“Water that flows is money that gets lost” – El Roto.
The ‘spending on consultants’ story: you would get the impression that all there is to consultancy is a cadre of sharp suits and even sharper glasses rocking up to Irish Water Towers and coming up with a long list of things that senior public servants need to implement.
You might also get the impression there are people who already work in the public sector who know what they’re doing and could do an even better job, given the chance. The reality is a great deal more complex, I think: I doubt existing public sector entities have either the organisational capacity or institutional knowledge to implement the kind of infrastructure, in terms of technology and process, that would lead to the successful set-up of a commercial firm, which is what Irish Water is intended to be.
(To go off on a brief excursion, isn’t it strange to think of hydrogen and oxygen atoms as bearing a nationality? Isn’t it strange how water that reaches the island of Ireland which was formed somewhere overseas now gets classified as ‘Irish’ whereas human beings arriving from overseas can get imprisoned or subjected to slavery-like conditions or deported because they can never be Irish?)
The current focus of the press and politicians is on the figure of €50m, or €80m or €120m on the whole, but it may well turn out that the payment to these firms is in line with what is normally paid in accordance with public sector procurement guidelines.
What is interesting is the intensity of focus given to this particular aspect – the set-up costs- when there was scant attention and little public debate given to a) whether it was a good idea to charge for water in the first instance; b) the ramming through of legislation with utter contempt for even formal niceties in terms of oversight and debate from the political opposition. Also the decision by the previous government to refuse to recognise access to water as a human right at the United Nations was passed over in silence.
So the attention devoted to the spend seems to me a matter of finding out how well the door can be shut now that the horse has bolted. It is at this point -and no earlier- that the Oireachtas committees are being conferred the role of tough watchdogs: in ensuring that the commodification and commercialisation of water is competently dealt with. I imagine the outcome of this will be that the spending will be deemed to be partially though not wholly justified (because whilst the money paid might be close to the going market rates the Taxpayer always wants more Value For Money) with little attention given to the structures being put in place by the consultancy firms hired, e.g. do the structures mean that Irish Water is more or less likely to be privatised in future? Who is going to be responsible for running the business processes: will it be Irish Water employees or will it be outsourced firms? These firms are already very much engrained in the public sector at present, so a broader question would be whether the institutional logic imposed tends towards a greater commercialisation or privatisation of the public sector, or not. In fact, the ‘or not’ is superfluous: it is more a question of how far this brings us down the road away from citizens with rights towards consumers based on ability to pay. This is a fundamental question that neither Ireland’s political representatives nor its media establishment is equipped or inclined to ask.