Tuesday, 4 October 2022
Ceisteanna Eile - Other Questions
Public Expenditure Policy
84. To ask the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform the extent to which reform remains a fundamental feature in terms of public expenditure and budgetary management throughout all Departments; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [48272/22]
I seek to ascertain the degree to which reform can play a major part in cutting expenditure, eliminating delays and ensuring the best value for money is achieved in the shortest possible time as opposed to the longest possible time in respect of many projects.
Budgetary and expenditure reform remains a key feature in terms of public expenditure and budgetary management throughout all Departments. This important goal is progressed in a number of ways, including through day-to-day management of resources, regular engagement across Departments and the public service reform programme. It is also progressed through a range of important budgetary reform initiatives, including but not limited to: the public spending code; the national development plan; performance budgeting; equality budgeting; green budgeting; well-being budgeting; and the spending review process.
These reforms place an emphasis on broadening the approach to how public expenditure is appraised, implemented and reviewed, and also the impact of public expenditure across different cohorts of society and different categories of expenditure. They work in tandem with broader initiatives, such as the establishment of the Irish Government Economic and Evaluation Service, IGEES, to develop capacity and enhance the role of economics and value for money analysis in public policy making. While each reform may be considered in isolation, it is important to recognise that each represents one part of the overall reform process. Together, these budgetary reforms aim to provide a more comprehensive and thorough insight into how public services are supporting the Irish population. It is with this more complete understanding that policymakers can work towards the achievement of value for money objectives in the context of the entire budgetary process, and enhance the impact of policies and programmes on the lives of people in Ireland.
In addition, and in accordance with the Department's statement of strategy, officials are currently preparing the next phase of public service reform, to succeed Our Public Service 2020, which will incorporate priorities that were articulated in the recently published public service innovation strategy, Making Innovation Real, and sets its focus on the wider public service. My Department has also published an ambitious programme of renewal for the Civil Service. Additionally, the Office of the Government Chief Information Officer in my Department is currently finalising a new public service digital strategy. These new plans and strategies will strengthen the reform agenda further and ensure that we capitalise on the positive changes and learnings that we have witnessed since the onset of the pandemic over two years ago.
I thank the Minister for his comprehensive reply. I have in mind, for example, major savings that can be made in regard to the elimination of delays between the award of the funding in the first instance and the award of the contract. I know of situations, as I am sure the Minister does, where €20 million allocated ten years ago still has not been spent and is now only worth about €10 million in terms of achieving the target that was originally intended. The Minister has all the material at hand and he is focused on that particular area. I ask that he might review all those projections to try to ensure the nearest we can get to dead reckoning is achieved in the first instance, which will eliminate a lot of the debate that takes place afterwards. To proceed with the contracts in the shortest possible time will save a lot of money for the taxpayer and create a saving for local communities in terms of the delivery of a project they have been looking forward to.
I assume the Deputy is primarily referring to the delays in delivering capital projects. There is a balance to be struck between ensuring that we have proper oversight mechanisms in place, on the one hand, and, on the other, the speed of execution and getting projects on the ground. In the last couple of years, we have had significant underspends on the capital budget. While Covid was a significant contributory factor to that, there are other reasons and some of it is about process and the length of time it takes for a project to be delivered from conception to actually getting contractors on the ground. We are looking at the public spending code at the moment to see what opportunities there are to streamline the processes and to see if different stages can be done in parallel, rather than having to be done sequentially, for example. We are also seeking to devolve more responsibility and authority directly to line Departments in an effort to speed up the process, recognising there is that balance to be struck. We have to protect the interests of taxpayers and make sure we get value for money. At the end of the day, we want to deliver the national development plan and get our capital projects completed.
In fact, the delivery of elements of the national development plan are at the centre of the reason for putting down the question. In particular, I ask that the Minister would keep a close watch on what causes the delays. If a capital project is deemed to be good, healthy and necessary, why not proceed with it instead of having a situation where, in some cases, the relevant authorities seem to want to slow it down? If they achieve the result within ten or 15 years, it looks like an achievement, when it most certainly is not. The question of dead reckoning in the beginning would go an awful long way to eliminating the confusion that can arise afterwards and the vast amount of extra expenditure that has to be made in order to achieve the result that was originally intended.
Specifically on value for money, I want to ask the Minister of State, Deputy O'Donovan, about the planning permission notice that was put in the Irish Independenton 28 September by the Commissioners of Public Works to develop a science museum in Earlsfort Terrace, when there is a perfectly good Explorium in Sandyford that has been in receipt of PUP and EWSS but cannot reopen. It has had visits from over 30,000 children and 700 schools, with 250,000 visitors in its first year up to Covid. I cannot understand the budgetary management process. Was there a tendering process for any of that? Should there be a competitive tendering process? I have put in parliamentary questions on this, not just in September but back in June. I cannot understand the position of the Office of Public Works. I would be glad to hear the Minister of State's view.
I will respond to Deputy Durkan and it is a matter for the Leas-Cheann Comhairle if she wants to allow the Minister of State, Deputy O'Donovan, to respond to Deputy Carroll MacNeill.
Some Departments are quite adept at spending their capital budget. The Department of Education is very good at delivering school building programmes, extensions and new schools. It has well-developed processes and can navigate its way through the public spending code quite well. People will always raise issues about individual projects but, by and large, when I look at the performance in the round, I see a Department that is delivering and is spending its capital allocation, whereas other Departments are not achieving the same. They will point to problems in the supply chain, to recent construction materials inflation, to labour shortages and to an issue around capacity generally in the private sector in recent times. Having said that, as a Government, we have made a conscious decision to prioritise the public capital investment programme. The budget next year, with a carry-forward, will well exceed €12 billion. We want to ensure that the public service, working with the private sector, can deliver on that national development plan. I look forward to engaging with the Deputy on that.