The Oireachtas is only one – albeit the most important – body in the political process in Ireland. But how exactly does it fit in, especially from the perspective of voluntary and community organisations?
The ‘map’ of policy-making in Ireland comprises several main clusters of bodies, each with an important role:
- The government, which at its core is the 15 ministers of the cabinet and below them 15 Ministers of State, or ‘junior ministers’;
- Government departments, each of which has a minister responsible, staffed by civil servants;
- State agencies, which number about 600, which include development bodies, regulatory agencies, commercial bodies, service providers (e.g. HSE) and advisory groups, staffed by public servants;
- The social partners, who comprise of five ‘pillars’: business and employers, trades unions, farmers, environmental ngos and the ‘Community and Voluntary Pillar’ which comprises 17 community and voluntary organisations;
- The political parties, numbering nine (with two alliances), which generate policies for their parties and have a mobilizing role at elections;
- Think tanks, like Tasc and the Economic and Social Research Institute. Private consultancies may also be commissioned to provide policy research and advice for government;
- The European Union, which has an important role in determining, with Ireland’s participation, policies in key areas such as trade, development, agriculture, the environment and equal opportunities;
- The media, which provide the channels whereby policy issues are debated and discussed, or not.
An executive-led parliamentary democracy
Ireland is, like neighbouring Britain, an executive-led parliamentary democracy in which most key decisions are taken by the government meeting in cabinet and then approved by the Oireachtas, with parties voting in a disciplined way to support the government, or oppose it. Many key decisions will be made by the weekly cabinet meeting, but are then adjusted (but rarely overturned) by the Oireachtas. Decisions are normally preceded by a Memorandum to government by a minister and his or her department proposing a particular course of action which is then agreed and which all members of the government then support, under the principle of collective responsibility.
Role of government departments
Despite the importance of cabinet government and the Oireachtas, many decisions and proposals emerge from government departments. Each department will have an agenda of business which it will build up over time, developing its own momentum of reform and desirable improvements in public administration, most of which will be uncontroversial. Some reforms are prompted by Ireland’s participation in such organisations as the European Union, Council of Europe or United Nations and in some cases by our legal obligations therein. Proposals will be routed up through the ranks of each department, which senior staff will persuade their minister to take to the cabinet for approval.
A dynamic process
This is a relatively static picture of policy-making, which in reality is much more dynamic. In theory, policies are developed when a new issue or problems emerges. Once it is brought to the attention of government, options are considered (which may involve the appointment of committees or task forces), decisions are made and announced and implementation mechanisms set up. After a while, the outcomes are evaluated and changes are then introduced. This is called ‘the policy cycle’. Things are rarely decided on such a clinically neat basis, for the political world is full of sudden and unexpected changes and interventions. Voluntary and community organisations often find that the hardest part is getting their issue on the agenda in the first place, which is why working with the broad range of groups outlined here, like the media, is important. After that, the key challenges are to prompt the ‘right’ response from government and then ensure that policies are effectively implemented. Here, working effectively with the Oireachtas is critical.
The most useful guide to public administration is the Institute of Public Administration (IPA) Yearbook, published and updated annually, which provides details of all these bodies, what they do and the key people to contact at all levels. Local government bodies and organisations are included. For more info, please visit: www.ipa.ie.