to success or failure. The aim of the report is to better understand this recent episode in the history of public administration in Ireland and to extract appropriate lessons for policy-making.

Economist Jim O’Leary, author of the report and Senior Research Fellow at the Whitaker Institute in NUI Galway, said: “A sense of trying to achieve too much too soon is suggested by the approach to the overall water sector reform programme. All in all, in examining policy on water, our reading of the evidence is that it was driven by a vision that would have been more appropriate for a 7–10-year timeframe than a 3–5-year period.

“Passing the so-called ‘Eurostat test’ was a treacherous basis for policy. It is a curious fact that, while the Commission of Taxation’s proposals in 2009 in relation to property taxation provided the blueprint for the Local Property Tax, its proposals on water charges were ignored and were in several essential respects the antithesis of what government chose to do. At the end of the day, the government decisively lost the battle for the hearts and minds of the people.”

Alan Ahearne, Director of the Whitaker Institute in NUI Galway, said: “Through meticulous desk research and interviews with many of those who were insiders in the policymaking process, Jim O’Leary has produced an extremely well-informed, thorough and compelling study. This is a report that I am confident will have impact on how policy is made. What we have learned is that good policymaking requires all options and all aspects of the options to be investigated and that policymakers should be careful not to let perfect be the enemy of good.”

Key findings from the research in relation to the relative success of the Local Property Tax versus the failure to introduce water charges:

  • The over-arching goal of the water sector reform programme was to establish a water utility that could independently borrow to finance a heavy programme of investment in water infrastructure. For this to happen, the water utility had to be classified outside the general government sector by passing the so-called ‘Eurostat test’. This was a treacherous basis for policy.
  • Policy choices such as the universal free allowance and universal metering were made before their implications were properly understood and without the alternatives being rigorously assessed.
  • There was a serious disconnect between policy design and implementation.
  • The Local Property Tax was successfully introduced because its design was infused with a keen awareness of the importance of anticipating implementation challenges. In this regard, a key moment was the decision to give responsibility for collection and administration to the Revenue Commissioners.

Comments and discussion of the report will be provided by:

  • Josephine Feehily, Chairperson, Policing Authority and former Chairman, Revenue Commissioners.
  • Maria Graham, Assistant Secretary, Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government.
  • Eamon Ryan TD, Leader of the Green Party.
  • Don Thornhill, former Secretary General, Department of Education and Science.

The conference will also feature a broad discussion of the policy-making process in Ireland and ways to make it more effective, including a keynote speech by:

  • Robert Watt, Secretary General, Department of Public Expenditure and Reform.

Panel and open discussion of the policy-making process moderated by Dave O’Connell, Group Editor of the Connacht Tribune to include:

  • Richard Boyle, Head of Research, Institute of Public Administration.
  • Joan Burton, TD, former Tánaiste and Leader of the Labour Party
  • Kevin Cardiff, former Secretary General, Department of Finance
  • Jill Rutter, Programme Director, Institute for Government, London

This research project was supported by Galway University Foundation.

To read the full report, visit: http://whitakerinstitute.ie/

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