Key fundamentals in local government reform

October 16, 2012

The Reform Programme sets out its rationale for undertaking comprehensive reform of local government. It is based upon factors that include:

• recognition that local democracy is an essential feature of a robust system of representative democracy which can bring greater accountability and responsiveness to local needs
• That systems that lack any substantial role for elected members can be frustrating and lacking in relevance so a system to be a success must have substantial functions and responsibilities
• The fact that local government is country wide provides the opportunity for public services generally to be delivered at local level
• A flexible and responsive organisation at local level can provide a necessary level of capacity to meet urgent challenges
• Given the local nature of many public services having a local body with a reasonable degree of devolved decision-making can free up barriers to delivery of such services while providing the necessary public accountability, financial responsibility and capacity to meet national policies and standards
• Service quality at local level, given the relationship with the local citizen, will more likely enhance standards and accountability by facilitating local awareness, priorities and challenges
• Having in place local institutional arrangements can allow a central government to delimit duplication in service delivery along with allowing central government focus on issues of national concern
• Local government provides the capacity for greater local collaboration, and
• A strong and modernised system can be a central pillar in the wider public service and political system allowing for a wider reform of the public service.

Such thinking reflects the twelve principles of local democracy which the Council of Europe applies to the renewal of local government. The case for a vibrant local government system underpinning a sustainable society is generally central to political ethos across the OECD. Now, for the first time, such perspective is being applied in the Irish case.

Furthermore, given the above, the Policy Statement declares that no new separate structures will be established where government is promoting a new policy field. Local government is to be the platform on which local delivery of new services will be organised. Such thinking finally recognises that having a multi-functional democratically accountable body at local level is a resource to national government which must be used to ensure efficient and effective public service delivery. The creation of new layers and re-enforcing silos is not an option, if ever it was, which would ensure local expectations being met.

There are, therefore, two overall objectives in the Statement which sets the parameters for the reform process. The first is to maximise operational efficiency, including standard of performance, customer service, quality of services and value for money. The second is to enhance the effectiveness of democratic representation, including oversight and local authority leadership, accountability, transparency, and responsiveness to, and inclusiveness of, local communities. This will require a considerable broadening of the role of local government over time with a devolution of substantive functions from other bodies, local and national.

In overall terms the reform programme acknowledges several “key fundamentals” which will provide the basis over time, to consider whether the programme achieves its objectives.

• Will the role of local government be broadened and will it have a new focus, new functions and an enhanced role in economic development and local and community development?
• Will the newly strengthened structures meet the requirements of a public demanding better governance and performance?
• Will the system have sustainable and secure funding, with increased local responsibility to account to the local community for the spending of local resources?
• Will it be possible to measure transparently the operational efficiency and performance of local authorities?
• Will the new structures improve oversight and leadership, ethics, better policy formation and decision-making, the coordination of local public services, citizen and community engagement, civic and community leadership by local public representatives?

A positive answer in each case will be a critical outcome if the reform programme is to avoid the outcomes of previous reform processes but for once local government has the opportunity to prove that it has a central role to play. National and local leadership is now necessary to prove that it deserves a substantive role rather than the limited role to date.