Blind man’s buff is how we’re governed
THERE’S never been an adult in the room as far as running this country is concerned. The Scally Report into the cervical smear scandal proves that. Bureaucracy Irishstyle more resembles a game of blind man’s buff than a fully functional, thoroughly considered, strategic project with the intention of delivering a service that is both efficient and accountable.
As far as the cervical smear disaster is concerned, it all started with such great promise.
Somebody, somewhere suggested that massive healthcare benefits would result from the State providing a free cervical smear test for women at risk of contracting cervical cancer.
The Irish Family Planning Association says about 90 women die each year in Ireland from the disease, with 300 diagnosed. That’s a lot of pain and suffering.
So, in September 2008 the CervicalCheck testing system was offered to the women of Ireland. Fantastic.
Since then more than two million tests have been carried out with enormous gains from early detection.
But despite the obvious benefits to women in particular, and the healthcare budget in general, despite the cost which this year will be €23.9m, nobody has been personally responsible for the smear test programme for most of its existence.
YOU read that correctly! There was nobody in control. Nobody was accountable. There was nobody, in particular, in charge. Dr Gabriel Scally’s report into the smear test scandal, published this week, found (page 27) that the programme simply didn’t have ‘a single manager who is accountable for the service’.
The short-lived Head of Cervical Screening retired in December 2010 and, astonishingly, wasn’t replaced. Imagine setting up a system to prevent the avoidable deaths of potentially thousands of women, with the necessary investment of significant amounts of public money, and then neglecting, permanently, to appoint a leader to drive it.
You don’t have to attend the Harvard Business School to know that’s a structural deficiency that will result in complete and utter disaster. And so it has. Trouble is, we’ve been here before many times. Irish State bureaucracy is notoriously lacking in leadership and definition.
Banks were allowed to run rings around our financial regulatory system for decades with consequences that eventually ended up costing us at least €85bn – debts our great-grandchildren will never have time enough to pay off.
Patrick Neary was, in truth, scapegoated for a system that was never fit for purpose because politicians didn’t want it to be.
Neary didn’t have the smarts or the nerve to deal with the development of casino banking that wrecked the country – but principally, he didn’t have the back-up political will or the legal wherewithal. Because the Oireachtas didn’t want him to have it.
The politicians refused to have anybody in charge.
The collapse of the Seánie FitzPatrick trial last year was another outstanding example of the deliberate failure to impose direction and leadership in another key area of public policy – combatting suspected white-collar crime.
The decision by the judge to direct an acquittal in that case had nothing at all to do with Mr FitzPatrick. In fact he was entirely blameless.
The extraordinary failures exposed at the trial – the appalling mishandling of the investigation, the shredding of important documents, coaching of witnesses and the contamination of statements – did not come out of the blue.
It was the result of a wilful refusal on the part of politicians to provide resources in terms of Garda personnel and legal expertise to manage such cases.
PUBLIC administration in this country appears like a drunk, stumbling and staggering from crisis to crisis. There is a sense, however, of shadowy figures in the background who prefer a complete lack of clarity to any rational form of command and control.
Successive governments – by design – have never required accountability at any level of State bureaucracy. Because accountability throughout the system would eventually land inside the offices of ministers.
If a mid-ranking official was sacked for not doing the job that could result in the head of the civil service being held similarly to account. After that, it would be a minister, or God forbid, the Taoiseach.
And that’s never going to happen.
State bureaucracy continues to operate in a fog of confusion. Tragically, the cervical cancer scandal has shown us that sometimes real people – women, wives and mothers with little children – pay for this deliberate political neglect with their lives.