Public Policy Priorities in 2016 and Beyond

A seminar entitled Ireland’s Policy Priorities after the next General Election, on November 2nd provided a welcome break from the recent talk of Budget giveaways and election promises. Organised by the Policy Institute, Trinity College Dublin, in association with the Public Policy Advisors Network, the aim was to discuss what are and what should be the policy priorities of the next Government.

Some interesting contributions included that from Dan O’Brien, in which he examined medium term policy challenges, noting the ageing demographics generally as well as a sharp decline, over the last five years, in the number of those aged in their twenties. This is attributed to the birth rate as well as emigration and the ageing of that cohort of East European migrants that came here before the crash.

Another key policy theme which is likely to become a policy priority is Ireland’s response to the EU’s 2030 energy and climate change targets. The recent recession, which gave rise to a reduction in emissions (purely because of a contraction in economic activity), relegated the urgency of this policy priority. The return to economic growth will ensure that this is likely to become a more important policy priority. It was proposed that the next Government should appoint a senior Minister with responsibility for the low carbon agenda.

Considering the economics of the next programme for Government, Stephen Kinsella and Ronan Lyons examined the patterns of national economic growth since 2002 – characterised initially from 2002-2007 by a rapidly growing economy, followed by the economic crisis of 2007-2011 which in turn was followed by a period of readjusting public spending and restoring economic confidence in 2011-2016.

It is suggested that the period from 2016 could be that of ‘coming full circle’, with a rapidly growing economy and a need to manage expectations. In learning from our past mistakes, fiscal policy is key and the authors advocate the use of the concept of the Social Return on Investment (SROI). This differs from the current cost based accounting approach to public spending to a more holistic economic approach where the wider costs and benefits of a proposal would be measured. In doing, so the full implications of a cut are captured e.g. €100 cut to caregivers allowance, which then drives people into the public health system thereby negating any ‘savings’. This is arguably a more useful way of evaluating public policy instruments, allowing a more holistic measure of the effects of policies.

Examining Local Government and Spatial Planning, Seán Ó’Riordáin and John Martin point to the need for a new  long-term spatial plan for Ireland (the National Planning Framework) and the need to learn lessons from the National Spatial Strategy. The role of local government in supporting long term development of both rural and urban areas needs to be addressed.

Bringing the concept of Social Return on Investment to the debate on spatial planning, regional, rural and urban development might help advance this debate and the policy choices which arise. In considering investment decisions to support development of the regions, both urban and rural, measuring the Social Return on Investment might lead to different outcomes when considering cuts to or additional investment in various services in regional and rural locations.

For example, decisions on the closure of public services offices in regional and rural locations such as post offices, government outreach offices, garda stations etc. are usually based on cutting operational expenditure, including staff costs or economies of scale.  These cuts can deliver immediate financial savings for the organisation but this narrow view does not take account of the accumulated long term impact on the local economy, the overall needs of society and the disabling impact on local communities.

Taking account of the social rate of return allows for a more holistic economic and societal perspective, rather than solely on the efficiencies and financial savings generated for the individual organisation.  In doing so, the wider impacts beyond a particular locality can be captured, for example, unemployment and migration from rural areas and other regional centres can add to already significant pressures on housing and transport services in the capital. This in turn requires additional investment in infrastructure and services, which is often more expensive to deliver in congested urban areas. Examining all costs and benefits and the social rate of return could help us to make better, more informed choices.

 

The presentations are available at the PPAN website http://www.ppan.ie/latest-news/

Deirdre Frost