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When, why and how to set up a state agency:

The case of the Road Safety Authority

Muiris MacCarthaigh1 and Paul Turpin2

  1. Institute of Public Administration, Dublin
  2. Governance Forum, Institute of Public Administration, Dublin

ABSTRACTToC

Abstract

The rapid reduction over the last five years in the number of road-related deaths in Ireland is a major success story of Irish public policy and administration. In this article, we explore the role played by the Road Safety Authority in this and critically analyze the key factors that played a role in its creation, management and early development. Drawing on primary and secondary sources, we identify a number of causal factors that contributed significantly to the Authority’s evolution and achievements. The paper makes some significant findings for the analysis and understanding of Irish agencies that has implications not just for academic study but also applied practitioner learning.

IntroductionToC

Responsibility for road safety is a comparatively modern function of governments. In Ireland road safety has been a particularly emotive issue given the scale of loss in human lives in traffic-related accidents, a loss that was reflected in the fact that for many years Ireland ranked as a poor performer in the EU in terms of road safety outcomes. By 2007, however, Ireland had moved for the first time into the top ten of European countries in terms of the lowest level of road fatalities and by 2008 had achieved the lowest number of road fatalities since records began in Ireland in 1959, a trend that continued into 2009. This change in fortunes begs explanation.

A new approach to tackling the issue of road safety had been heralded by the government in 2005 with the decision to create a dedicated statutory agency – originally to be named the Driver Testing and Standards Authority and subsequently the Road Safety Authority (RSA) - to which several functions of the Department of Transport and other pre-existing agencies would be assigned. In this paper, drawing on primary and secondary sources, we critically analyse the process through which the RSA was established, its corporate governance, roles and relationship to its parent Department, with a view to learning from this experience and exploring the contribution these insights might make to future agency creations and reorganisations.

Why Agencies?ToC

Over the last two decades, systems of public administration across Europe and beyond have been disaggregated through the creation of new forms of semi-autonomous organisations, referred to as ‘quangos’ (quasi-autonomous non-government organisations) or, increasingly, agencies (OECD 2002; Pollitt and Talbot 2004; Verhoest et al. 2010). The use of the agency form within government has generated a wide literature seeking to explain this phenomenon. Prominent amongst them is the New Public Management rationale, which espouses agencies as a means of inducing optimal functioning in the bureaucracy though the use of market-type mechanisms (such as performance contracts and increased task specialisation) (Pollitt and Bouckaert 2004). Others point to the flexibilities offered by agencies due to their ability to work with particular stakeholders and citizens in a manner that a large and undifferentiated bureaucracy finds problematic. Agencies also provide a means for politicians to demonstrate intent or political commitment, either in relation to a domestic political issue or a matter emerging at a transnational level (such as the EU). Equally, it is suggested that agencies provide ministers with a useful trade-off between blame avoidance and credit earning i.e. they allow ministers to distance themselves from service delivery and accountability for performance if such performance is poor. Changing societal expectations are also routinely identified as a causal factor for the government tendency to create independent agencies (particularly in relation to regulators and ombudsman offices).

Reflecting this, in its review of the Irish public service, the OECD identified five over-arching reasons for the creation of agencies in Ireland:

In the process of actually creating and establishing agencies, a number of factors also come into play. These include the political-administrative culture and tradition within a given polity, as well as the role and perceived success of pre-existing structures in the policy field. Also, there are beliefs and norms held about what structural form is best suited to the task to be achieved. Again, recent work by the OECD emphasizes the importance of matching the governance structures of an agency to the task to be performed (2008: 299).

Whatever its inspiration, the process of ‘agencification’ has presented major challenges for governments internationally in terms of control, performance, accountability and co-ordination and a wide variety of practices has emerged between and within states. Significantly, in the absence of detailed analyses of what factors determine the success or otherwise of an agency, there are competing views as to whether the use of the agency form achieves all that is promised.

Agencies in IrelandToC

In Ireland, while the use of agencies has been a feature of the state since independence, since the 1990s there has been an-intensification in this process resulting in a ‘wave’ of agencification that has resulted in the creation of many new agencies. This process peaked (at the national level) around the late 2000s with approximately 250 such bodies operating across all departments (MacCarthaigh 2010). Rather than this being a strategic decision of government, a number of recent studies note the relatively ad hoc manner in which agencies have been created in Ireland, the wide variety of accountability and communication mechanisms, and the absence of performance frameworks (McGauran et al. 2005; Clancy and Murphy 2006; OECD 2008). The agencies also vary in terms of personnel, with some hiring most or all of their staff from outside the public service while others have comprised mainly civil servants seconded or transferred from their departments.

While measures of agency performance are notoriously difficult to devise, the capacity of departments to effectively manage and guide the work of multiple agencies with different remits, independence, personnel and other arrangements has been called into question, particularly by the aforementioned OECD review. In large part, these critiques indicate the absence of a clear legal, administrative and performance framework within which to situate individual agencies. As Table 1 below identifies, there is no specific relationship between the primary functions of state agencies and their legal status

Table 1. Table 1: Function and legal form of recently created agencies

Name

Principal Function

Year created

Legal form

Private Security Authority

Regulation

2004

Statutory corporation

Shannon Airport Authority

Trading

2004

Public limited company

Advisory Council for Science Technology and Innovation

Advisory

2005

Statutory non-departmental body

Health Services Executive

Service Delivery

2005

Statutory corporation

Special Education Appeals Board

Adjudicatory

2006

Statutory Tribunal

Road Safety Authority

Regulatory

2006

Statutory Corporation

Health Repayment Scheme Appeals Office

Adjudicatory

2006

Statutory Non-Departmental Body

National Employment Rights Authority

Adjudicatory

2007

Non-statutory non-departmental body

The Children Acts Advisory Board

Advisory

2007

Statutory Corporation

In Ireland, as a common law state, the absence of clear typologies in administrative law has played a role in the resultant variety of agencies in existence and the absence of a clear framework or criteria for the creation of agencies or framing their relationship with parent departments. More fundamentally, there has never been a clear articulation by governments of criteria to use when deciding whether an agency should be created or not. With a large number of agencies now in existence, there have been difficulties in management and co-ordination, with some agencies even being established in recent years principally to co-ordinate the activities of others. For individual agencies, however, their emergence in varying political circumstances and with different stakeholder groups and expectations has meant lessons and good practices have been difficult to discern.

As noted above, a core justification for the creation of agencies is the perception that they are more efficient in the performance of tasks than an otherwise large and bureaucratic government department. It is presumed that they are also more cost efficient, given that they have more discretion in relation to staff and HR matters, and can engage in more market-like activity, such as outsourcing. In the context of budgetary constraints, cost efficiency and fiscal prudence are increasingly seen as important in the management of agencies, and the arrest in the increase in agency numbers since 2008 reflects this. At the time of writing, agency performance and ongoing their ongoing rationale tends to be viewed though a lens of cost efficiency rather than achievement of performance targets. As well as agency dissolutions, several are in a process of mergers or absorptions into their parent departments. Thus, the process of rapid agencification which characterized Irish public administration since the mid-1990s is coming to an end. There are no objective measures, however, to determine which agencies should be abolished and which should continue or receive additional tasks. In this context, political expediency as much as administrative efficiency plays an important role.

Origins of the Road Safety AuthorityToC

The Road Safety Authority is a statutory agency established under the Road Safety Authority Act 2006 and vested on 1 September 2006. It was not the first time that road safety functions had been conducted within an agency however. The National Safety Council (NSC) had been created in 1987, bringing together the functions of the National Road Safety Association, the Fire Prevention Council and the Irish Water Safety Council. The RSA assumed the road safety functions from the NSC, and fire safety went to the Department of Environment, Heritage and Local Government. Responsibility held by the NSC for water safety had previously been transferred to the Department.

In terms of departmental responsibility, road safety (and the civil servant with overall responsibility for it) moved from the Department of Environment, Heritage and Local Government to the new Department of Transport in 2002. Interviews suggest that by this time the idea for establishing an agency to take over the driver testing and standards function had already been mooted, and that the idea gained momentum and shape following the recommendations of a number of official and consultancy reports (see below). The possibility of such an agency assuming additional road safety-related functions were also voiced within the Department of Transport. In part, this idea gained currency when the driver-testing function was transferred to the Department of Transport, as there was some difficulty in determining where in the department responsibility for it should lie, and if it was even an appropriate function for a government department. It eventually formed part of the responsibilities of the Assistant-Secretary for Corporate Services.

The creation of the Road Safety Authority was finally triggered by a number of broadly coinciding events. In the first instance, it was consistent with proposals contained in a number of reports. A value for money examination published by the Comptroller and Auditor-General in 2000 had identified many shortcomings in the driver testing system within the Department of Environment and Local Government. A few years later, a report was prepared by consultants Farrell Grant Sparks (FGS) concerning the organisational structure for a proposed ‘Driver Testing and Standards Authority’. In May 2005 the Minister for Transport told the Dail that this latter report would assist in the process of setting up the authority.

A significant recommendation of the report is that additional functions in the general area of road safety should be assigned to the authority. I have indicated during the course of the Second Stage debate on the Driver Testing and Standards Authority Bill 2004 that it is my intention to amend the Bill on Committee Stage to provide for the assignment of additional functions to the authority, (Dáil Debates Vol. 602: Cols. 736-7, 12 May 2005)

The agency form was also influenced by the success of the Driving Standards Authority in Britain and the original name proposed for such an agency in Ireland was to be the Driving Testing and Standards Authority. Finally, a series of incidents (a bus crash in Kentstown in 2005 in which five school children died, and a car crash tragedy in Birr) led to considerable political pressure for greater regulation of drivers and road vehicles and provided an impetus for the Authority’s establishment.

Interviews suggest that the eighteen months that passed between the announcement by the Minister to create an agency and its actual vesting provided essential space in which to develop a considered response to what had become a prominent political matter. During this incubatory period, however, the proposed agency increasingly became an organisational panacea for a number of issues, including vehicle standards and the transposition of EU directives. Also, while the original legislation for creating the new agency was mainly concerned about service delivery, as it developed it was amended to include the obligation to draw up a road safety strategy. This played a crucial role in broadening the remit of the Authority.

The RSA was also created in the aftermath of the government decentralisation decision of late 2003, which sought to relocate many public servants and agencies outside of Dublin. As a new agency, the RSA was a prime candidate for such location outside of the capital, and Ballina in County Mayo was chosen as its headquarters. Driver testing and licencing services were already located in Ballina and the Authority also assumed responsibility for road haulage enforcement functions, which were also decentralised to Loughrea in County Galway.

Functions of the new AuthorityToC

When it began its work, the RSA assumed statutory responsibility for a number of core functions – driver theory testing, driver testing and road haulage enforcement (including tacho-graph monitoring and port inspections in relation to haulage regulations). Its principal function, however, is the preparation, implementation and monitoring of the Road Safety Strategy, a 5-year plan designed to reduce road deaths and improve road safety in Ireland. The CEO noted to the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Transport in 2009, “Our most important function is to prepare a road safety strategy, present it to the Minister and monitor and report on its implementation” (Brett: 2009).

This function is provided for under the Road Safety Act 2006. In developing this strategy, the RSA strategy took into account the “3 E’s” of road safety – engineering, education and enforcement, and added a fourth – evaluation. Amongst its other functions, the RSA also provides material for answers to PQs relevant to its work and to representations from local and national politicians. It also assumed responsibility for the transposition of 27 EU directives relating to road safety. Table 2 below sets out its key functions.

Table 2. Table 2: Key RSA Functions

Function

Function assumed from

Mode of delivery by RSA

Driver Theory Testing

Department of Transport

Outsourced to private company

Driver Testing

Department of Transport

In-house and outsourced

Driver Licencing

Department of Transport

In-house

Vehicle standards enforcement (including trucks)

Department of Transport

In-house

National Car Testing Service

Department of Transport

Outsourced to private company

Development of EU Directive Transposition

Various Departments

In-house

Media campaigns and promotion of road safety

National Safety Council

In-house

Statistics and Research

NRA

In-house

Registration of driving instructors

New Function

In-house

Professional Drivers Certification of Competency (CPC)

New Function

In House / Outsourced to independent /private sector trainers

However, other issues closely related to road safety were not delegated to the RSA. These included:

The RSA is not subject to Freedom of Information legislation but in practice has operated as if it were subject to the legislation. Also pending legislative provision, the RSA is not within the remit of the Ombudsman, although the Ombudsman (Amendment) Bill 2008 proposes to include it within that office’s purview.

Establishing and managing the RSAToC

In the absence of formal guidance or studies on the creation of agencies, and the unique nature of the RSA’s remit, the success of the Authority depended on planning and clarity over responsibilities and relationship. These tasks were considerable and are worthy of further examination in order to illuminate the Authority’s early beginnings.

Mr. Noel Brett was appointed as Chief Executive Officer designate of the Driver Testing and Standards Authority (DTSA) to the Department of Transport with effect from the 18th April 2005. The Minister announced that he would be appointed as Chief Executive Officer of the DTSA on the establishment of the DTSA. A project team compromising mainly civil servants was created to identify key tasks and associated responsibility for the new agency, and regular reporting on the achievement of these tasks, and associated risks, was pursued. The CEO designate became a key member of the team charged with implementing the Government decision to establish a new Authority. The project team was chaired by a senior departmental official and included officials from key areas of the department and the Department of Finance as required. The project team targeted completion of the project by June 2006. An early assessment of the key risks facing the delivery of the project sought to anticipate threats and ensure that potential roadblocks were identified. These risks identified included delays in enacting the legislation, achieving ‘buy-in’ from staff to the new agency; insufficient funding; poor communication with stakeholders; failure to effect necessary recruitment and inadequate ICT systems.

The CEO-designate, who is the Accounting Officer for the Authority, brought with him considerable experience from his involvement in the establishment of another agency in Ireland, one of considerable size. As a member of the project team, he was given a central role in proposing the organisational-design, communications system, management recruitment process and overseeing the ICT project. It was also necessary to plan for the ordered integration of the work of the National Safety Council into the new Authority.

The state agencies under the aegis of the Department of Transport are often divided into three types – service, infrastructure and regulation. The RSA is one of several ‘service’ agencies but one that also has regulatory functions. Examples of the ‘infrastructure’ agencies include the National Roads Authority and the Railway Procurement Agency, and the Commission for Aviation Regulation provides an example of an explicit ‘regulatory’ agency.

As is the case for many agencies in Ireland, in the absence of performance contracts, a significant factor in the relationship between agencies and parent departments is based around individual and personal contacts. Interviews suggest that considerable responsibility for the successful establishment of the RSA rested with an assistant secretary in the Department of Transport who managed the process with the CEO-designate. As many officials came from the Department, communication was assisted by a strong empathy with, and knowledge of, that department’s culture and approach.

The RSA Act gives the RSA a statutory status to hire and fire staff and engage in contracts, but in practice the Authority tends to consult with its parent department before engaging in any new recruitment or expenditure initiatives. Therefore, any public service-wide circulars such as a moratorium on recruitment and promotions would effectively apply. The Department is not represented on either the RSA’s Board or its Policy Advisory Panel (below) however. Instead, the relationship is managed by ongoing contact and communication with the Department and in particular the division with responsibility for road safety. The minister does meet with the chairman but this process is not formalized.

The organisation of the Authority is conducted according to a directorate structure, which was proposed by the CEO during the planning of the new Authority. There are three service provision directorates: Standards and Enforcement; Road Safety, Research and Driver Education; and Driver Testing and Licensing, all of which are supported by Corporate Services Directorate. The Corporate Services Directorate includes responsibility for IT, HR, Finance, Estate Management and PR/Communications. The original proposed structure was modified as the organisation took shape. Some of the corporate services activities were outsourced in order to achieve greater value for money and also to create vacancies to provide the opportunity to bring in more specialist staff to the service directorates. Thus specialist staff could be hired without breaching the established FTE (full time equivalent) allocation (a practice common amongst agencies as noted by the OECD (2008: 297)).

The Departments of Finance and Transport agreed that the RSA would have 309 FTE positions. Of these, approximately two thirds were civil servants with the remainder being recruited externally and employed as public servants. This figure includes driver testers, who work in 52 driver-testing centers throughout the state, and who are employed as civil servants.

Initial attempts were made to use a new grading structure but this was rejected by the Department of Finance and the Agency was required to use a grading structure equivalent to that of the civil service (but using role-specific titles instead of the conventional grade titles). Many of the staff recruited to the RSA came from the Department of Transport and through the Central Application Facility (CAF) system used by people wishing to avail of the decentralisation scheme. In practice, many of the staff had to be appointed to posts where they may not have had much previous experience.

The Authority reports to the Departments of Transport and Finance on a quarterly basis concerning staffing issues, including the number of full and part-time staff employed, the nature of their contracts and any impending retirements.

Four trade unions exist within the RSA and negotiations with management are conducted through an Industrial Relations Council (IRC), which is representative of the trade unions. This allows for a level of organisation level negotiation on issues that might otherwise have become part of central national negotiations. Through the IRC, the Authority’s management developed an agreement with its unions that vacant posts would be filled by one of three criteria: internal competition, seniority and suitability, or external competition. A partnership body also operates within the RSA, and it receives the Board’s minutes and financial accounts.

The decentralisation programme as announced in 2003 has had a major determining influence on the physical location of the RSA. At the time of planning the establishment of the Authority there were driver testing and licencing functions located in Ballina and haulier licencing activities were located in Loughrea. It had been originally mooted in the 2003 decentralisation announcement that the National Safety Council would locate in Loughrea, a factor which contributed to the decision to merge the NSC functions with the proposed Standards and Testing Authority.

The Department of Transport also had a decentralised office in Loughrea, Co. Galway, from where haulage licencing was conducted. In order to deliver the required numbers under the decentralisation programme, it was decided that a number of the vehicle standards and enforcement staff of the RSA would be relocated there. The absence of a primary road, bus or rail link between Ballina and Loughrea (a distance of 143 km) presents obvious difficulties but extensive use has been made of teleconferencing facilities. Also in Ballina were staff working in the Driver Testing Administration and Driver Licensing section of the Department of Transport, who had originally been moved there in 1989 and who came within the remit of the Department of Transport in 2002.

In summary, the RSA’s 309 staff is geographically spread as follows:

From the Department’s point of view, interviews indicate that decentralisation had not presented particular or insurmountable difficulties. However, interviews with senior management in the RSA identified that there had been considerable loss of staff and corporate knowledge with the move to Ballina.

The Authority is financed through a grant from the Department of Transport (€40.4 million in 2008 which accounted for two-thirds of income) and from other sources including driver test fees, the National Car Test levy and digital tacho-graph receipts. Total expenditure in 2008 was €63 million of which €24 million was for direct staff costs. The expenditure is allocated across the four directorates and the largest area of expenditure is driver testing. In 2008, expenditure of €42million was incurred in conducting 470,000 tests. The revenue associated with these tests was €18.2 million.

The use of the grant, as specified in the Public Financial Procedures, is to give an agency the scope to carry out its specified functions “without continual reference to the granting Department”. Interviews did not identify any significant frustrations around the general level of financial autonomy given to the Authority. In this regard the RSA would be consistent with the picture of agency governance reported in previous research on Irish agencies (McGauran et al. 2005) which found that difficulties in relation to Department-agency relationships normally arose in relation to a lack of autonomy with regard to personnel management and salaries.

It is clear that the financing of the RSA, as with all areas of public expenditure, is under intense scrutiny in terms of value for money. The McCarthy Report in commenting on the expenditure of the RSA stated:

…the Group strongly recommends that, at a minimum, the RSA's driver testing and instructor testing/registration activities be run on a full cost-recovery basis and that in the longer term, the possibility of making the RSA entirely self-funded should be pursued. (Department of Finance, 2009: 216)

The fees for driving tests were increased significantly in April 2009, which was the first increase since 1992. The cost of a driving test for a car rose from €38 to €75 which is moving closer to recovering the full economic cost of the service. The major reduction effected in the waiting times for applicants over the previous year was an important factor in supporting the decision that a fee closer to the real cost could be charged.

Under Section 29 of the Act (2006), it is the responsibility of the Chief Executive to prepare accounts for approval by the Board and for submission for audit to the Comptroller and Auditor General. It is the Board’s responsibility to ensure an effective system of internal control. The Board has an Audit committee, an internal audit programme which it approves and the work programme has been outsourced to an auditing firm.

The financial statements are prepared under the accrual method of accounting. This is typical for an agency as it provides a better basis for internal management. There is the scope for misunderstandings arising between funding Departments who report their (appropriation) accounts on a cash basis and agencies which report on an accruals basis (McGauran 2005). The RSA implemented a system of accruals accounting in mid-2008 with the Board increasing its oversight, through its Audit Committee, of the financial reports.

Corporate governance and stakeholdersToC

There are a number of important differences in the way in which a board member of a public non-commercial agency such as the RSA operates in contrast to a board member of a private company. The objectives which deal with aspects of the common or public good bring a complexity to the evaluation of effectiveness. There is a significant body of compliance requirements including, the Ethics in Public Office Act and other legislation and guidelines. There is also a high level of explicit and expected accountability and stewardship associated with the use of public resources.

The Board is also required to ensure that the Authority meets the requirements of the Code of Practice for the Governance of State Bodies. The Code sets down guidelines on matters for decision by the Board, the Annual Report and accounts, audit procedures and the preparation of a strategic plan. The 2009 revised version of the Code also makes explicit that “the Board should constantly review its own operation and seek to identify ways of improving its effectiveness”. An outcome of this process would be that a Chairman should advise the relevant minister of gaps in specific skills on a board for consideration by the minister in advance of future appointments.

The Board of the RSA was established and the members nominated by the Minister for Transport in accordance with the provisions of the Road Safety Authority Act, 2006. The Board met for the first time some five months before the vesting of the Authority. The Act (Section 14 (3)) sets out the number of members (between 7 and 12, including a chairperson), terms of office and a broad description of the experience and competencies required of members. In effect, the Minister has full discretion in the choice of appointments. There is no requirement on the Minister to select nominees from particular groups or to consult with stakeholders, social partners or professions. The Minister also chooses the Chairperson. The Board has two sub-committees - audit and remuneration.

The Board does not have the autonomy of many private companies. There is a single permanent shareholder represented by the minister and managed on a day to day basis by the relevant Department. The Board also has no power to nominate members.

The Board may also remove the chief executive from his or her office with the consent of the Minister. The legislation does not require the membership of persons from stakeholder groups. The lack of explicit representation of special groups is also reflected in the actual membership where interviews indicated that the members did not believe that they had to represent the views of any particular group. It was said that the Board was one of ‘governance’ rather than experts or representative of the key stakeholders.

In order to draw more widely on the views and expertise of stakeholders, the RSA has a Policy Advisory Panel (PAP) to act as a conduit. According to the RSA’s Annual Report (2007: 9), the role of the PAP is to:

The PAP membership includes representatives of the following stakeholder bodies and experts:

As with the Board, the Department of Transport is not represented on the PAP. The Department is of the view that membership of the Authority or the Policy Advisory Panel could lead to confusion with regard to the Department’s role in advising the minister on proposals from the RSA.

Also, assisting the work of the PAP is a network of approximately 300 persons who can be contacted by e-mail or otherwise for their views on policy issues. Figure 1 sets out the structure of the RSA’s policy-informing network.

As noted above, the Road Safety Act states that the Board shall consist of a non executive chairperson and not more than 11 ordinary members. There are currently nine members. The Chief Executive has the right to attend meetings but is not a member of the Board. In preparing this study, a number of questions were put to all members of the Board and a number of semi-structured interviews were also conducted. Questions focussed on the role of the board in three key areas: providing leadership and strategic guidance; monitoring and supervising the operation of the Authority; and the Board’s own structure and process.

Leadership and setting strategyToC

The responses identified a cohesiveness and clarity around the purpose of the Authority. Many members referred to the clear focus of the Authority, i.e. saving lives on the roads. A number of members also referred to significant developments including reducing the waiting time for driving tests and facilitating greater involvement and commitment from other stakeholders through the Road Safety Strategy process.

A number of members also referred to the importance of the Authority’s relationship with the Department of Transport and it was suggested that many achievements would not have been possible without the support of the minister and the Department. It was also noted that the Authority’s work necessitated winning the support and commitment of other groups outside of its and the Department of Transport’s influence, including other government Departments, An Garda Síochána, and local authorities.

While there had been significant progress in changing behaviours and reducing road deaths, some referred to the strategic need to ‘re-energise’ the debate around road safety. The benefits achieved to date need to be protected and there was the potential for further significant progress.

Monitoring

The Board was satisfied with the division between their responsibilities and that of the executive. A number noted that this was facilitated by the CEO’s emphasis on a ‘performance management culture’. In terms of internal controls the response was also positive. There was reference to the importance attached to need to development of a risk management process, the adoption of accrual accounting and the effectiveness of the internal audit function.

Board structure and process

In terms of the composition of the Board there was a positive view to the current mix of skills and competencies. It was considered advantageous that Board members were not appointed on the basis of representing the views of particular interest groups. As a Board of governance rather than a representative Board, the interviewees suggested this contributed to an absence of ‘special agendas’ around the table and a clearer focus on the goals of the Authority. It was also suggested that the success of the RSA was attributable to the strong political support it received, including the existence of a cabinet sub-committee and the political focus brought about by wider societal demands for road safety to be addressed.

Critical success factors and lessons for agencification in IrelandToC

Creating new organisations and redesigning and reformulating the delivery of specified public services can be expected to encounter potential resistance. Typical obstacles arising include inertia, resistance from stakeholders who perceived a threat to their embedded self-interest, and the absence of a common values based vision which identifies the benefits to accrue in the public interest as a result of reforms (Brunnson and Olson 1993). The case of the Road Safety Authority and the experiences of its senior officials in creating a new state agency are instructive not only in respect of the agencification process, but also in respect of administrative organisation and culture in Ireland. A useful contrast might be made between the processes adopted in the creation of the Health Services Executive (HSE) in Ireland and the RSA.

The HSE was vested as a new agency to manage health and social services in the year prior to the RSA’s creation. Since its establishment the HSE has been subject to high levels of controversy and criticism, whether justified or not. While the objectives and complexity involved in the establishment of the HSE were of a much greater magnitude to that of the RSA, there are in our view important insights vis-a-vis the greater perceived success in organisational terms of the latter. The RSA engendered a sense of urgency and enthusiasm around its objectives, communicating with stakeholders while ensuring issues around human resources were addressed in a timely way. By contrast, the HSE’s establishment day was announced in advance of resolving key industrial relations issues.

Furthermore, the RSA had the benefit of clarity around its management structure with the chief executive-designate playing a key role as part of the Department of Transport project team to establish the Authority. In contrast there was a lacuna at the HSE associated with the difficulties in filling the chief executive post. It was also notable that the membership of the project team (with the exception of the CEO-designate) charged with implementing the Government decision on the RSA was made up of persons whose status would not be changed by the recommendations.

Also, a number of critical success factors can be discerned which helped the RSA to emerge and to develop its role as well as lessons for future similar cases. These included:

Political support and saliency: The issue of road safety came to particular prominence in 2005 with public and media attention focusing on the high level of road deaths in Ireland, heightened by a series of particular incidents that year. This public attention has had a direct causal influence on the creation of the RSA. Equally, the creation of a Cabinet Sub-Committee on Road Safety ensured that political space and commitment was created to identify a new approach to tackling the problem.

Clarity of purpose supported by effective project planning: The clarity of the RSA’s role is evidenced not only in the circumstances of its creation as well as its governing legislation, but also in the responses provided by individual interviewees. Acting on this purpose has also been facilitiated by the use of effective project planning and clear division of responsibilities between the Board and the executive.

Leadership I – Management: Interviews and the Board evaluation suggest that the CEO’s role in driving the creation of the agency and the development of the Road Safety Strategy have played a positive role throughout the organisation. As well as the RSA media campaigns, the profile of the RSA and its work has been enhanced by public statements and media interviews with the CEO. The directorate structure also brings clarity to the organisation’s work and supports the strategic focus.

Leadership II – The Board: Board members are well versed in the RSA’s role and their collective responsibility for delivery of the RSA strategy. Strong leadership was also demonstrated by the Board’s chairman who has taken an active and public role in progressing key targets of the RSA strategy. The founding legislation for the RSA does not specify that Board members should come from stakeholder groups and, reflecting this, Board members do not consider their role as representing particular interests, but that of providing the corporate governance and oversight necessary for the successful operation of the RSA as a business.

Use of the agency model: The OECD report on the Irish public service noted that providing managerial autonomy has been main reason for creating agencies within member states over the last 20 years. It also found that while there was not a lot of evidence of better performance, reports suggested agencies provide focus, increased management of performance and development of innovative practices.

Interviews with senior management in the RSA suggest that in their view, the ‘agency form has been quicker, cheaper and more flexible’ than using the conventional departmental structures in terms of achieving a new focus and direction for road safety. Interviews with civil servants in the Department of Transport indicate that as an autonomous agency, the RSA has played an ‘important unifying role’ in the effort to reduce road deaths.

Other benefits of the agency form demonstrated by the RSA include commercial flexibility in terms of achieving sponsorship and engaging in private sector partnerships, ability to engage in alternative forms of service delivery such as outsourcing, quicker transposition of EU law, and more local management of IR issues. Importantly, interviews suggest that the use of the agency form makes it possible “to get objectivity into the development of policy”. Thus as the policy expertise of the RSA develops in relation to road safety, the Department can draw on this resource.

There is a considerable body of evidence supporting the link between shared organisational values and culture and performance. It is of particular importance in respect of agency-department relationships where a common values base may not always be shared given the objectives of each organisation. In the context of the RSA, where many of the staff came from the central civil service as well as the day-to-day contact between its executive and the parent department, there is a strong appreciation of public service cultural values.

ConclusionsToC

Attributing improved road fatality statistics solely to the creation of the RSA presents obvious difficulties. More effective Garda enforcement, including through vehicle and random breath testing, as well as better roads generally are also important contributory factors. However, not to recognise some causal relationship between the RSA and the advancement of road safety in Ireland would be erroneous.

The RSA’s emergence was effectively an ad-hoc one that was inspired by national and international administrative reform trends, political necessity, and a series of coinciding events. Equally the allocation of functions to the Authority was made in an unplanned manner. That the Authority was so successful in developing its role and progressing its objectives was in large part due to the planning and strategic development process, strong political and administrative leadership and the consistent focus of the Board and the management team on clearly specified goals.

While the proliferation of agencies within Irish government and public administration has prompted concerns in relation to management and policy co-ordination, the issue of identifying the appropriate governing structure for agencies has also been aired. Most prominently, the OECD’s review of the Irish public service in 2008 noted the international shift away from legally independent agencies with Boards towards those without legal autonomy but with management autonomy but no Boards or Boards with limited (advisory only) responsibility (OECD 2008: 300-1, 304). The OECD strongly advocated that where there is a clear focus on specified outputs, a Board which may add unnecessary complexity to the governing arrangements is not necessary but that Boards played a useful role in relation to the participation of stakeholders and achievement of policy continuity.

In contrast with a stakeholder approach to Board representation, the case of the RSA demonstrates how the absence of nominees from key interest groups has allowed the Board to focus on its primary role of governance, the purpose of the organisation and maintaining a well-managed relationship with the executive. It is notable that the RSA has, however, strong explicit arrangements to listen to and engage in dialogue with stakeholders. Through its Policy Advisory Panel it insures that stakeholders have a voice but not a right of veto over measures in pursuit of the Authority’s key goals.

There is no official from the Department of Transport on the Board. This is a common but not universal practice for Government Departments and agencies under their aegis. Interviews with officials in the Department of Transport identified a belief that it is appropriate not to be represented on the Board as it gives greater autonomy to the Authority in developing proposals, and to the Department in its responsibility in advising the Minister on such proposals that have been developed. The lack of Departmental representation can also be regarded as indicating that the Minister and Department are confident that the Board is effective in its governance of the organisation.

As the landscape of Irish state agencies embarks on a period of consolidation and ‘de-agencification’, it is important to consider the lessons of when and how successful agencies have been established. This detailed analysis of one such organisation demonstrates the value of a case-study approach, and the importance of political, organizational and structural drivers in determining successful agency performance. Whilst the response to the current economic and financial climate has determined that there are now considerable pressures against creating new agencies in Ireland, this study identifies a number of factors critical to delivering quality public services and achieving key policy goals that can inform future agency creation.

ReferencesToC

    References
  1. Brett, N., 2009 Presentation to Oireachtas Joint Committee on Transport, 22 January
  2. http://debates.oireachtas.ie/DDebate.aspx?F=TRJ20090122.XML&Ex=All&Page=1
  3. Brunnson, N & Olsen, J., 1993, The Reforming Organization, Routledge, London.
  4. Clancy, P. and Murphy, G., 2006, Outsourcing government. Public bodies and accountability, Dublin: Tasc New Island.

Dáil DebatesToC

    References
  1. Department of Finance, 2009, Report of the Special Group on Public Service Numbers and Expenditure Programmes Volume II: Detailed Papers, Dublin: Department of Finance.
  2. MacCarthaigh, M., 2010, National non-commercial state agencies in Ireland, Dublin: Institute of Public Administration State of the Public Service Series, No. 1.
  3. McGauran, A-M; Verhoest, K. & Humphreys, P., 2005, The Corporate Governance of Agencies in Ireland, Dublin: IPA, CPMR Research Report No.5.
  4. Pierre, J. (ed.), 1995, Bureaucracy in the Modern State, Aldershot, Edward Elgar.
  5. OECD, 2002, Distributed Public Governance. Agencies, Authorities and Other Autonomous Bodies, Paris: OECD.
  6. OECD, 2008, Ireland: Towards an Integrated Public Service, Paris: OECD.
  7. Office of the Comptroller and Auditor-General, 2000, Report on Value for Money Examination: The Driver Testing Service, Dublin: Office of the Comptroller and Auditor-General.
  8. Pollitt, C. and C. Talbot (eds), 2004, Unbundled Government. A Critical Analysis of the Global Trend to Agencies, Quangos and Contractualisation, London: Routledge.
  9. Road Safety Authority, 2007, Road Safety Strategy 2007-12, Ballina: Road Safety Authority. Verhoest, K.; Roness, P.G.; Verschuere, B.; Rubecksen, K. and MacCarthaigh, M., 2010, Autonomy and Control of State Agencies: Comparing states and agencies, Basingstoke: Palgrave