Local Government Reform in Ireland: Myth or Reality?

April 1, 2012

The Programme for Government in Ireland sets out to reform local government and the local institutional environment as a part of a re-configuration of the wider public sector. The existing system of County and Town Authorities is likely to be streamlined. This will, in practical terms, include the merging of a limited number of County/City Authorities, the amalgamation of senior management teams and a significant reduction in middle management numbers. The alignment of local government and local development is also being advanced. In light of these efforts the Regional Studies Association- Irish Branch, in association with the Local Government Specialist Group of the Political Studies Association of Ireland, organised a symposium to examine the possibility of local government reform in Ireland. It took place at the National University of Ireland, Maynooth on the 8th March 2012. Please click to access the presentations.

A critical theme was whether it is realistic to think that substantial reform can make a difference to the role local government could and should play in Ireland. Easier written than done, as highlighted by the opening speaker, Prof Jim Walsh, Vice President of the National University of Ireland, Maynooth. He noted that twenty one years ago in March 1991 the Regional Studies Association organised a conference on Local Economic Development and Administrative Reform which included contributions from academics (national and international) , public sector officials and the voluntary sector.

The proceedings were published later that year in a volume edited by Prof Walsh where he noted, In the concluding paragraph to the Introduction, that “effective economic and social planning must increasingly take account of regional and local needs and potentials, and this can be best achieved through partnerships. While there may not be total agreement on the specific roles which local authorities might perform in this process there is a consensus that existing structures need to be reformed?” Prof Walsh acknowledged that, 21 years later, Ireland continues to grapple with some of the fundamental issues – why is Ireland so slow to innovate and grasp the nettle of putting in place workable arrangements for sustained implementation of the many reform proposals that have been made over the years. At times, he suggested, the country’s collective capacity for analysis greatly outweighs the capability to translate the outcomes of analysis into transformative actions.

Dr. Chris Van Egeraat, Chairman of the Regional Studies Association-Irish Branch, emphasised the importance of a vibrant debate on local governance and regional issues to the transformation of Ireland in the coming years and he re-stated the Branch’s commitment to ensuring that a forum for debate on local and regional policy matters would be in place for the foreseeable future noting that the next symposium being organised by the Branch relates to the National Spatial Strategy.

Dr. Seán O’Riordáin, the symposium convenor, provided the backdrop to the symposium. He noted the recent work of the Local Government Specialist Group of the Political Studies Association of Ireland. He stressed the shared objectives of the Group and the Regional Studies Association. Key questions to be addressed at the symposium centred around the question of whether Ireland is a centralised state? Can a centralised state operating within departmental silos provide the platform for reform and the invigoration of local democracy? Is there learning available from other countries and what about previous efforts to reform the local government system? Is the proposed move towards larger units of local government necessarily a positive development?-Finally he posed the fundamental question: Is reform going to improve the current situation?

The next speaker, Dr. Prionnsias Breathnacht of NUI Maynooth certainly challenged current policy. Examining the question of geographical scale in the local government system Dr. Breathnacht highlighted the short comings of a system largely based upon historical boundaries pre-dating Irish independence and which have limited relevance to the spatial development of a 21st century economy. He noted the extent to which urban overspill of boundaries conflicts with the need for effective local government. He also highlighted the over dependence of county authorities on state funding for both day to day spending and capital investment, placing the local government system into a subservient relationship with central government.

Examining the political priorities of the new government he acknowledged their objective analysis of the current system in their election manifestos, build upon various reviews by among others the OECD. He questioned the current level of progress in advancing a genuine reform effort. He argued that the reforms envisaged in the Programme for Government do not reflect their political manifestos. Rather the reforms are extremely limited and will in no way contribute to a badly needed re-orientation of the public service towards a vibrant local democracy. Dr. Breathnacht contrasts this limited effort with the reform of local government in Sweden, noting that such reform was central to Sweden taking a leading role in innovation and economic development.

Dr. Mark Callanan of the IPA, speaking on a basis of a paper prepared jointly with Dr. Aodh Quinlivan and Ronan Murphy, questioned the overly simplistic assumption that larger local authorities serving larger populations are automatically more efficient and can save money through economies of scale. Typical benefits that may result from larger units of local government might include gains from economies of scale, capacity for greater specialisation, the potential for lower per capita costs, and greater purchasing power. However there is also the potential for diseconomies of scale arising from larger units of local government which can result in some instance to higher per capita costs in larger local authorities, greater complexity and less flexibility that can arise in larger local authorities, a tendency for larger local authorities to carry out more work ‘in-house’ rather than looking at alternative delivery approaches such as contracting out or shared services, and a greater risk of over-spending in larger local authorities due to ‘fiscal illusion’. Added to these are the one-off transitional costs involved in merging local authorities. Based on an extensive range of international research on this topic and on local authority amalgamations, this can limit the potential savings that may arise from mergers.

Dr. Callanan also examined the relationship between size and expenditure and service levels, drawing on available data on Irish local government. Overall, the research suggests a weak link between size and efficiency, that most local authority services do not appear to possess economies of scale, and merging local authorities may have little or no effect on savings in most services. There are however certain selected areas within local government where economies of scale may exist – the most likely candidates are highly specialised services, the production costs of capital-intensive services, and some administrative overheads and ‘back office’ corporate functions. However, reaping savings from these areas could be done through local authorities entering into shared service arrangements which do not involve the transitional costs implied by full-scale mergers. Contrary perhaps to popular belief, county and city councils, the primary units of local government in Ireland, are in any case already very large by international standards.

Cllr Dermot Lacey from Dublin City Council, in regard to Dublin, suggested in his paper that it might be more honest and accurate to ask if, in Ireland, Local Government itself, is, myth or reality? He argued that more than perhaps anything else, Dublin needs someone who understands how things work, or more accurately, do not work and who will stand up for the City and County. This is currently completely lacking and therefore it is impossible for local citizens and potential investors to know who is in charge and responsible for Dublin. He highlighted the need for reforms which would encompass political, structural and financial aspects of local government and that The absence of an independent source of funding is a major flaw in the current proposals and must be addressed in time.

Mr. Frank Gensler, the Deputy Mayor of Neuss, Nord Rhein Westphalia in Germany examined the local government reforms in that Lander. Mr. Gensler noted the common platform on which local government in Ireland and Nord Rhein Westphalia was based given the influences of the British local government tradition in both. Neuss, a city broadly of similar scale to Cork City with a population of 150,000, now has a directly elected executive mayor supported by a team of deputies. The City is responsible for a wider range of local services than is the case in Cork. These services include primary education, energy provision, operation of the City Hospital of 750 beds, among other services such as water, recreation and amenity which would be found in Irish local authorities.

Mr. Gensler outlined the impact of the move towards more integrated local government systems in Germany, noting the average authority would be responsible for c50,000 people and that research work undertaken in Germany suggests that moving beyond this sees the move towards less effectiveness and lower efficiency in local service delivery. A further reflection of this learning is in the re-municipalisation of services in recent years and the recognition that returns on investment should benefit the wider community rather than being restricted to a restricted investment community. This is leading to an increasing trend in the creation of municipal enterprises, which in many instances are organised at a regional level but remain within the ownership of the constituent local authorities. He also highlighted the importance of the introduction of the directly elected mayors to the overall rejuvenation of local and regional government. Based on the Bavarian model there is an increasing trend towards independent mayors, operating alongside elected councils representative of the main political parties. Such mayors have high visibility and accountability but they also have powers which extend beyond the pulpit in that they can enforce coordination and financial management within their functional area.

Following on Cllr Mark Dalton of the AMAI, argued for the need for a reformed local government based on the urban configuration of the Country. He noted that the Local Government Efficiency Group failed to mention that Town Councils are the most efficient element within the local government system in terms of being self-financing and maintaining commercial rates at a lower level than their County Council counterparts. He questioned the rationale in New Public Management of moving from thinking about the citizen to thinking about the customer, arguing that in the process the public service seems to have failed both. Reforms should be based on community identity, citizenship, participation and the dispersal of power and cannot be about reductionism and cutbacks. Democracy, he forcefully declared “… is sacred and is one thing which should never be reduced in the name of ‘efficiency”.

Dr Clodagh Harris of UCC, in association with Dr. Vanessa Liston of the University of Dublin and Mark O’Toole of Kilkenny County Council presented a ‘new avenue’ of citizen participation, specifically, a deliberative innovation (SOWIT) that can be used to enable citizens to engage directly with policy development processes at the local level on an ongoing basis. SOWIT offers a model of participation that is targeted to increasing citizen participation in policy development through deliberative mechanisms that enable inter-group communication and networking by local government and citizens while placing particular emphasis on social inclusion. Dr. Harris emphasised that the SOWIT process would complement rather than replace the representative system of local democracy and in doing so would actually strengthen the role and mandate of the elected councillor. The paper that noted E-deliberation can make a significant difference to citizen engagement in local politics and that a process such as SOWIT has the potential not only to empower citizens and harness their collective knowledge but to strengthen the existing representative process by increasing transparency and legitimacy in the policy development process. It represents a timely opportunity for transforming the role of citizens, councillors and local authorities in developing efficient, sustainable and inclusive policy. (see www.sowit.eu for more information).

Under the chairmanship of Mr. Joe Mulholland of the McGill Summer School, Prof Robin Hambleton of the University of the West of England, Bristol and Director of Urban Answers, In his keynote paper, examined the critical role of local government in place-based leadership. Mr. Mulholland expressed the frustration felt by many at the symposium about the ad hoc approach to reform in Ireland. He highlighted the challenges confronting Ireland in the context of the limitation of local government, the continuing focus of national politicians on local affairs rather than on national issues and on the pre-occupation of the national media on short term news items rather than on strategic concerns and challenges confronting the country.

Drawing on his recent work Prof Hambleton analyzed the currents of change in an ever globalizing world noting the negative impact of “placeless power”. He defined the challenges confronting civic leadership as:
• Economic restructuring: massive changes in the economic function of cities and localities + major cutbacks in public spending
• Social dynamism entwined with growing racial tensions arising from rapid immigration
• Unsustainable development in the face of climate change
• Threats to democratic accountability in the shift from local government to local governance + the growth in power of the central state

In doing so he noted that many important decisions are now taken by “placeless leaders” that have limited concern about the impact of their decisions on communities and local economies. Such impacts require place based leadership which can:
• Place matters to people and we need ‘place-based’ or ‘civic’ leadership to combat ‘placeless’ leadership if we are to avoid increasing the divisions in society
• Shift communities from reactive decision making to proactive local policy making
• Establish a local leadership which is critical to encourage and support bold innovation in local governance

Such leadership requires a shift in our understanding of the traditional roles of councilor, official and citizen in that leadership now needs to grow through each pillar of the local institutional setting rather than falling to one or other of these essential roles at local level. This requires Leaders that need to see themselves not as having ‘power over’ events but as having ‘power to’ influence events. While there is no such thing per se as best practice which could be applied everywhere there are lessons to be drawn upon which suggest:
• A new definition of civic leadership: ‘Shaping emotions and behavior to create inclusive places’
• The areas of overlap between the realms of place-based leadership can be viewed as innovation zones
• A key task for civic leadership is to foster a culture of innovation in the locality

In the case of Ireland he argues that the key is to enhance appropriate place-based power to combat placeless power which is often associated with footloose enterprise. This enhances the need to develop the role of local authorities and to design local government institutions to support outgoing, place-based leadership (directly elected mayors providing an option for example). Local government in Ireland therefore could take the lead on promoting place-based approaches to public service innovation while expanding the capacity of each local authority to engage in international exchange.

The experiences of Northern Ireland have an immediate relevance to reform in the Republic. Mr. Ashley Boreland, Chief Executive Officer of Ards Borough Council explained the on-going reform processes of the past decade confronting local government in Northern Ireland. In many respects the ad hoc approach to reform in the Republic has its parallels in Northern Ireland, albeit that at least in Northern Ireland there was an effort to at least place local government reform in an overall public service reform programme. Nonetheless the stop start approach to the implementation of the Review of Public Administration did result in considerable frustration within elected and official spheres of the local authority system. As a result the system has taken on the reform process itself through the ICE (Improvement Collaboration Efficiency)Programme. Mr. Boreland detailed the shared approach across local government in Northern Ireland in response to a challenge from the relevant Minister to apply a workable reform process. Noting the across party support for the ICE Programme Mr. Boreland outlined the principles underpinning the case for change noting the shared desire to implement common solutions sector-wide, rather than on an ad hoc basis. The savings identified in the Programme are in the order of sterling £257million to £570 million over a 25 year period. This is being progressively put in place with a joint procurement process, a shared ICT platform and the joint advertising of positions now in place.

Mr. Boreland highlighted some key lessons from Northern Ireland:
• True change is based on ownership and knowledge of the subject.
• The purpose of reform should be understood and clearly stated.
• Local Government has the ability to look at itself, be critical and identify solutions that work.
• Leadership at the elected member and officer levels is the key to transformation.
• Ensuring Elected members understand the process and its aims is crucial.
• Local Government has discovered a new way of working, a new stature and a willingness to decide its own future – but will it be allowed to do it?

And so to Barrington…
Some 21 years after Prof Walsh acknowledged the challenges of change and the publication of the Barrington Report on Local Government in the Republic of Ireland, the next set of papers examined the continued relevance of Barrington in the Ireland of 2012. Dr. Ruth Barrington provided the symposium with a ‘scorecard’ for each of the main recommendations in the Barrington Report , indicating with symbols whether a recommendation was implemented or not. For some recommendations she gave a ‘mixed’ score where, for example, advances in local authority discretion over local funding priorities had been overtaken by new controls by the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform on the filling of every vacant post. Nonetheless and on a positive note, she noted that the Report was highly influential in guiding legislative and other changes during the 1990s, culminating in the Local Government Act of 2001.
Dr. Barrington highlighted foremost among what remains to be done are –
– The devolution of functions,
– providing local government with a sustainable funding base,
– providing for sub county government –district councils,
– agreeing standard regions and establishing regional authorities.

She questioned how the Programme for Government stand in dealing with these long standing problems of local government? Her answer is not very well. The only issue above on which the Programme promises action is on the devolution of functions.

Critically she examined in detail the conundrum of the sub-county level of local government or the district in a bit more detail, partly because the Expert Committee did not make a unanimous recommendation on what should be done. There was – and still is – the legacy of town councils based on a medieval distinction between towns and their surrounding, often hostile countryside. The limited franchise for town council elections, she noted, creates serious anomalies in electoral representation. There is no logic, she argued, as to why some towns have town councils and other do not, nor are there agreed criteria for approving new town councils. There appears to be constant tension between town councils and county councils. Within the cities, there are no smaller units of local government than the city councils, resulting in a very low ratio of councillors to population. There is little agreement on what town councils should be responsible for.

Dr Barrington outlined the option favoured by her father, but with which some other members of the Expert Committee did not agree. This was to create elected district councils in each county, with the main towns at the centre of each district, and in all the cities. In a large county such as Kerry, this would mean creating five districts with directly elected councillors around the towns of Caherciveen, Dingle, Kenmare, Killarney, Listowel and Tralee. An appendix to the Report sets out a scheme of how such districts might be formed in each county and city. In all, 151 district councils are proposed across the country. The functions envisaged for districts include ‘small’ local government services such as litter control, minor amenity developments, burial grounds, swimming pools, minor road repairs etc. They could also be responsible for personal services and the coordination of services to meet peoples’ needs; community development and cooperation with voluntary groups; primary education; welfare services such as home help and district nursing. The creation of district councils on the lines proposed could have a transformational effect on local government and democracy in Ireland, while at the same time overcoming the shortcomings of the 80 town councils.

Dr Barrington went on to challenge some more of the myths surrounding the reform of local government in Ireland. She is critically of the argument that Ireland is too small for a renewed and more extensive local government system, in the process kills off the stupidity of the argument that “Ireland is not Manchester” which is often rolled out by those with a limited understanding of the role of local democracy. She suspects that arguments about trustworthiness and the size of the country are really camouflage for a refusal to contemplate the transfer of power required to transform what is a highly centralised state into a one with a devolved and locally democratic system of government.

Underpinning the arguments put forward by Dr. Barrington, Dr Brid Quinn of the University of Limerick cited the four fundamental reasons for local government reform set out in the Barrington Report:
– the need to develop the democratic system;
– problems associated with central government;
– the needs of regional local and community development and
– the need to make best use of resources

She also acknowledged some of the local government reforms which find their origins in Barrington but also notes the generally ad hoc approach to reform and the failure to substantially address the nature of local -centre relationships and the need to recognise the multi-functional role which local government in other OECD countries play. She contrasts Irish efforts with others most notably the on-going reforms in Finland, noting the clearly established rationale behind the reform of public services in this and other OECD members in contrast to Ireland. She questions whether there Is the political will to redistribute power and resources from the centre to the local. Is there the capacity to make difficult choices at local level and Is there any public willingness to take on the burden of engagement?

She also asks if there is the administrative/institutional ‘wherewithal’ to adapt to a more connected and participative system? Challenging questions which are being confronted by other public service systems in the OECD but perhaps absent in the Irish case? Her conclusion is that these questions can only be answered in a sustained long term programme of reform, something that appears to be currently absent.

Taking up a focus from Barrington on the need to make best use of resources Ms. Carmel Fox, Chief Executive of Ballyhoura Development Ltd., a Local Development Company, noted her on-going working relationship with local government. She highlighted the need to optimise the resource that is local community, valuing the voluntary human resource, and placed the local authority potentially at the heart of this role in taking a place shaping approach to local integrated participative economic and social development in alignment with the local development sector in Ireland. She addressed the shared capacity of both local government and local development to underpin pro-active local strategic development, noting the many successes of such examples across Ireland. She suggested that the lessons from the local development process indicate that structured processes are central to participative community-based planning which are, in turn, central to the statutory planning of local authorities and the strategic and business planning of other agencies operating at local level. The best practice suggests that local communities be facilitated to engage in socio-economic planning with appropriate involvement of the relevant public sector officials and voluntary service providers, from one to two years prior to the commencement of the statutory Local Area planning process. Both have the potential to inform the Integrated County/City Development Plan (focusing on socio economic development strategy and land use planning).

Ms. Fox identifies five factors which impact on the achievement of best results:
• Local community capacity (knowledge, understanding and skills to engage in socio-economic planning and deliver agreed projects)
• Legal umbrella structure within the local community and network of their representatives at sub-county (district) and county level.
• Local authority willingness to engage appropriately with the socio-economic planning
• The level of trust among community leaders for engaging with the public sector.
• External facilitation is needed to support the socio-economic planning process at community level (most of which may be delivered by existing staff in local authorities and local development companies).

The capacity of local communities to engage with local government has improved in the last two decades as a result of resources applied by the local development sector. This must now be underpinned by a renewed local government system aligned with the local development sector to ensure the capacity of such communities is facilitated to take advantage of changes to both national and European policy.

The concluding paper was presented by Dr. Pat Gallagher of Offaly County Council. Dr. Gallagher acknowledged the challenges identified in the Barrington Report but also noted the level of progress over the past decade in meeting some of the Barrington expectations. He highlighted the importance of the Constitutional Provisions relating to local government, something which was absent when Barrington was been written. He also noted the progress of local government and local development in confronting local social and economic challenges.

He focused on the key roles for local government ranging from those that are regulatory in nature to transactional services to developmental services. There are inherent challenges in trying to manage such a multi-functional organisation particularly at a time of severe austerity. Dr. Gallagher demonstrated the range of issues confronting local government as a result of the current economic conditions:

• Nature of contemporary government/ democracy/ representation/ participation/ citizenship/ accountability – apply to all level of government
• Developmental/transactional/regulatory balance?
• Efficiency versus effectiveness?
• National/ sub-national cohesion & balance?
• How to evaluate exercise of Local Government’s functions as per constitutional and statute law?
• Local Government Efficiency Review Implementation Group Expectations
• Shared services, procurement, ICT
• Central government monitoring/control of Local Government resources reintroduced and increased
• Centralisation of some services on efficiency grounds, but need to fully consider business process and citizen service issues
• Standardization versus Flexibility in local service delivery

He noted the expectation of a major policy statement on local government from the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government in late Spring 2012 but a key issue he suggests, arising from the symposium, is to create a forum for local governance which would include all the key actors at both local and national level. Such a forum might allow for the debating of issues which ordinarily are ignored by national policy makers, the media and others and would at least allow the commencement of a debate about the nature of local arrangements in Ireland. Dr. Deiric O’Broin of Dublin City University concluded the symposium by noting the importance of Dr. Gallagher’s suggestion of developing a forum to have on-going discussion on local governance. He also acknowledged the contributions of each of the speakers and noted that the Regional Studies Association and the Local Government Specialist Group were committed to putting the papers from the symposium into a wider public arena to encourage greater debate and to encourage other contributions to the debates developed at the symposium.

The Regional Studies Association-Irish Branch in association with the Local Government Specialist Group of the Political Studies Association intent to publish the full papers as soon as possible. Details will be provided at a later date.