Phone: +353 (01) 618 3323

Email: gerard.craughwell@oireachtas.ie

Cost Overruns poor oversight of Government Departments

There is no real proactive oversight of government departments, and this must change. How can we really expect that any government minister could properly oversee the workings of multiple departments? No ministers could possibly bring all of the required expertise to oversee the day-to-day workings of one department let alone several. The situation gets worse when we look at the role of a minister of state. For example, the Government Chief Whip in the current cabinet is also junior minister at the Department of Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport, and Media with special responsibility for Gaeltacht and Sport, and the Department of Defence.

Thus, all we can expect from our government ministers and ministers of state is that they provide political cover for the department officials advising them. Civil servants overall do a good job, and many have served this country well. However, like all professions there needs to be oversight. Senior departmental officials know they are covered in all their actions and this cover is underwritten by the Carltona doctrine (or Carltona principle). This principal expresses the concept that the acts of departmental officials are synonymous with the actions of the Minister with responsibility for that Government department. 

There is a litany of major infrastructure projects that have gone wrong in this country. Undeniable examples include the Motorways which were to have cost €5.6 Billion ended up costing €16 Billion. The National Children’s Hospital which was estimated to cost €670 Million is now likely to top€2 billion when built. If a head is to roll for shocking overruns such as the ones above it will not be the civil servants that advised the minister of the day it will be the minister’s. Pattern of overspending in major Irish infrastructure projects (irishtimes.com)

There are several Joint Oireachtas Committees which have been established to consider matters of expenditure, administration of policy connected with the Department of State and associated public bodies. For a full outline of their powers and functions please follow the following link. (2017-03-30_functions-powers-and-scope-of-departmental-committees_en.pdf (oireachtas.ie)) I sit on a number of these committees and I believe that the committees functions are being thwarted by the use of the following text ‘the costings are confidential and commercially sensitive’ when it comes to scrutinising massive public procurements. For example, the information notes for of Ireland’s next Search and Rescue contract has been based on a business case which will not be published or subjected to oversight by the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Transport. We are told that it contains information which is commercially sensitive and/or could prejudice the outcome of the procurement process. Details of the business case will however be used as part of the information documentation for the procurement (see: Information Note on Business Case and Government Decision July 2021: gov.ie – Irish Coast Guard: Search and Rescue (SAR) Aviation Project (www.gov.ie).  How are we to know what assumptions were made when preparing this case? What brief was given to the consultants drafting the case? If the business case is not made available to the Joint Oireachtas Committee, there can be no political oversight of the procurement process. 

It is clear that no one person could properly manage all of the projects our ministers and ministers of state are expected to oversee. A glance through the portfolios of the line minister for this department and the minister of state will reveal a staggering level of responsibility for both. The line minister has a portfolio with a number of responsibilities these include, Department of the Environment, Climate and Communications, and Transport. The Minister of State overseeing the Search and Rescue project has a portfolio which includes the Department of Transport with special responsibility for International and Road Transport and Logistics; and the Department of the Environment, Climate and Communications with special responsibility for Postal Policy and Eircode. 

The system must change. Government must be prepared to go to the people and increase the number of ministries to ensure that there is proper oversight with one minister one job and the minister of state must be assigned to one and only one department. All major expenditure projects must have their business case scrutinised by a Joint Oireachtas Committee to properly test the business cases put forward this can be done without compromising the procurement process. Senior civil servants must be held accountable for the advice they provide to their ministers and the government. 

It is time to move government decision making into the modern era and hold poor decision makers and their advisors responsible for their actions.