The Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government launched his reform proposals to varying and generally under whelming degrees of debate last October and a year later the Cabinet has given approval to the central aspects of the reforms with their approval of the Local Government Bill 2013.
This Bill will now be put through the rigours of the Oireachtas with the objective of having the Bill finally approved by the President, presumably in time for the local government electoral cycle to commence.
The Bill represents a considerable achievement given the breathe of the potential impact it will have on the existing local government regulatory framework but it is also significant in its likely impact on the wider public service in Ireland.
There are few areas in public administration which will not be impacted by the proposed regulatory process, if it is implemented as intended. As such it is an unusual piece of legislation in the Irish case as it applies to the three layers of government in the Country, the wider public service and the communities of Ireland, formal and informal.
It is perhaps the first, recent, example of not just vertical and horizontal policy integration but also, critically, diagonal policy integration. It is an effort, or at least the start of an effort, which could have significant implications for how the State is organised with the potential to break down the siloed organisation of the State, long the principal barrier to genuine reform of public service in the Country.
The long-standing history of ignoring local urban government is also a feature of the Bill, but it also presents a real challenge to local democracy to prove itself and to overcome a century of limited central administration trust, an unequal manager-councillor relationship, the lack of a substantive local government voice at national level, not to mention the failure to deal with such issues as boundaries, towns without municipal status, multiplicity of policies and plans, and unfairness of county/urban councillor roles.
Local government’s limited revenue role, duplication of roles and services and the systems limited role in local, community and rural development and economic development generally are also acknowledged in this reforming legislation.
The Bill, even if it is arguably the first substantive piece of system-wide reform coming forward from the current government, is unlikely to be a best seller!
It is a wide, all-encompassing set of proposals, some of which will cause considerable unease, much of which is badly needed, and all of which could provide the local government system with the framework to move towards a more dynamic system over the next decade. To paraphrase Michael Collins, the freedom to achieve freedom or at least the 21st century local government version!
So what is in this Bill and what is going to cause upset?
The dissolution of the current town council structures will clearly be a great concern for towns with existing if limited town government. Many town councils have a proud history of providing leadership in their communities, something which should not be ignored.
Equally however, continuing with urban boundaries which fail to reflect the 21st century could in no way be justified. The Bill, providing as it does for an extensive re-configuration of municipal government moves Ireland towards a model more likely to be found on Mainland Europe.
The direct election of councillors to the municipal structures and their further role at County/City Council level could bring greater coherence to the urban voice in planning, local economic development etc. This might generally ensure a move from poorly integrated policy development between the local and central policy arena in Ireland…but only if this is given the time and capacity building that necessarily has to underpin any public service re-configuration process.
Equally, it will be argued with some validity that the overall reduction in numbers of elected members brings with it the potential to extend the distance between local government and the citizen. This makes it all the more important to apply a more rigorous approach to active citizenship, something the Minister has highlighted as a political priority, and which, if lessons are to be learnt from overseas reforms, a central aspect to any e-configuration process.
The functions of the proposed districts are set out and are far wider ranging than might have been expected. Given these, it is clear from an organisational perspective, that much of the direct day to day contact between local government and the citizen will be at this level leaving the county/city framework to do what is best done at such levels, i.e. strategic planning and financial management, creation of shared service platforms ( a particularly important role for public service reform generally) and the provision of local leadership across both local and national public management.
The Bill makes provision for the dissolution of the development boards, thus ending one of the few strategic reforms of recent years which would have been adopted in other Countries across the OECD. Their intended replacement however, the Local Development Committees, will move local government’s role into the heart of local economic and community development.
These committees will be powerful in their own right, bringing with it the overview of much public expenditure at local level. Their statutory footing may well raise concerns at national level in other government departments and agencies but from a local government and local development perspective they do bring the opportunity to direct and influence national expenditure at levels never previously attempted.
The nature of the Chief Executive-Councillor relationship is also going to change. In a radical shift, the appointment of the CEO is now clearly going to be a central issue for the elected members. Their combined voice will have to be fully included in appointing a CEO.
The challenge for the elected councils is to ensure that local loyalties to particular individuals, no matter how professional and qualified, do not become an overriding factor in making appointments, hence the need to have the councillors make explicit their expectations and for these to be incorporated into the independent appointment process through the Public Appointments Commission.
Equally, with the establishment of the National Oversight and Audit Commission, the move to a national oversight body will bring with it the challenge of local government having to be able to account for its actions within an agreed policy process that brings together both local expectation and national policy objectives.
This is the first time that such processes are being rolled out in Ireland, bringing the country into line with European norms in performance and standards environment.
With the implementation of service compacts between the local, regional and national levels, as envisaged, will come a range of responsibilities that are a normal feature of local government throughout the OECD. Ireland is not so much as centralised, given current institutional arrangements as disaggregated. In introducing a National Oversight and Audit Commission, the State is moving the system into what is expected of local government in other members of the OECD, a matter which will not go unnoticed in the soon to depart Troika!
Regional configuration as envisaged in the Minsters Proposals last October have now been agreed by the Cabinet and much of the thinking in the proposals have actually found their place in the Bill.
Potentially significant, if fully implemented, the move towards a more regional focus for public policy generally, could be significant, but only if the Parent Departments and National Offices of those within the regional policy environment fully subscribe to the reforms and that ask is no small challenge.
The Bill has to be compulsory reading for anyone interested in public management reform generally. It is something which will directly impact every individual and organisation in the State and if fully implemented as currently drafted will have ramifications for much of the public management of the State.
It is a Bill which, for some, will be a disappointment but for others a very real challenge to their current thinking. The detail of the Bill is far reaching and hopefully it will be given the thinking it deserves, not just in the Oireachtas but generally among those who fancy themselves as interested in how Ireland is managed.
In that regard people might challenge themselves to thinking about whether the Bill provides a clear understanding of the central role which local government can bring to local democracy and community development. Will the Bill genuinely provide for a re-balancing of the on-going historical trend away from municipal government that we associate with Irish Independence?
A much enhanced public service performance and standards overview with underpinning procedures for greater accountability through the municipal district is a central feature of the Bill but just how will this be achieved without a radical re-orientation of local government from being largely engineering driven to becoming organisations which are focused on citizen centred service provision?
The re-balancing of the relationships within local governance such that the role of the elected representative is considerably strengthened will have considerable implications for how public collaboration and participation is delivered. This means a radical re-balancing of the relationship between the local authority and other public service agencies at local level.
In addition badly needed integration of national policy objectives with local need underpinned by a clear policy intent to improve local discretion and overview will be an essential feature of a reformed local public service. Ensuring that innovative forms of governance, participation and putting in place of new service vehicles for this to happen will necessarily mean that a local authority structure cannot continue to work within an unchanged national policy framework. Will this thinking find its way into a revised public service reform plan due at the end of the year?
Finally with a new substantial role in local economic development, community development and local leadership where or what role for those central to the existing delivery of badly needed services and actions for local development?
A radical configuration of local government suggests dramatically changed levels of participation, engagement and coordination between local government and local development and then up through the diagonal and vertical policy layers of public management.
No doubt plenty to debate and argue over but substantially there is really no option but to seize the opportunity presented by the Bill to position the local voice within a more coordinated national policy arena and vice versa. Failing to do that is a challenge that cannot be avoided if local government is to see itself having a worthwhile future.