April 9, 2006
Have you ever looked for a government service in the phone book?
Letï¿½s try. Childcare – now thereï¿½s a hot topic.
The government talks about it a lot. Last yearï¿½s budget made a big splash about it.
Many also suggest that the next general election will be fought on the issue of childcare, particularly, in the burgeoning suburbs of Headford, Ballincollig and Naas. So surely the State should be falling over itself to make information on childcare readily available. Letï¿½s check out the old reliable – the phone book.
Page 592 of this yearï¿½s phone book lists ï¿½Government servicesï¿½. That would seem like a good place to start. Try as you might, you wonï¿½t find anything obvious about childcare.
Letï¿½s try the more consumer-friendly Golden Pages. Everyone who is selling anything advertises there, right? Again, under childcare, there is no mention of any State services, and, under State services, there is no mention of childcare.
Why does the State make it so difficult to find out basic information about what is available? It is not that it is hiding anything; it is just not making it easy for the citizen or consumer to find out information.
The listing for government services tells you the numbers of the departments and various sub-departments. It is up to you to try your luck, search for the right person in the right office, be put on hold for ages and eventually you might get the information.
Wouldnï¿½t it be so much easier if the State carried a listing in the phone book or the Golden Pages saying ï¿½Looking for childcare? Hereï¿½s where to goï¿½?
A little change like this would save hassle, boost our confidence in dealing with the authorities and positively change many votersï¿½ perceptions of the public service as a basket case, pampered by benchmarking and job security.
Unfortunately, it appears that the public service is still stuck in the producer rather than the consumer mentality. It has not realised that times have changed and the role of the State, particularly where it is providing services like childcare, is that of a salesman. The citizens are now consumers and need to be treated as such.
In the old days, the role of the State was to direct and organise society. It was all-powerful and it did the citizens of this country a great service. In the first 70 years since independence, the role of the State was as a producer. All policies were geared towards the interests of the producer, whether it was farmers, airline workers or gardai.
The object was to raise incomes and living standards for the producers either internationally via the Common Agricultural Policy and the EU or internally by offering secure employment for thousands.
But the world has changed and globalisation has ensured that the consumer rather than the producer is king. This means that the State, while maybe not competing with the private sector in every area, is competing against a consumer mindset, where our expectations of service have been heightened immeasurably over the past few years.
Our tolerance levels for shoddy service are considerably lower than they were.
This implies that the public service has to change its mindset too. It has to decide whose side is it on. Is it on the consumer/citizen side or the producer/vested interested side?
At the moment, its inability to decide is a huge obstacle, for it compromises the Stateï¿½s ability to deliver on these ï¿½little thingsï¿½, such as easy access to child care information.
Failure to do the small things right, not only erodes our confidence in its ability to do the ï¿½big thingsï¿½ but increases antagonism between the public and private sectors, between state employees and tax payers and between voters and the political system.
You might ask whether this matters.
Does anyone care if we lose faith in the public service? After all, it is the private sector that runs the show these days, it creates the wealth and drives the economy and society forward.
Who cares about the public realm, when there are full employment, second houses, 100 per cent interest-only mortgages and a Debenhams in every small town?
Well, we should care. The public sector is essential for the running of the place and an efficient and happy public sector is crucial for all of us.
Think about schools, hospitals,10 per cent corporation tax, 20 per cent capital gains tax or the gardai. Consider air traffic controllers, ambulance drivers, special-needs teachers and geriatric nurses. We couldnï¿½t function without them, and they are as essential to our society as IT professionals, marketing managers, bank lenders and main-street retailers. After all who taught us to read and write, count and spell?
So while change in the public sector is essential, it is not our job to make the public sector change. Change in the public sector can only come from within and can only come with serious leadership.
Here is the rub. It seems that the Irish public and semi-state sector has not quite decided yet whether it is on the side of the consumer or on the side of the producer.
A great example of this is the proposed sale of Aer Lingus this week. The state and employees (the producers) are to keep half – or at bit less – and the other half is to be bought by the citizens (the consumers).
Who wants to buy half an airline?
What is this codology about? Either the airline is private or it is public, but a bit of both is bonkers. In whose interest is this sale: we the consumers who use and pay for Aer Lingus, or the vested interests of the trade unionists inside the company and the investment bankers outside it who will make a fortune on commissions from floating the airline?
Ironically, the ï¿½producersï¿½ in this deal represent two vested interests who claim to be at polar ends of the ideological spectrum – stockbrokers and Siptu officials.
This goes to prove that if the pill is sweet enough, anyone will swallow it. The upshot is a bad deal for consumers and ultimately shareholders – who are drawn from the great unwashed aspirant consumer class (by the way, the real winner of this carry-on will be Ryanair).
This example shows just how muddled the thinking is within government. The crux of the problem is an inability to decide where the public sector stands.
In the years ahead, the euphemism ï¿½public sector reformï¿½ will really mean the public sector making this producer or that consumer choice. It needs real leadership to do this. There may be battles, strikes and recrimination.
The alternative is what we have seen in France last week. Behind all the pomp and ceremony, the government of the Fifth Republic is incapable of governing because it canï¿½t take on the vested interests in the public sector.
The French public sector is a selfish producer-driven body, unable to change even in the face of 50 per cent youth unemployment. Is this what we want? The choice is ours and leaders of the public sector must now act. Thereï¿½s more at stake than the presentation of childcare services in the phone book.