The National College of Ireland in Dublin's IFSC hosted a hotly contested discussion this week as part of its "Insight Debate" series, which have been designed to "elevate and enliven public discussion on the major topical issues of the day". The topic on Thursday night was "This house believes that Ireland can no longer afford a bloated and inefficient public sector", and such is the importance of the subject matter that some of the leading figures in politics, private sector bodies and trade unions came together to thrash out the issues.
Leading the defence of the motion were chief executive of the Irish Small and Medium Enterprises Association (ISME) Mark Fielding; Chief Economist of KBC Bank Austin Hughes; and economist and Irish Times columnist, Pat McArdle. Arguing against the motion were ex-Minister and former leader of the Labour Party Ruairi Quinn TD; general secretary of the Civil Public and Services Union (CPSU) Blair Horan; and SIPTU general president Jack O'Connor.
Despite their obvious convictions, those arguing against the motion must have found themselves in something of an invidious position, thanks largely to the wording of the motion. After all, arguing against the motion is tantamount to stating that Ireland "can afford a bloated and inefficient public sector." Nevertheless, when the dust had settled, the adjudication was that the outcome was a draw, perhaps reflecting the intransigence and sincerely held stances on both sides of this divisive fence.
The battle lines were, of course, drawn along well demarcated routes, with a typical "public versus private" slant. But underlying the predictability of each of the positions is the stark truth that, if the public service is indeed "bloated and inefficient" (this is a more palatable point to argue than whether the country can afford it), then despite the thousands of jobs that this bloating creates, there could be tens of thousands more jobs that will be lost or uncreated as a result of the inefficiencies and costs.
Speaking against the motion, Blair Horan of the CPSU compared Ireland to other developed countries, citing our reasonably high ranking as a reason why the public services were not inefficient.
"The only independent evidence of comparison between the Irish public service and other developed economies is the OECD Report of 2007," he said. "This shows that Ireland has been in catch up mode since 1995, but is still ranked third from bottom in terms of public expenditure as a proportion of GDP.
"Where Ireland has followed a pragmatic approach to public service provision it has resulted in better services for citizens," he continued. "By contrast the more ideologically driven aspects such as the doubling of the number of agencies since the 1990s have resulted in duplication and waste."
In supporting the motion, Mark Fielding of ISME was very much in favour of a strong public sector – but he said that it had to be efficient, cost effective and focused on delivering value for money.
"From education to local government, years of ignoring accountability, efficiency and value for money in the public sector have led to a culture of waste and crisis management, which has led to a 'statutory entitlement' attitude to taxpayers' money, among civil servants and public sector workers," he said.
Of course, a bloated public sector does not exist in isolation, and Fielding feels that the private sector – especially the small to medium sized business sector – does not benefit from the sorts of protections that seem to be afforded to public sector workers. This is despite the fact that his sector employs more than a million people, or almost 55% of the workforce – which is about three times as many people as are employed in the public sector.
"The private sector doesn't have the option of compelling clients to buy from us," he said after the event. "But we are all compelled to deal with the public sector. And every time someone makes a bad decision – every time a tunnel leaks water or an aquatic centre doesn't have any water, every time there is a cost overrun on the Luas, it comes out of my pockets out of your pockets – and out of the public servant's pockets. In the private sector, we are driven to compete, to cut costs and to be more innovative, but the public sector doesn't seem to be driving towards that goal – instead it seems to be operating a culture of waste, without accountability and without taking responsibility."