Institutional Evolution of the Irish State Administration



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Institutional Evolution of the Irish State Administration


Niamh Hardiman – Principal Investigator, Mapping the Irish State Project
Muiris MacCarthaigh – Researcher, Mapping the Irish State Project

Niamh.Hardiman@ucd.ie


mmaccarthaigh@ipa.ie

Paper to accompany Launch of Irish State Administration Database (ISAD), Newman House 11th November 2010


Not for citation or quotation without permission.

This project is funded by a Thematic Research Grant from the Irish Research Council for Humanities and Social Sciences, 2007-2010 Irish state administration

Seeking to provide a rational account of the system of public administration over a lengthy period in Ireland, or indeed anywhere, is a daunting task. Systems of public administration are in constant flux. The challenge is to seek to provide the best possible models and explanations for understanding what is going on. Bringing new insights to bear on the organization and distribution of tasks amongst public institutions requires a detailed time-series data source. In this paper, we draw on the Irish State Administration Database or ISAD, to present broad trends in the institutional evolution of the Irish state administration.

Evolution of national institutions


In 19th century Britain and Ireland, government departments ceded new powers to local authorities and to national bodies with titles such as Boards and Commissions. During the 20th century, central government departments gained additional powers in Ireland relative to local government. During the latter decades of the twentieth century, we see an increased organizational differentiation of national-level administrative structures, with the rapid increase in the use of ‘arm’s-length bodies’ of various forms. In this short paper, we consider some of the broad institutional changes we have identified over the course of the Irish state’s development, and we might begin to re-evaluate how we understand these changes.

As recent work by Maguire (2008) identifies, the transfer of control of the administrative system in Ireland from Dublin Castle to the Minister for Finance in January 1921 was not a straightforward process. Rather it involved considerable power struggles within the new Irish Free State and a huge overhaul in personnel and organization. And while there was some rationalization of the vast array of colonial administrative organizations in the aftermath of the Treaty, the process of control of the state administration by a central authority was far from unproblematic.

The 1924 Ministers and Secretaries Act sought to provide a new structure for a functioning administrative system under political and parliamentary control by abolishing the various remaining independent Boards and concentrating the business of central government in Ministers, each of whom would control a department for which they would be responsible to Dáil Éireann. For the next quarter of a century, that system of central control by a small number of Departments remained largely intact, with the notable exception of the introduction of three new Departments in 1947: Health, Local Government and Welfare (see Tables 1 and 2 below). The creation of a Department of Local Government crystallized a distinguishing feature of Irish government – a weak tradition of devolving real power to the local level and, with a few minor exceptions, a tendency to transfer authority upwards to central government.

Table 1: Emergence 1924 - 49

1924

President of the Executive Council

Finance


Justice

Local Government and Public Health

Education



Lands and Agriculture

Fisheries

Industry and Commerce

Posts and Telegraphs

Defence


External Affairs


1949

Taoiseach (1937)

Finance


Justice

Local Government (1947)

Health (1947)

Social Welfare (1947)

Education



Agriculture (1928)

Lands (1934)

--Lands and Fisheries (1929-1934)

Industry and Commerce

Posts and Telegraphs

Defence


External Affairs

Supplies (1939-1945)


At first glance, the change in the organization of Irish government departments by policy domain in the post-war decades (Table 2) seems relatively minor – but the emergence of the Departments of Transport and Power, and later Labour, emanated from the change in economic policy away from self-sufficiency towards growing integration with international markets. The creation of these departments preceded Ireland’s preparation for its eventual successful accession to the EEC. But the organizational innovation was shaped to a degree by European examples, drawn in part from the influence of Keynes’s ideas on British governments and in part from French experiences of economic planning.

Table 2: Development 1949-69

1949

Taoiseach

Finance

Justice


Local Government

Education



Agriculture

Industry and Commerce

Lands

Posts and Telegraphs



Defence

External Affairs

Health

Social Welfare




1969

Taoiseach

Finance

Justice


Local Government

Education



Agriculture and Fisheries (1965)

Industry and Commerce

Lands

Posts and Telegraphs



Defence

External Affairs

Health

Social Welfare



Gaeltacht

Transport and Power

Labour (1966)


The expanding role of the state from the 1970s onwards is reflected in the emergence of distinctive policy fields as stand-alone departments. We can also discern a growing tendency to move policy portfolios between government departments as government organization become more complex and the drive to achieve a rational grouping of tasks becomes more challenging. As Table 3 identifies, the Department of the Environment was created in 1977, while Economic Planning and Public Service for a time became separate Departments, as management ideas about planning took hold. In the ten-year period 1977-86, Industry and Commerce experienced a considerable number of portfolio rearrangements.

Table 3: Modernization 1969-89

1969

Taoiseach

Finance

Justice


Local Government

Education



Agriculture and Fisheries

Industry and Commerce

Lands

Posts and Telegraphs

Defence


External Affairs

Health


Social Welfare

Gaeltacht



Transport and Power

Labour



1989

Taoiseach

Finance

Justice


Environment (1977)

Education



Agriculture and Food (1987)

--Agriculture (1977-1987)



Industry and Commerce (1986)

--Industry, Commerce and Energy (1977-1980)

--Industry, Commerce and Tourism (1980-1981)

--Trade Commerce and Tourism (1981-1983)

--Industry, Trade, Commerce and Tourism (1983-1986)

Tourism and Transport (1987)

--Tourism and Transport (1977-1980)

--Transport (1980-1983)

--{Communications (1983-1987)}

--{Public Service (1973-1987)}

Social Welfare

Defence

Foreign Affairs (1971)

Health


Gaeltacht

Labour


Marine (1987)

--Fisheries (1977-1978)

--Fisheries and Forestry (1978-1986)

--Tourism, Fisheries and Forestry (1986-1987)

Energy (1983)

--Economic Planning and Development (1977-1980)

--Energy (1980-1981)

--Industry and Energy (1981-1983)


The last two decades have been characterized by deepening complexity in the distribution of policy portfolios across central government departments. Only four Departments did not undergo change in title – Taoiseach and Finance (because for constitutional reasons they cannot), and Defence and Foreign Affairs. This is also a period of successive coalition government formation, with consequent post-election bargaining over portfolio distribution.

Table 4. Complexity 1989-2010

1989

Taoiseach

Finance

Justice

Environment

Education

Agriculture and Food

Industry and Commerce

Tourism and Transport

Social Welfare

Defence


Foreign Affairs

Health

Gaeltacht

Labour

Marine

Energy

2010

Gaeltacht

Labour

Marine (1987)

--Fisheries (1977-1978)

--Fisheries and Forestry (1978-1986)

--Tourism, Fisheries and Forestry (1986-1987)

Energy (1983)

--Economic Planning and Development (1977-1980)

--Energy (1980-1981)

--Industry and Energy (1981-1983)


But the above analysis only provides a superficial view of the evolution of the public administration and its entrance and exit from different policy fields. And of course, just because there was no Department of Transport did not mean there was no transport in Ireland. We must look within and beyond the core Departments to complete the national picture.

What the Irish State Administration Database reveals is the extent to which functions of government were carried out by a vast array of public and private organizations as well as core Departments since 1924. As Figure 1 below identifies, the increase is one that has gathered pace over time and accelerated over the last twenty years, peaking around 2008. This is a period that coincided with a series of public service reforms based loosely around ideas of New Public Management (Hardiman and MacCarthaigh 2011).

Figure 1. Number of new agencies created in each decade

Remarkably, until recently, this has not been the subject of any substantial or sustained study; neither is there any official definition of a public body. A number of generic terms have been used to describe these organizations – most notably ‘state-sponsored bodies’ and ‘semi-state organizations’. Snapshot studies have attempted to comprehend the variety of organizations using a simple distinction between commercial and non-commercial activities. For example, FitzGerald’s (1963: 5) analysis in the 1960s of the State-Sponsored Bodies defined them as,



autonomous public bodies other than universities and university colleges, which are neither temporary in character nor purely advisory in their function, most of whose staff are not civil servants, and to whose board or council the Government or Ministers in the Government appoint directors, council members, etc.

A separate study of these bodies, conducted as part of the report of the Public Services Organization Review Group (1966-9), also excluded universities and reported that:

For practical purposes we have taken the term ‘state-sponsored body’ to cover any autonomous public body with a Board appointed by the Government to discharge those functions assigned to it by the Government.

Similarly categorising them as either commercial or non-commercial, the report stated that:

It seems to us that the commercial state-sponsored bodies form a sector of the public service qualitatively different from the non-commercial bodies and there is an instinctive recognition of this fact in the tendency to refer to them as the ‘public enterprises’.

The distinction which we draw between commercial and non-commercial state-sponsored bodies is primarily related to the source of their revenues. In the ‘commercial’ area, some bodies like the ESB are self-supporting. Some make losses because they are required to provide uneconomic services in the national interest and receive State subsidies directly and indirectly. In our definition of these bodies as ‘commercial’, we mean, primarily, that they operate in a commercial atmosphere where commercial criteria can be used to judge their effectiveness.

Writing in 1980, the great authority on Irish public administration Tom Barrington also found it hard to untangle the organizational web, stating that there were ‘more than four hundred separate bodies within the [administrative] system’ and this included local government’ (1980: 4). However, in counting these ‘bodies’, he included ‘about forty commissions, offices, agencies’ and ‘about ninety state-sponsored bodies’.

And unlike in other jurisdictions, the names of the organizations, in general, give us little clue to their powers, accountability, funding or relationship to central departments. Councils, Commissions, Boards, Authorities, Agencies and Bodies are used interchangeably – though Authorities, Agencies and Bodies have been more commonly used titles since the 1980s.

A number of recent studies note the relatively ad hoc manner in which agencies have been created in Ireland, the wide variety of accountability and communication mechanisms, and the absence of performance frameworks (McGauran et al. 2005; Clancy and Murphy 2006; OECD 2008). Thus the fact that there is no easy way to categorize or definitively distinguish between the different forms of departmental and non-departmental body in Ireland, has had practical as well as academic implications, not least in terms of governance structures, accountability arrangements and performance assessments.

In many respects, the Irish experience of agencies can be conceptualised as a form of institutional layering, similar to what Flinders describes as the ‘Russian doll’ character of British governing structures, ranging from Ministerial and non-Ministerial departments at the core to independent inspectorates and self-regulatory professional bodies at the outer layer (Flinders 2008: 109).

Figures 2 below (see also Hardiman and MacCarthaigh 2010) identifies the policy domains in which state agencies have most frequently been created and sustained over the last half-century, while Figure 3 charts the distribution of functional tasks amongst agencies since 1930.

Figure 2: Principal policy domains of agencies 1958-08*

* The Irish State Administration Database uses a total of 16 policy domains to identify the primary and secondary functions of state agencies; 7 are used here.



Figure 3: Functions of state agencies 1930-2010

The evolution of state agencies in Ireland must also take into account the termination or death of agencies over this period. Apart from straightforward closure, an agency might be replaced by another agency, merged with an agency or absorbed into a department, as Figure 4 reveals. We find that there is a gradual increase in the pace of agency terminations over time. While the overall figures are lower than those involved in new agency creation, there is a marked growth in the number of terminations during the 1970s and 1980s. This rate of cessation was steady during the 1990s and almost doubled in the first decade of the 21st century.



Figure 4: Agency Terminations 1924-2010

Reform


Prior to the 1990s, relatively little official concern was expressed over public service-wide reform. The Brennan Commission’s interim and final reports of 1934 and 1935 respectively approved of the manner in which the civil service was being run and resulted in no fundamental changes. It was another 30 years before the organization of the public service was to be the subject of detailed and considered review.

The Public Service Organization Review Group (the ‘Devlin Report’) of 1966-9 was critical of the use of the ‘state-sponsored body’ form, and – similar to recommendations by the OECD some forty years later – called for a more coherent approach to their use and their governance structures. It also recommended a clearer division between policy-making and policy administration within departments, and advocated adoption of some of the then-emerging management doctrines of the time, including programme budgeting and standardization of finance, and human resource management and planning functions. Little ultimately came of these reform proposals.

The Fine Gael/ Labour White Paper Serving the Country Better, published in 1985, also advocated a more strategic use of the agency form. Their proposal was for more extensive use of ‘executive agencies’, that is, units within department structures as opposed to at arm’s length from them. However, the economic crisis of the time ensured that no enabling legislation was brought forward.

New Public Management (NPM) ideas emerged in Ireland with the Strategic Management Initiative (SMI) launched in 1994, but the evidence for a causal relationship between the SMI and the explosion in the number of organizational forms during this period is weak (Hardiman and MacCarthaigh 2011). Instead, a variety of pressures must be drawn upon to help understand this rapid expansion in numbers during a period of economic prosperity. Among these are the need for compliance with EU directives; demands for greater stakeholder engagement in the policy process emanating in part from social partnership processes; the need to perform new tasks without affecting core departmental staffing numbers; and requirements of administrative efficiency.

The OECD’s review of Ireland in 2008 sought to encourage a more strategic use of the agency form (resonant of the Public Service Organization Review Group and Serving the Country Better). But its proposals and those of the government’s follow-up programme on Transforming Public Services were quickly overtaken by the needs to address a deepening economic crisis. A programme of agency reduction has begun in earnest since 2009, and we find some overall reduction in agency numbers by 2010. However, as with the expansion in agency numbers, the contraction is equally ad hoc, with no clear rationale as to which agencies should be terminated, merged and absorbed into parent departments respectively.

Adopting a historical perspective, therefore, we see a weak fit between the reforms advocated under a variety of different reports and initiatives, and the actual institutional evolution of the Irish state administration. Instead, what we have tended to see is that major organizational changes in the Irish public service have arisen out of sectoral initiatives and often in an ad hoc manner over time, rather than from any public service-wide blueprints. For example, the Culliton report on Industrial Policy which led to a streamlining of state agencies involved in industry in the early 1990s, or the creation of the HSE which did likewise in the health sector 2003, were stand-alone initiatives rather than part of a wider reform package.


Conclusions


The organizational configuration of the Irish public service is once again under intense scrutiny, driven by three pressures: the need to reduce public spending as a consequence of fiscal crisis; the need to rationalize structures to achieve greater administrative effectiveness, as recommended by the OECD report, and the need to secure a more efficient deployment of staffing, which is central to the agreement between government and the public service unions under the Croke Park Agreement of June 2010. The combination of these pressures points toward reduction in the number of public organizations in Ireland. But achieving all three objectives requires a more considered approach than that of simply abolishing agencies: the underlying aim is to achieve a more effective configuration of departments and agencies, each suited to its task, working together to secure ‘joined-up government’.

The de-agencification process has begun, but raises many new issues. Agency mergers may not secure either cost savings or greater efficiencies where there is difficulty in integrating functions, managing contractual obligations, and transferring property ownership and liabilities held by agencies undergoing mergers. Agency mergers and dissolutions are not without costs, for example where the focus provided by agencies to address policy problems may be lost, and staff expertise dissipated through downsizing. Value-for-money assessments will require the introduction of clearer performance measurements and governance requirements than have hitherto typically been the case.

The Irish administrative system has responded flexibly with a variety of institutional forms to meet particular challenges, but a longitudinal perspective allows us to see the consequences of this rather ad hoc approach to organizational innovation. The Irish State Administration Database provides a new research tool for understanding how our public administration came to be configured as it is. It provides a valuable resource to inform evidence-based policy analysis of organizational change. References

Barrington, T. J. (1980) The Irish Administrative System (Dublin: IPA).

Clancy, P. and Murphy, G. (2006) Outsourcing Government: Public Bodies and Accountability (Dublin: TASC/New Island)

FitzGerald, G. State-Sponsored Bodies (2nd ed.) (1963) (Dublin: Institute of Public Administration)

Flinders, M. (2008) Delegated Governance and the British State: Walking without order (Oxford: Oxford University Press)

Hardiman and MacCarthaigh (2010) ‘Organising for Growth: Irish State Administration 1958-08’ in Economic and Social Review Vol.41(3), pp.367-95.

Hardiman and MacCarthaigh (2011) ‘The Un-Politics of New Public Management in Ireland’ in Eymeri-Douzans, J.M. & Pierre, J. (eds). Administrative Reforms and Democratic Governance (London: Routledge).

Maguire, M. (2008) The civil service and the revolution in Ireland, 1912-38 (Manchester: Manchester University Press).

McGauran, A.-M., K. Verhoest and P. Humphreys (2005) The corporate governance of agencies in Ireland (Dublin, Institute of Public Administration, Committee for Public Management Research Report No. 6).

OECD Ireland: Towards an Integrated Public Service (Paris: OECD)



Public Service Organization Review Group (1969) Report of the Public Service Organization Review Group (Dublin: Stationery Office)

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