Few people will have heard of Séamus Taylor, a lecturer at NUI Maynooth who last week was awarded a CBE in Queen Elizabeth's new year honour's list.

He's no Sir Bob Geldof, who was knighted for shouting so loud the world had to listen to his inarguable case for intervention to help developing nations, but Séamus Taylor's contribution to the betterment of society has been just as important.

It was he who, as a director of equality and diversity in Britain's Crown Prosecution Service, devised a new code of ethics and practice to combat racism and promote equality within the public sector after police there were infamously branded "institutionally racist" because of the way they handled the murder of the black teenager, Stephen Lawrence. Taylor's statutory code is now used in 42,000 public bodies across Britain. Thanks to his work, although individuals might be flawed or fail in their actions, the principle of equality is now enshrined in everything the public sector does.

The former ESRI researcher, a Leitrim man who has worked for years in Britain, joined the academic staff in Maynooth last year – a fine catch indeed for that institution and it is encouraging that people with his experience and ideas still want to make an important contribution here.

His record is relevant to Ireland today because it shows how much can be achieved in even the most divisive and emotional situations when political will, vision, a willingness to listen and leadership are brought together. It's something we lost in the past two years but, as we move into a new year and a new decade, it's a driving force we need to rediscover and harness if our country is to regain its confidence.

Here, necessarily, the focus over the past year has been on devising a strategy for fiscal reform and rehabilitation of the banking system. A big question mark remains over whether or not the details will be fully and fairly implemented, especially after the row-back on salary cuts for higher-paid civil servants.

But if 2010 is to feel different from 2009 and not another 12 long months of conflict and division, then we must undertake a much more diverse programme of improving the way our society, and not just our economy, works. If 2009 was about banks, blame and bloody-mindedness, then 2010 needs to be a year of reform and reconstruction.

Our society isn't just broken financially, it's broken socially, politically and philosophically. Too much time is being wasted talking about what needs to be done without doing it. Nobody has confidence in the ability of our institutions to carry out the changes necessary for renewal. Everybody's scared. And as the polls are consistently showing, people believe our political leaders are tired, running out of the ideas and the energy even to imagine what Ireland could be like in the next 10 years, let alone implement the policies that could create it.

Brian Lenihan told us in the budget that "the worst is over", and certainly there seems to be some consensus that the economy has stabilised. But the grind is really only beginning as 75,000 more people lose their jobs and pay packets shrink.

It would have been helpful, therefore, if, as a government, the ministers who stand behind Brian Cowen and Brian Lenihan could have mounted a concerted "policy-bombing" exercise over this new year period of reflection to show us that, even though 2010 is going to be difficult economically, there are plenty of ideas bubbling under that have the power – like Séamus Taylor's statutory code of practice – to change lives.

In the past week, only two cabinet members have stepped up to the plate. Mary Harney signalled her priorities in health with the initiation of a new national standard for elective surgery, to put an end to the crazy variation in the lengths of time that different people stay in hospital for the same operation. It's financially nuts that one hospital can do all its cataract procedures on a day ward, while another insists patients stay for two nights for no discernible clinical reason. Best practice needs to operate everywhere.

Harney also wants the new consultants' contract to be properly policed so that the agreed proportion of private work isn't exceeded.

Social and family affairs minister Mary Hanafin has also set out her stall on two major reforms – the roll-out of ID cards, which will streamline access to benefits and entitlements as well as curtailing opportunities for fraud, and a review of single parents' allowance.

She's right to review the €2bn lone parents' allowance. It's a massive sum of money and can't be continued simply on the basis that "that's the way we always did things", without a sensitive evaluation of how it is working. And a new ID card system should benefit the health and social welfare systems, as long it's introduced with adequate protection against the misuse of information.

Apart from these initiatives, the lacuna of ideas is as vast as it is frightening.

Statistics out last week show mortgage lending down and the number of people in negative equity and facing repossession way up. Why can't we devise a feasible plan that enables the most vulnerable families, in negative equity and facing repossession, to hand the keys of their homes back to their lender and walk away, in the same way as they do in the United States, so that at least the banks bear some of the brunt of their own irresponsibility? Extending mortgage interest tax relief and promoting voluntary moratoriums on foreclosures are a sticking plaster solution to what will be a massive problem this year.

Why do we still jail more people than ever for non-repayment of debt instead of creating a statutory framework for them to pay back debt over time? If we do want to punish them, why can't we sentence debtors to community service, so they might give something to society, instead of sending them to jail, which costs the taxpayer a fortune?

Why can't we have legislation that covers technological advances in human reproduction and allows for new forms of stem cell research? Why can't we have a referendum on children's rights and statutory guidelines for reporting child abuse? Why can't mental hospitals that are unfit for human habitation, let alone the rehabilitation of seriously ill people, be closed down, as has been promised decade after decade after decade?

Why do the people of this country have to suffer a political system that is incapable of looking at itself and of beginning a process of reform? Why can't politicians stop protecting themselves and start governing, by slashing the ridiculous number of local authorities we have? Why do people have to put up with – and pay for – the irrelevant and well-cushioned sinecure that is the Seanad? If they won't get rid of it, can they at least reform it so that it becomes a meaningful and democratic second house of the Oireachtas?

If Séamus Taylor can construct a ground-breaking code to eradicate racist practices in public bodies, why can't we even source grit for our icy roads?

LP Hartley's famous opening to his best-known work, The Go-Between, rings so true this new year: "The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there."

So much of 2009 was about panic-stricken running to stand still on the economic front. The only thing that will make 2010 a better place is if, from that stationary position, this government makes a collective resolution to shine a light of reform into every aspect of society so that reconstruction and renewal can begin.