I was horrified, but also amused, by this story from the Irish Times last week. A response sent in the name of a Junior Minister, Michael Finneran, lays into those who would dare to make representations to him and his colleagues through an e-mail campaign coordinated by homelessness campaigning alliance MakeRoom.ie.
It should be fully understood that if my department is to respond to correspondence and queries arising on foot of the sort of campaign recently launched by MakeRoom, it can only be done by diverting some of those scarce staff resources away from the priority work of actually implementing the new homeless strategy and getting the best possible value from the increased funding that we are providing for homelessness.
(Sent to those who make representations, and reproduced and reported on in this article).
I don’t really know where to begin. Even in the context of a tight financial situation, dealing with comments from the public (yeah, those from whom the Government’s powers derive!) is hardly the most expensive item. Indeed, it’s probably less expensive than it would have been in the past, given the technology in use (email) and the way in which public servants can make use of those same technologies in responding. Even if it was expensive, it would be a little more credible if, for example, the same Department wasn’t spending €300,000 (after a big cut!) on consultancy service – how many emails could you send with three hundred grand? Indeed, the allocation for postal and telecommunications services is a bit shy of two million euro – I’m sure, even with the terribly high staff costs of reading a submission and knocking out a response, these emails won’t blow the budget. [Figures from Estimates here]
Furthermore, members of the Oireachtas (parliament) are of course lucky to receive allowances for various types of administrative support, including an allocation of ‘free envelopes’. Some are used well but many are used for pure partisan ends. While this is not a violation of relevant procedures, it’s surely not controversial to say that the application of public monies to reading and replying to submissions on public policy is as least as important, if not more so, as the support of individual members of the Oireachtas with respect to their representative and parliamentary duties.
This idea that transparency is expensive is not unfamiliar – it is trotted out again and again with respect to freedom of information, for example. However, what’s odd here is that this particular thing – dealing with correspondence critical of current Government policy – is as old as the hills. If anything, it’s less of a burden now than it would have been when the response needed to be dictated, translated and etched on the backside of a cow (or however it was done in the old days). If Michael Finneran doesn’t like hearing from members of the public, he should get out of politics. Either that, or he should reacquaint himself with Article 6(1) of the Constitution of Ireland: All powers of government, legislative, executive and judicial, derive, under God, from the people, whose right it is to designate the rulers of the State and, in final appeal, to decide all questions of national policy, according to the requirements of the common good. The right to petition a Minister is fundamental in a democracy – but that should not just be about preventing the imposition of legal restrictions, but also discouraging a Minister from making silly statements like Finneran is doing in this sorry affair. The use of new communications technology by citizens is to be welcomed, not criticised. The Minister should apologise, and make a statement that he and his officials welcome all representations from the public on issues relevant to his brief.