22 March, 2012

Mahon and all that

That's Conway's Pub on Parnell Street, where apparently a lot of cheques changed hands between councillors and developers in the 1980s and 1990s.

It is almost twenty years since my colleague Trevor Sargent held up a cheque that he had received from a developer and saying it was “part of the corruption in here,” He had to be escorted from the County Council Chamber for his own protection, after Cllr. Don Lydon had placed him in a headlock. Incidentally, Don Lydon was the guy who “made a passionate case for the rezoning of the Monarch Lands” in Cherrywood according to Mahon. Today's a day to congratulate Colm MacEochaidh and Michael Smith who put the initial ad in the Irish Times that led to the setting up of the Planning Tribunal. It's also a day to compliment Justice Mahon,  his predecessor Justice Flood  and their colleagues for their work.

The Green Party has campaigned against corruption for thirty years. In Government we changed the Planning Laws to stamp out the corrupt decision-making in Councils. That was one reason why we went into Government was to ensure that this corruption should not happen again. Sadly the current Government want to reverse some of those changes. The Fine Gael Labour Government have stated in their Programme: “We will make the Planning Process more democratic by amending the 2010 Planning and Development Act to allow for detailed public submissions of zoning, and to rebalance power towards elected representatives.” One person’s democracy could be the seeds of another’s corruption.

I’m worried about the current Government with Phil Hogan in charge of this area of planning. He closed down the internal inquiries into planning in several counties, including his own. The Mahon Tribunal only looked at Dublin, who knows what skulduggery took place, and may still be taking place around the country? I believe many Councils are still attempting to rezone land for inappropriate reasons, rather than taking an evidence-based approach to land use planning.

The problem of the close link between financial donations and politics has not gone away. In Dún Laoghaire the current  chairman of the Council Cllr. John Bailey from Fine Gael accepted thousands of Euro from developers, but  returned some of the money once it was pointed out that he had exceeded the legal limits for donations. There were dozens of rezoning motions put forward in the last review of the Development Plan, including a Fine Gael proposal to rezone lands half-way up the Dublin Mountains. Even Alan Dukes was lobbying for land to be rezoned while acting as a Director of Anglo-Irish Bank.

Corruption can take many forms. It can involve the taking of illegal payments, or the making of morally depraved decisions. Many of the land re-zonings that took place over the last forty years were immoral and unjust. The corruption of rezoning is not a victimless crime; it’s a cancer that has left it mark on the cities and towns around Ireland. Hundreds of thousands of people are isolated from shops, schools and the services that they require. Some have to drive or take a bus  rather than walk to buy even a litre of milk. In our time in Government the Green Party changed our Planning laws for the better, but much of the damage had been done.

Eamon Gilmore's reputation is enhanced by the Tribunal's Report, but he must work hard to ensure that his colleague in Government don't undo the work that was undertaken by the Green Party in Government to reform our Planning System for the better.

09 March, 2012

Time to move on from the Croke Park Agreement

I’m now the Green Party’s spokesperson on Public Expenditure and Reform. Here’s what I had to say at our Press Conference in Buswell's Hotel on the first anniversary of the Fine Gael - Labour Government being formed.

The one area where the Labour Party is in control is in the management of the public service, but what real reform have we seen there in the last year? The response to the crisis seems to be to make cuts across the board, rather than prioritising spending in some areas and changing work practices in other areas, to make the same overall saving.  Such an approach might encounter greater resistance from particular vested interests but this is a time for taking courageous decisions.  If the Government can explain and justify why they are doing it I think they will even get certain opposition support, including our own.  

It is time to move on from the Croke Park Agreement. The Public Service Agreement 2010-2014 was a cautious document that failed to grasp the nettle of institutional reform.

Rather than relying exclusively on a voluntary redundancy scheme, why did they not tell the small number of people who are not able to do their jobs, that they would have to be among the ones to go?  Public Servants must be promoted on merit, not seniority.  Performance must be better measured, competence rewarded and under-performance penalised. Michael Bloomberg mayor of New York said: “If you can't measure it, you can't manage it” Mandatory redundancy is better for the State, better for the tax-payer and better for the individual.

 The culture of mediocrity is some of our public services has to go. Automatic pay increments must also be reconsidered, and  root and branch reform of productivity and performance in the public sector is now required. It doesn’t automatically follow that someone is better at their job after doing it for fifteen years. I suspect that in may instances the reverse is true. We need innovation, new ideas and out of the box thinking. That can be difficult if you’ve been working from the same cubicle for a decade or more. I’m delighted that the new Secretary General in Finance ran juice-bars in the south of France, we need more of that kind of background and experience.

Why does it still have to take an age to move people across departments and agencies, to the shore up the critical areas where we need them most?" There needs to be greater horizontal movement of staff between Government Departments and between the Civil Service and other State agencies.

This is a hard time to be in Government, but also a good time to be a Minister.  You have a unique chance to show you can manage your department well, using limited resources to still achieve great effect.  I don't know what the Taoiseach's Ministerial score card looks like, but at the end of the first year, I am not sure any of them can be sure of an honours grade.

06 March, 2012

Re-Forming Dublin

That was enjoyable - a lunchtime conversation about the city and how we can design systems and services which unlock or enable rather than curb or control.

The week's events are being run by PIVOT Dublin, an loose gathering that brings together the four Dublin Local Authorities and others to ensure that design issues are given a decent airing. They're taking place down in the Filmbase building down on the Curved Street in Temple Bar.

Here's some notes that I used for my contribution:

1. Knowledge is power. Let’s spread the knowledge through transparency and openness:
Years ago a copy of the Dublin City Council Yearbook and Diary was crucial to effecting change. Once you had a copy of it you knew who was in charge of particular parts of the City Council and how to contact them. These days we use the web, but many Local Authority websites are just awful, starting with Dublin City Council. The general public simply want to know who does what, and how to contact them. We need a simple organogram for the Council that gives us the name, contact details and the responsibilities of the key players. I
t should be simple and clear, visible on the home page of the Council, and updated regularly.

The Dublinked site is a good start, but we need to go much further. Once we know who does what we then need to make all the information available. When Bloomberg was mayor of New York he said:
“If you can't measure it, you can't manage it” and I tend to agree. Every public authority, be it Dublin City Council or the OPW should put every land holding that they control up on the web in an open-source format so that we can start to think about what public lands and property (that’s your land and our land) should, or could be used for. Think about that huge site between Smithfield and the Four Courts that’s lain vacant for fifteen years. It could be a city farm, or allotments. The All-Ireland Research Observatory (AIRO) is doing some of this kind of work, and widgets like FixmyStreet.ie will also be useful, but we could go so much further in involving citizens in the future of their city.

2. Our democratic power structures need to change from the top down
I’m a city boy and I believe cities deserve more powers. Dublin was badly divided twenty years ago into Fingal, Dublin South, the City and Dún Laoghaire Rathdown. That doesn’t reflect real city. A city of a million people, or closer to two needs a voice. The four Dublin Councils need to be divided into smaller Councils that have a more coherent civic identity, around about ten in all. We need a metro-Mayor and a a Dublin Metropolitan Assembly to make the strategic decisions for the entire metropolitan region. Instead of four councils we need closer to ten. We need to give the Mayor powers of transport and planning at Regional level. Currently we have revolving-door members in each Council every year. That means in five years we get twenty different mayors for Dublin. That can’t be right. We need one mayor who serves a five year term, and if you don’t like what she does, kick  her out. Look at the experience of Pasqual Maragall in Barcelona, Georges Frêche in Montpelier or Rahm Emanuel Chicago. Strong and vibrant cities have great mayors.

3. Make decisions based on evidence, and involve the public:
Let’s place power at the appropriate levels. In some cases we need to devolve down and in others we need to regionalise up. Big city problems like water, waste, energy and transport need a regional focus. For Urban village issues like new parks and playgrounds, taming the traffic, civic spaces and libraries let’s let a new Clontarf or Dundrum Council make the call.

Back in 1969 American Sociologist Sherry Arnstein came up with the idea of the a ladder structure to measure the degree of citizen participation in decision making. The eight rungs look like this:

  1. Manipulation
  2. Therapy
  3. Informing
  4. Consultation
  5. Placation
  6. Partnership
  7. Delegated power
  8. Citizen control
Most of the time in Ireland we’re at 1 or 2 on the ladder. On a good day we get to 3. We need to find our way to 6, 7 and 8. It’s time that we moved on. Planning can be done on a collaborative basis at a local level using Local Area Plans that we can all buy into. Let’s give some power down and see what happens. Electronic involvement is a useful tool, but don’t let it take over. I’d still like to see a notice board with an agenda on the railings outside City Hall. Collaborative structures that harness the energy of the Occupy movement, of the Irish idea of meitheal point to better ways to involve everyone in decisions.

We had a great discussion this lunchtime, ably chaired by Dubhtaigh. Evelyn Hannon from Dublin City Council argued that the Council provides the theatre, but we all have to put on the play. It was a good metaphor for the role of citizens in their city.

Re-Forming our systems isn't easy
, it requires courage and conviction from those in power. In the last Government the legislation providing for directed mayors almost became a reality. Let's try and ensure that Phil Hogan delivers on a directly elected mayor for Dublin, and a radical shake-up for our current system of local government which currently often divides rather than unites communities.