Ireland Communities and society, Economy and regeneration

Local government in 2017: time to draw breath?


Image by Markus Spiske from Pixabay

Seán Ó’Riordáin, LGiU Ireland briefings commissioner, asks if 2017 will be the year in which local government can draw breath. Seán was previously Head of the Local Government Unit at the Institute of Public Administration, before establishing a new company to support clients confronting the many challenges of public policy development at local and national level in Ireland.

So as 2016 fades into the past, it is time to look forward to the coming year. Surely 2017 could not be as dramatic as the one just past? Well, while the international political environment may have seen several disconcerting events the impact of these will only truly come to be felt in 2017. Brexit and the election of a Clare land owner to the most powerful office in the North Americas will likely have severe implications for the open society and economy that is Ireland. Nonetheless, 2016 was not all about the traumas of international politics. The local government system in Ireland proved its worth with a very successful year of commemoration, with a remarkable programmes across the island reflecting the significance to all on the island, and internationally, of the Easter Rising and the Battle of the Somme.

Many in local government in the Republic will welcome a renewed focus on housing and homelessness, and the delivery of 21st century technologies – not to mention the bedding down of Putting People First. The improvement in the economy in the Republic is at last beginning to be felt outside of the main urban centres, while the Northern Irish economy is also growing at a reasonable rate. So notwithstanding the uncertainties of 2016, this year brings with it new possibilities for local government of building upon the progress of the past years.

The expected publication of the National Planning Framework in the Republic brings considerable opportunity. That, with the forthcoming national policy on rural development and the national investment plan will, arguably for the first time in the history of the State, provide a holistic policy framework on where people live, work and recreate. It might even be argued that the Planning Framework will in time be viewed in the same light as the proposals of the late and great TK Whitaker in the late 1950’s… if our political leadership can, as Seán Lemass did, confront old political practices. In that event Ireland might finally begin to realise, as has been the case in most OECD countries, that long term planning is required if we are to avoid overloaded hospitals, long waiting lists in health, education and housing, traffic congestion, and, among other long term challenges, confronting an ageing population.

We need to shift from seeking to achieve short term political “gains” to having a long term perspective on how Ireland is to develop, in a manner that will meet the demands of a population which will finally return to the levels of population last seen pre famine. Hopefully the forthcoming package of policies will do just that.

Local government reform and public service re-configuration will remain a central theme, notwithstanding the past decade of change and transition. It is an interesting environment which we now face, trying to change how public services are delivered in the context of growth rather than austerity, which was at the heart of the shifts in public services over the past decade. Addressing the ageing profile of the public service through pro-active workforce planning is surely a necessary prospect in 2017. Where will the on-going impact of the 4th industrial revolution position our public services? Robotics and artificial intelligence are now a matter of fact and not science fiction. How will current and future public servants function in such an environment? What are the opportunities and how to deal with the challenges of moving from long standing practices so that technology can and will further reduce the drudgery of day to day acts?

Is the elected mayor back on the agenda in Ireland? It seems to be, but what is the point of electing a person to such a significant office if there is not a commensurate reconfiguration of public service responsibilities, particularly those undertaken by an overly dominant central public administration? If such mayors are to come along, what is the point of ministers? What, if any, balance will there be with chief executives and elected mayors? Simply putting another layer without power and responsibility is not the way to enhance democracy at local level.

So yes, even without Brexit and a new era in the White House, 2017 is likely to be as challenging as ever in local government. Recent events in Northern Ireland are already an early signal that this will be the case. The realities of cross border engagement, commerce and applying an island wide perspective to public service reforms have always been a challenge which the local authorities in both jurisdictions have addressed with innovation and openness. Can a similar approach in a post Brexit era be applied? If not, the progress of the past decade is at risk to the detriment of communities on both sides of a now open border… open not just in terms of accessibility but, more importantly, open in mindset.

No easy environment then for 2017. It is going to be one of the most challenging we have ever experienced, for all parts of local government across this island. Those expecting a quiet year in 2017 are going to be disappointed. Drawing breath is really not an option.