Changes to the regional structures

November 15, 2012

The local government policy reforms published recently suggest a significant reconfiguration of regional government in Ireland. Currently 8 regional authorities and 2 regional assemblies are responsible for the implementation of regional planning guidelines, the implementation of regional EU programmes and a variety of other ad hoc activities that have grown though local initiative and the need to cooperate across agencies for specific projects.

The primary role of ensuring public service coordination though the regional level has never really worked in Ireland, arguably thanks to a genuine national policy commitment to having real coordination at regional level. I comes as no surprise therefore that while the primary focus on reform in the Policy Statement is centred on local government and local development the regional dimension is addressed as clearly as it is.

Notwithstanding the relative success, of recent experience it might well be argued, of the regional planning guidelines in beginning to bring more focus to planning policy across the State, moving from the existing institutional arrangements will come as no major surprise. What may well raise eyebrows is the intention to underpin the proposed three regional assemblies with what seem to be substantial oversight powers which will apply not just to local government but will also fall on state agencies and government departments. The principal of applying a regional based accountability and oversight will, if applied, change somewhat the dynamic in business planning across the public sector in Ireland. This could provide a new momentum to implementing the National Spatial Strategy.

The reforms envisage three regional assemblies which will have strengthened powers in regard to ensuring cooperation and coordination across public bodies. They are seen as having a central strategic planning role underpinned by an oversight function and, it seems, a statutory basis for ensuring compliance on the part of the various local and regional/state agencies.

In re-casting the regional planning guidelines within an economic strategy the assemblies could begin to provide for more focused local direction in areas such as economic development, public service planning and the requirement for the relevant departments and agencies to participate in the preparation of the strategies along with ensuring their compliance within their own business planning does suggest that for the first time, a regulatory obligation will be placed on such agencies to adhere to regional policy priorities and not just their own specific statutory obligations. Such thinking has long been called for by many commentators as well as local political and development interests and it does suggest a somewhat operational environment for many national bodies along with their local authority counterparts.

What remains to be addressed is the detail of how such change can be applied. This is to be developed by the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government in conjunction with the Department of Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation, Enterprise Ireland and other relevant interests. In broad terms however it is envisaged that there will be a mandatory obligation on all relevant public bodies to
1. Input into and participate fully in the development of regional strategies every 5-6 years
2. Set clear targets for activities and outcomes consistent with the regional strategy, and
3. Be accountable to the regional assemblies though appropriate reporting.

A critical new role for the assemblies will be in providing an oversight of local government performance, traditionally a weakness of the local government system in Ireland, relative to other OECD countries. In doing so there is an appreciation that a bridge between local and national policy is a necessary feature of public policy in Ireland. This can be established, as is the case in other countries, if the necessary institutional arrangements are put in place and underpinned by establishing relevant performance standards which are centred on achieving agreed policy outcomes rather than simply reporting on simplistic outputs, a criticism which has legitimately being made of the approach to performance under New Public Management.

It seems that the policy statement is seeking to create a transparent framework for citizen based accountability and, in effect, a new and separate mechanism for knowing whether local and national policy expectations are being met by those charged with their delivery.

This role will be set within na national reconfiguration to be established through a National Oversight and Audit Commission for Local Government. The Commission will examine the translation of national policy into implementation by the local government system. In doing so it provides a model of review and evaluation to be found though out the OECD. It will play a particular role in ensuring the implementation of the Local Government Efficiency Group recommendations while also mainstreaming best performance practices across the local government system.

It will also provide the opportunity to evaluate implementation of service level agreements as well as benchmarking performance against local and national indicators. Ultimate accountability from this role will rest at national ministerial level but the proposed regional configuration of the Commission will allow it to be specific about particular regional service priorities and needs.

The introduction of a streamlined regional policy and performance framework will bring Ireland more in line with public service configuration generally in the OECD. This is to be welcomed, particularly if the compliance obligations across the public sector are to be fully implemented as envisaged in the Reform Statement. In addition, placing the regional assemblies at the heart of national economic policy will provide the opportunity for more targeted policy direction which is something the National Spatial Strategy envisaged over a decade ago. There are clear advantages to the objectives set out in the Policy Statement.

Equally there will be the challenge of moving into a wider regional spatial context which might impact negatively on our understanding of the functionality of the State. This issue is, in fairness acknowledged in the policy statement though its suggestion that the data collection now well established at current regional authority levels could be sustained over time to allow for more specific policy assessment as required.

Broadly, the intention to empower the assemblies is a welcome move but the effect of such empowerment may be somewhat mitigated in the decision to not apply the Mahon Tribunal recommendations in regard to direct election of regional assembly members. Furthermore, there may be concerns, even if administratively defensible, to create executive type functions for the Assembly Directors on certain planning matters. Nonetheless the Policy Statement does provide considerable scope for expansion of regional policy development and this is something to respond positively towards.