The Government is on the backfoot and continuing to back pedal. It needs wins, and fast. But the issue at hand is not that the Government is in a mess of its own creation, which it is: the issue now is that it has decided to eke out quick wins at the expense of re-establishing its longer-term goals.
Why is this happening? Because the Government isn’t sticking to the basics of communications and efficient execution: building a strategy, getting buy-in from stakeholders, and avoiding the enticement of short, sharp wins at the expense of the main objective.
After a tumultuous start in June, the Government has faced a consistent challenge finding the balance between listening to those who shout the loudest, often with quick fixes or immediate relief in mind, and to those who offer tangible wins over the long term.
The Government strategy of maintaining low levels of transmission had been successful in the lead up to Christmas. It was a long and arduous journey to that point, but Ireland’s example was ultimately lauded as the European success story, bucking the trend of death and despair witnessed in overcrowded hospitals from Paris to Rome.
However, after months of rolling lockdowns, the Government felt the public had earned a festive reprieve. This was its first critical error: it went for the “easy win”. This win quickly spiralled into the loss of larger, long-term strategic policy goals, namely keeping schools open throughout the pandemic and opening businesses to the greatest extent possible to mitigate the negative impact on the economy.
Hindsight shows that the reopening of hospitality and easing of travel restrictions at Christmas was a poor choice. However, it also shows that the Government was not reading the room. Successive polls showed that there was sufficient support for continued restrictions during the October lockdown; a large minority (32%) supported even more restrictive measures. This is without mentioning Nphet’s clear antipathy to reopening.
With Covid infections growing exponentially over Christmas and New Year, the Government was forced to shut schools and childcare facilities. Its cornerstone priority—keep schools and childcare open—was derailed. As a consequence, the Government is now considering how to re-open education for the second time in less than a year.
Governing by decree
While working towards a goal is clearly a good thing, a goal without strategy behind it is little more than a declaration of intent. Actually achieving a goal requires building a strategy with buy-in from the major stakeholders who will help you achieve it, and buy-in is only achieved through constant, two-way communication.
Minister for Education Norma Foley has not adhered to this process. She declared that schools would reopen on 18 January without input from teaching unions and students. She set the stage for conflict with those whose support she needed most.
Her haste to announce what she and the Government viewed as good news—the return to school for sixth years and special education—came as a shock to union officials, who had not had even so much as a basic interaction of a meeting to forewarn them. After the Government’s initial blunder throwing away low case numbers, this was mistake number two.
The third mistake followed hard and fast. After enduring pushback from the unions, Minister Foley bowed to the pressure not to reopen schools for sixth years and special education. By giving too much ground, and not holding firm on, say, special education, she signalled that she can be pushed to comply if sufficient pressure is applied. By failing to control her own message, she let others dictate the strategy at her department and the Government’s expense.
Listen and engage
Proactively engaging with the key stakeholders in the sector or industry you seek to influence is common sense to most experienced politicians. Minister Foley was praised for how she dealt with the Leaving Cert last year, so it is clear she has the capability to achieve the goals she has set her department.
Minister Foley’s recent plan, however, was obviously intended to generate quick results—but seeking quick results without constant, transparent communication with stakeholders erodes trust.
At the very least, stakeholders need to be brought in on the decision-making process before it becomes public. Teachers, students, and education leaders must trust that the Government is not putting them in harm’s way just to appease the masses. They expect honesty about the facts and deliberate, inclusive discussion. A collaborative approach yields the best results.
If the Minister wants to appeal to the unions, she will need to offer them a significant win, as they too require a win to demonstrate value to their members. What can she offer? One approach might be to offer vaccine priority. Currently ranked eleventh on the vaccination schedule, the minister could, for example, assign teachers to group six along with other key frontline workers.
Minister Foley’s continued practice of non-engagement has been replicated across other departments too. With schools not reopening, the pressure was on Minister for Children Roderic O’Gorman to deliver for childcare.
He issued a statement in early January declaring that childcare providers must stay open for the children of essential workers, and that they must return fees to parents whose children do not attend, under threat of legal action. This came as a shock to providers that had already been offering their services in the midst of surging Covid cases.
Had the Minister engaged with stakeholders, he would have been aware that providers had been working with parents to find solutions to the fees issue. Lack of coherent communication between the Department and the sector it oversees has no doubt soured relationships. Minister O’Gorman now similarly needs to deliver a win for the sector in order to re-establish trust.
Collaboration builds trust
Minister Foley must now work twice as hard to re-establish trust with the teaching unions. Without it, she will not be able to move her agenda forward, and if she can’t do that, she risks public opinion turning against her. This process starts with an olive branch, such as a commitment to meet her department’s stakeholders on a more regular, level basis. If this does not achieve the results she needs, a bigger offering will be needed.
Minister O’Gorman must also regain the trust of childcare providers. He may, for now, be given the benefit of the doubt as the legacy issue of the Mother and Baby Home Report has caused much consternation in the Dáil and publicly. However, his announcement of continued financial supports for childcare providers until 5 March only plasters over the cracks needed for a sustainable sector. Communicating directly and collaboratively with the people who work in and use childcare services will alleviate anxiety.
If this Government continues to think in hours and days, not weeks and months, we will see continued strife between national decision-makers and important societal stakeholders, like schools. The better option is to get it right the first time: build a strategy with your stakeholders and stick to it.
Honest, transparent communications deliver faster results—always. Ministers Foley and O’Gorman must accept the failings of the past and move forward. Forgiveness will come, and the narrative will shift from the mistake to the efforts to build beyond it.
About the author
Macdara brings strong public affairs insights to 360’s corporate clients, including ongoing monitoring and weekly reviews of parliamentary activity. He is a graduate of UCD with a degree in Economics and Politics. Before 360, he interned with Jim O’Callaghan TD.