Writing about the shortcomings in the Gardaí’s treatment of whistleblowers, yesterday’s Irish edition of The Times commented:
The problem with the organisation as it is currently configured is that all senior posts are filled by members who have spent their entire careers in the force. Under that system, there is very little opportunity for critical self-examination. It is about time this changed.
In fact, this same ‘closedness’ is widespread throughout the Irish public sector – in the civil service, the semi-states, the regulatory agencies and so forth. While these bodies may not be quite as sealed as the Gardaí are, true outsiders are rarely found.
One result is what Dan O’Brien calls the ‘decent skin’ problem – excess sympathy for under-performers. A given manager/CEO is acknowledged to do their job poorly, but as they are a decent skin on a human level, there is reluctance to judge them too harshly.
A second result is ‘capture’, in its many manifestations. Concerning the regulatory aspect, recruiting a proportion of high-quality foreign staff is a substantial barrier to capture generally as well as, in my experience at least, adding to what The Times called a culture of ‘critical self-examination’ in an agency. Even if the persons concerned struggle to pronounce some phrases (e.g. Aer Rianta, An Bórd Pleanála).
A tiny society, where practically everyone is someone’s cousin, on a tiny island, where practically everyone is someone’s neighbour, is at risk of a culture where the indigenous flinch from holding failures to account.
One way to compensate for the costs of smallness, capable of reasonably rapid application, would be to aim to have a minimum proportion of senior managers in key organisations recruited from abroad. Outside the central bank it is hard to think of examples where this has happened.