Political Science Fights Back

There is a consensus that the practitioners and discipline of economics have been key beneficiaries of the financial and fiscal crises.  The views of leading economists as to where we are and what we should do are widely sought across the media and within government. A conference organised at TCD earlier this week on the issue of political reform was part of a deliberate effort by political scientists to demonstrate the relevance of their discipline and the Irish Times has been publishing opinion pieces and articles drawing on the conference . Earlier in the week UCD’s John Coakley argued that informal institutions (in the form of political culture) have significantly shaped (and restricted) the state’s capacities. Today’s piece by Neil Collins of UCC argues that there has been a striking neglect of the potential of formal institutions in shaping effective governance. He concludes that ‘It is time for a rebalancing of academic attention from the economic to the political agenda.’

As an outsider to both disciplines it is striking that both have a good deal to say about the way that institutions matter in shaping both expectations and capacity for action. I am led to think that if a rebalancing is required then it might be towards thinking more about the way that formal and informal institutions limit what can be achieved (and deliver unintended consquences), but that a better understanding of those limits might support modest reform proposals which more effectively link the specification of desirable outcomes to the mechanisms through such outcomes might be reasonably be expected to be achieved.

By Colin Scott

Colin Scott is Principal, UCD College of Social Sciences and Law and Professor of EU Regulation and Governance at UCD. He is a Co-Editor of Legal Studies (Wiley-Blackwell).

17 replies on “Political Science Fights Back”

It really doesn’t matter how you reform our current system of representation – and there’s no denying John Coakley’s analysis of what’s wrong with it and how a few simple reforms might make it all work much better – the problem is that the five year political cycle is too short. Could anyone argue that the imminence of the 2007 general election was not a factor in the disastrous policies of inflating the property bubble when government should, in fact, have been doing the opposite? Or that in 2001, the explosion in public spending and particularly in wholesale recruitment into the public sector had nothing to do with ‘winning’ a general election the following year? To a certain extent, we’re all the victims of Bertie Ahern’s political vanity project. But we can also be certain that had there been an FG/Labour Coalition in power from 2002-2007, their profligacy would also have been similarly excessive if their election manifestoes and policy demands at that time were anything to go by.
Back in the bad old days before the boom, governments did not set out to ‘buy’ elections a year in advance of them, but only because they didn’t have the resources to do so. If there’s an upturn in the economy before 2012, don’t expect the political rhetoric to be any different going into the next election either.

Under our system you get possibly two to three years of reasonably sensible decision making by government and a final year or two of madness – not just a chicken in every pot, or a new car in every paved over driveway but a swimming pool in every back yard. The opposition tend to compete by promising a special baby pool for the kids.

The other problem with the five year cycle is that it prevents politicians from taking decisions that have a longer term payback time – I believe that’s one of the reasons why environment and energy policies are practically non-existent in this country and why we rely so heavily on the EU to provide pointers to policy decisions in these areas. What’s the point for the average government minister in proposing something that may be painful for the first few years of its implementation but may yield substantial benefits only long after he /she has been driven from office for putting it forward in the first place? We judge political success on the basis of winning or losing elections, not what happens in between. Neither economists nor political scientists are subject to such life and death constraints on their proposals and analyses of our problems.

I’ve been following these pieces all week. All I could distill was that we need to rebalance our focus, debate different issues, specify new mechanisms… very vague and general overall conclusions. There were plenty of good ideas in the articles (bigger constituencies in PRSTV, more cabinent transparency etc…) but they never really had enough confidence in their analysis to recommend a policy change and stand over the recommendation… everything concluded with: change is difficult or impossible / let’s have a debate.

I was at that conference, Vincent Browne summed it up brilliantly in the Q&A at the end ‘this is all fantasy, despite the ideas and answers being put forward today, nothing will be done’.

Less talk & more heavy lifting, that, rather than the rule of one discipline over another is what’s really needed.

I don’t get too wound up about ‘expectations or capacity for action’, rather, it would be good to just see some ‘action’.

I think Veronica’s claim that our misgovernance can be linked to the short term nature of the “political cycle” is an interesting one. The conclusion would presumably be that we would have better policy if we only had elections every ten years rather than five.

Obviously this is in a sense a general argument against democracy – governments make bad decisions because they want to please the electorate. An obvious empirical challenge to this argument presents itself – if democracy precludes rational policy then why do democracies have a far better economic record than non-democracies?

Perhaps the problem is that the political cycle is actually too long – in the run up to the last two elections the government could hand out fiscal presents while being fairly confident that whatever economic damage this might do could be undone by the time of the next election. If we had an election every year, or even more often, this would reduce the expected benefit accruing to politicised economic policy to one year’s power rather than five.

My pet political reform is a true seperation of legislative and executive branches through a directly elected Taoiseach with members of the government selected exclusively from outside parliament.

Electoral cycles.
How about having different electoral cycles for the Dail/Representative/Legislativeand the Rialtas/Government/Executive side – after we have decided to split them following a real separation of powers and having separate elections for each branch?
Since 1937, the average length of the Dail has been about 3.25 years.

Attending the conference, I thought that there was a strong view among the academic political scientists to keep PR-STV. I agree with this, but would separate the remaining fused arms of government, in order to improve both.

@Karl Deeter
What heavy thing do you want lifted?

We, citizens, own the power of government, which we delegate to smaller (TDs) and smaller groups (Cabinet). We can decide to redesign that particular form of delegation, while building in checks and balances to ensure that power is used effectively, efficiently and fairly.

Just as with the economy, we have a lot of rebalancing to do. It is more work, not merely or simply action, that we need.

Let us have less grand gestures/action (eg. the bank guarantee scheme?, nationalising Anglo-Irish?, NAMA?) and more quiet competence/work on how we we govern ourselves.
Monday’s political reform conference was a good start to what we now need – an intensive debate on how we govern ourselves!

@ James Conran

I’m not arguing in favour of extending the political cycle, simply pointing out one of its effects. As Donal points out, the average lifetime of an Irish government since 1937 has only been about 3.7 years – in fact it’s really only in recent times that we have full five year terms becoming established as the norm.

@ Donal

I think separating the assembly from the Executive has certain merits, but it would be very difficult to gain acceptance for this structure from either the political class or the electorate. Int he end, people do rather like the notion of the Dail as a glorified County Council and ringing up their TDs on Xmas Day to complain about broken drains. And having Ministers in the constituency means that serious things like new job projects and capital investment will flow into the locality – look at the road networks in those counties that have been fortunate enough to have the Minister for the Environment in their constituency area down through the years! As for the politicians themselves, all the present crop are interested in is power and becoming ‘top dogs’ in their own right. The idea that they would have to genuinely do a day’s work holding the executive to account – without ever having any real prospect of joining it – would be anathema to them all.

During the 1980s crisis, three of us thought and wrote about how we govern ourselves with a strong conviction that a separation of the executive from the legislature is what we need in this Republic.

More recently, those responsible (Elaine Byrne, Matt Wall and Jane Suiter) for the Irish Political Reform Conference in TCD on Monday 22 June 2009, were kind enough to post one paper and links to three other papers here


Yes, I am aware of the power of incumbents ie. as Machiavelli put it “There is nothing more difficult to take in hand or more uncertain of success than to take a lead in the introduction of a new order of things, because the innovation has for its enemies all those who have done well under the old conditions and lukewarm defenders those who may do well under the new”.

The IMF has made it clear, as if we did not already know, that the depth of the hole we are in, is of our own making. We need to find some new and different ways out of it.

First thing to do is to stop digging in the vein marked “No change is possible.”

Dr. Tom Walsh founded the Wexford Opera Festival in 1951 (not exactly boom-time Ireland nor then a well-known centre of opera) with the aim of giving people something they might not quite expect, but that they would like when they experience it. Hence the success of the Festival which made it reputation by putting operas rarely performed elsewhere and giving a platform to emerging artists.

As the growth of the Wexford Opera Festival indicates, Irish people can respond favourably to options put before them.

This could happen with regard to the way we govern ourselves.
So let us also work on developing options for how we govern ourselves – in addition to the economic options discussed in this forum.

Reform and change? To What purpose? We have a reasonable political system, which would work if the majority of our citizens were less apathetic. Look what happened when the Grey Tigers marched!! We just need a good kick in the crotch or perhaps the prospect of one!

Reform of a democratic structure (if that is what you wish to call it) needs an actual seismic political event – something really traumatic. Like National bankruptcy.

I am not against change or reform – its the process of the change that bothers me: could be very nasty.

Brian P

What are the likely effects of a deeper seperation between legislative and executive branches?

One obvious benefit is that pool of potential ministers would not be constrained to those possessing the rather peculiar skill-set necesary to thrive in electoral politics. It is important to note however that policy decisions are always political – even in a system with a true seperation of powers the elected politicians (rightly) remain “the deciders” as GW Bush would put it.

Another effect would be weakened party discipline. The executive’s survival would no longer be dependent on a guarenteed parliamentary majority. It would no longer be impossible to have parliament and government controlled by different parties. Policy would result from coflict and compromise between the branches.

If this reform were to be accompanied by fixed terms for either executive or parliament it could be expected that the electoral “campaign season” would become greatly extended – perhaps to the near permanent campaigning that marks American politics.

I suspect that any reform of our system of government will be incremental and over a long period. The risk then – like the ending of the dual mandate without commensurate Dail and electoral reform – is that you end up worse off than when you started. (We now have ‘paid’ councillors, but less ‘local’ government!) Major reform of the Senate – which is highly undemocratic as well as being politically useless – has been on the table for years, but no party wants the reform so nothing has happened.

And no, I’m not all that keen on moving to a Presidential style system along the lines of the US either. We could do a lot to improve what we already have i.e. to restore PRSTV as it should operate, without too much disruption or even any constutional change.

The problem , as several posters point out, is that there is no reform at all of our system in prospect because the political class do not want reform. I believe that a large part of the reason why the issue is coming to the fore now is because the economic crisis shines a light on the failures of our politicians to deal with the crisis; on their inertia, general incompetence, nepotism and greed for power and worst of all their complete disdain for what’s in the best interests of the country as opposed to their own personal aspirations.

This site has done an awful lot in a short space of time to promote intelligent debate about our policy options on the economic front; it would be great to see something similar emerge that would properly critique the way in which our political institutions work and advance the case for reform on a continuous basis. I’d be happy to subscribe to that!

I am not trying to eliminate politicians, just change some of what they work on, and create a system that enables us to draw on a much wider range of people when forming governments, while limiting the scope for excess and/or inertia by those in power, whether they be elected or appointed.

This crisis suggests that credibility of the political class (this includes more than elected representatives, party members and advisors) leaves something to be desired, precisely because so much of the crisis has been exacerbated by their behaviour (as a corporate state) in recent years. How much credibility can a political class claim when it has to call on an outsider, twice in 30 years, to review public expenditure? As you point out, local government is another example of poor governance.

IMO, last Monday’s conference in TCD will lead to the emergence of something like this site to complement other sites covering politics in this republic. Who will be behind it or when it will emerge remains to be seen.

As your post suggests, discussing how we govern ourselves is likely to be even more difficult than macroeconomic discussion, as there is little or no grounding in statistics, projections, flows of goods and services, money etc.

Discussions on the ways in which power is acquired, used (Who gets what? When? How?), controlled, retained and lost are challenging. At least we have the freedoms and means to have such discussions in public and in private. There is no other way to consider changes and make them, even starting from a smug and complacent political class who do not even waxnt to think about it!

@Donal O’Brolchain

the ‘heavy lifting’ i’m talking about is for the current administration to roll out suggested reforms fast, and to spend a little less time in ongoing debate because as with the NAMA, drawn out consultation periods actually add to uncertainty.

I still feel that Vincent Browne hit the nail on the head with his comment, that doesn’t mean I didn’t think the conference/debate wasn’t up to scratch, indeed the conference was excellent.

What reforms are you referring to?
Are they worth rolling out?
If they are, can they rolled out fast?

How good is the record of reforms of public administration since
1. 1961 when Lemass raised the question of the most “efficacious administrative arrangements to give effect to a dynamic policy of economic progress is on which some fresh thinking, and informative discussions, could help to clear our minds”
2. 1969 when the Devlin Report on Public Adminstration was published
3. 1987 when Colm McCarthy (of this parish) last headed a Public Expenditure Review Group?

Taking the last, how has the capacity and skill of government changed during the intervening 20+ years?

The fact that this work, using the same mechanism, has to be done twice within a 30 year period shows that our government system has learnt very little in the intervening period. As such, it suggests incompetence in either drawing up procedures and processes to control expenditure or in their application in a consistent and systematic way or both.

Our government system displays a chronic tendency to levels of public expenditure, not matched by revenues raised by taxation. This leads to borrowing for current cost purposes that is unsustainable. This suggests that the government lacks the capacity to control itself.

It also suggests that our way of governing ourselves places a higher value on grand gestures rather in quiet competence.

I suggest that our way of governing ourselves needs considerable change if it is to maintain and enhance a capacity, in a consistent and self-reinforcing way, to provide an acceptable sustainable standard of living for all those who wish to live and work here.

Yes, there is a lot of heavy lifting to be done. But Vincent Browne offered far too much scope for a “do-nothing nihilism” that favours continuance the present.

A little corruption can be borne but when it becomes an industry with bagmen, cronyism and secret funding of Taoisigh, it is clear, CLEAR, that it will not cure itself. So I hope you like the Ireland that you have created, with all of the economic BS that has justified the recent boom. I got sick of it long ago. Literally.

It is only going to get worse. Expectation of sharing corruption flourishes in Ireland. “Me too!” is the cry.

Are you all blind to this? Are you castrati? Intellectuals who are blind or lack courage are unlikely to be admired for long. I mean to criticise the readers of this blog who have not contributed so far. What are you waiting for?

The figures for contraction for Ireland do not have a realistic lower boundary. It is going to get worse. Only the intense but weakening social cohesion will prevent social destruction as a result of a failure to address reform.

Remember Iceland. It was once a rich island in the Atlantic.

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