Saturday, July 17, 2010

Cowen needs to mobilise public opinion on expenditure cuts

Brian Cowen needs to successfully mobilise public opinion if the exchequer deficit is to be tackled and the shoots of economic stability are to yield jobs, stability and opportunity.

During the first six months of 2010 our national debt has increased by €9 billion and the amount of interest paid on it has increased by 20% between June 2009 and June 2010. Interest now accounts for over 15% of all tax revenue, up from 11.5% a year earlier. When the State had tax revenue of almost €46 billion in 2006 the government spent €44 billion. This year spending will be in the region of €60 billion but taxes could be as low as €31 billion.

The Finance Minister has indicated that serious expenditure cuts can be anticipated in the next Budget if the exchequer deficit is to be tackled in a meaningful way – and it must. But in the run up to the Budget the media will be cluttered with a cacophony of special, frequently vacuous, pleadings of vested interests seeking to defend their own resources typically citing some really heart-rending testimonials as a defence that are often quite atypical. Furthermore, the availability of the resources many of them will speak of are of relatively recent origin given the explosive and often wholly indiscriminate growth in government spending as was demonstrated vividly, for example, in FÁS and the HSE; when paying off delinquent executives in public institutions and the banks and building societies now controlled by the State and spending commitments based on benchmarks that are obsolete, or unsustainable.

If this government was not so snookered by a bunker mentality they would mobilise support through the public identifying spending cut suggestions rather than relying exclusively on the observations and advice of An Bórd Snip.

Would the Taoiseach’s much criticised capacity to communicate not be somewhat remediated if his own Department’s web site included an e-mail 'have-your-say' input facility for a finite annual 60-day period for the public to make practical suggestions that would save public money? These could be coordinated by an identified champion and criticised by interested members of the public before being presented to ministers for consideration. The cost of gathering suggestions need not be too burdensome, nor the electronic administration too onerous in the context of there now being fewer human resources in the public service working for less money.

Practical suggestions, illustrated by specific application in given instances, such as saving electricity, saving money through recycling, less travel and greater use of conference calling and video conferencing technology, less spending on contractors and consultants, using more efficient double-sided printing, greater sharing of resources, tighter rules on sick leave, more critical evaluation of discretionary spending, and more economical computer costs are examples of what might emerge. The compacting, postponing or elimination of certain academic programmes could also stretch educational resources and redefine priorities.  A critical review of publically funded advertising expenditure ought to enhance its relevance, focus, impact and practicality.

Apart from the practical benefits that might emerge from such an initiative, surely it would enhance the overall process of governance by a regime headed by a Taoiseach who does not yet have the reassurance of his own electoral mandate and who seems increasingly shy of connecting to the electorate by holding three long overdue by-elections well ahead of the next Budget.  He would be seen to be directly and robustly engaging with the general public on a matter which needs their widespread support and commitment, rather than merely consorting with the 'shakers and movers'. 

President Obama successfully mobilised public opinion in 2008 through the slogan ‘yes, we can’. This is an opportunity for Brian Cowen to emulate his approach through 'have your say'. It might also severely discourage his party colleagues from threatening to replace him with someone else who has not earned a mandate from the electorate to serve as Taoiseach and who would therefore be devoid of political capital and street credibility.

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