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LETTER: Lessons from Irish Water experience

May 7th, 2016 10:02 PM

By Southern Star Team

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SIR – This is not a letter to discuss the merits of Irish Water, an argument on the company’s feasibility or its possible necessity, but a point to be raised regards how the worth of any idea lives or dies on the method and quality of its delivery.

Let it first be said that, historically, there has been some extremely poor public policy allowed to occur all on the back of well managed message delivery; in recent years we’ve had, in my opinion, the dissolution of the health boards, the establishment of the National Roads Authority (and, in regards that, the selling of toll roads to private operators), and the abolition of town councils.

All extremely naive and short-sighted policies that were successfully passed by capturing a specific aspect of the public mood, and delivering in a language that empathised with the fears of the key demographics (never their hopes; it is Ireland after all). It was a simple, successful formula for political persuasion, the wheels stayed greased, all was well on Kildare Street and then Irish Water happened, and oh how the wheels came off.

Irish Water was the first time in the history of the modern state that bullet points and power phrases could not outweigh the inquisition of its public. The polished PR answers that for many years only faced questioning in ‘Editors Letters’ sections of the popular press were not being dissected by an engaged public in a myriad social media forums.

Thousands of likeminded individuals spent hour upon hour, comment upon comment, discussing the merits of government proposal, the vagueness of its language, the justification of its figures. It had been an examination of policy like none other, and all because the mechanism of delivery could have hardly been more wrong.

Irish Water and its charges were announced without expectation of significant organised opposition, a misguided belief that the austerity years had quelled the public’s ability to question ‘what had to be done for the common good.’ It had little figures, and the figures it presented were either extremely vague or completely wrong; its timeframe for establishment a guess, its effectiveness in service delivery an unknown quantity, but this had never mattered before, yet it definitely mattered now.

Classic political policy delivery was dead. This Irish generation has been force-fed political engagement through austerity and recession, through children that have left our shores and lost their lives, no policy will ever again would go without its trial in public eye.

So what should be the mechanism for policy delivery? How do you calm the digitalised masses who have found an easily accessible medium to share their opinion and discuss their concerns?

I believe the language of honesty and plain speaking will go a long away to salve the wounds of public trust. The idea of political spin cannot work in a country this small, where conversations are always on your doorstep and every attempt to use spin to save ‘the vote’ usually results in inflaming the ulcer of public distrust.

Fear as a mechanism must also be discontinued; it has caused social side effects that have been nothing short of catastrophic, especially in regards emigration and national health. ‘Term thinking’ is also an abhorrent way to message policy that a good idea has a sell-by date aligned with an election term and how the idea can only ever occur if elected again!

It would be easy to write much more on the subject of political policy delivery and how we can thank Irish Water for killing off the smug, shiny PR delivered days of statements without answers, but I would like to leave the matter on a positive note (as I should heed my own advice!).

The mobilisation of political activists caused by Irish Water can be a truly powerful weapon in providing constructive, long term, positive policy. A network of think tanks readily engaged that could develop future politicians themselves, born to a background of examination and discussion, not nepotism and parish pump!

So here’s to Irish Water, the car crash mechanism of its delivery and the sharp lessons we all learned from the experience. Long may they last.

Regards,

Aidan Pendlebury,

Clarke Street,

Clonakilty.

 

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