A public service?

Jul 31, 2017
Shedding light on the dark art of lobbying the public sector could illustrate the value and purpose of member organisations.

It must be great to be a public servant… at least that’s what I told an acquaintance of mine when she was promoted a few months ago to the upper echelons. So many staff, an amazing corner office, all that authority, the ear of the Minister, security of tenure, a comfortable retirement and so on and so on. She was quick to dismiss my theory, pointing out that the lot of the senior public servant is a continual and grinding process of brokering conflicting interests while protecting the public purse and generally just trying to do the right thing.

Public servants are often accused of being uncommercial but in my experience, this is far from the truth. They have a degree of market awareness that many businesses would do well to emulate. They also have a keen sense of a bargain and know exactly what their purchasing power is. When it comes to lobbying, they are slow to accept any suggestion or proposal that ultimately cannot be leveraged to advance their own department’s agenda.

Public consultations

The way in which civil society interacts with government has changed substantially in Ireland over the last few years. One area of change is in the increasing use of public consultations to inform policy. I have heard cynical descriptions of public consultations: that they are merely processes which enable people to pool their ignorance. This may not be entirely fair.

Many civil society organisations, Chartered Accountants Ireland included, regard public consultations as an opportunity both to advance a particular view of how the world should work to the advantage of their membership, coupled with a desire for systemic improvement. Just because a point of view is obviously biased, it doesn’t automatically follow that it is not right.

Public consultations have been a feature of the UK government landscape for many years and codes of best conduct and practice have developed around them. In particular, the UK authorities are very good at providing detailed feedback on the conclusion of the consultation process. The Irish process is not as comprehensive, at least not yet. Often, there is little sign of the effect of consultation responses beyond the government department concerned.

For example, it is well over a year ago since a consultation was conducted on PRSI collection issues and employment structures. While a report was to be published at the start of this year, nothing has emerged in the public domain and the 23 respondents to this particular consultation might well feel that they were whistling in the wind. A more robust feedback loop is critical to successful consultations.

Regulating lobbyists

The other area of changed interaction between government and the society which pays for it is lobbying regulation. Under Standards in Public Office legislation, almost every individual and organisation that contacts an arm of government to promote their own interests must note the contact in a public register. Perhaps because the obligation to maintain the register is on the part of the citizen or organisation, the rules are sometimes portrayed as a way of keeping the lobbyist honest. However, the key to the real purpose is in the title – Standards in Public Office. While the regulatory burden may not fall on the public service, the consequences of mal-administration which the register could highlight might well land on an individual public servant.

The register of lobbying activity also serves another important purpose. It allows civil society organisations to promote their activities on a formal basis to their own membership and to claim credit for policy outcomes. It is a route for members of industry associations, chambers of commerce and (dare I say it) accountancy bodies to check if they are getting value for their membership subscription.

In light of all of this, my recently promoted public service friend may have been right about being under a continual and grinding obligation to broker conflicting interests. But she couldn’t dispute that a career in the public service is a great thing.

Brian Keegan is Director of Public Policy and Taxation at Chartered Accountants Ireland.