Frank Litton on policy-making, the civil service and the malaise of Ireland's democracy.

Part 4 – Policy Narratives in the absence of Grand Narratives: A Case Study

Sep 19, 12 • The Public SectorNo Comments


Who can doubt that weaknesses in the civil service contributed to the crisis. We cannot understand these weaknesses without attention to the links that inextricably bind the civil service to politics. We cannot expect to discover what might be done to improve the civil service without noticing how our politics have changed.

In Part 1 I argued that the relationship between minister and civil servant was quite different from the relationships among directors and managers that we find in private sector organizations. A Secretary-general is not a CEO in a multi-divisional machine bureaucracy. Nor is she the minister’s agent responsible for deploying some well defined expertise for the minister’s benefit. The notion of instrumental-rational action that more or less adequately describe these relationships fails to account for how the ‘aristocrats’ of our mixed regime interact to serve its predominant democratic element within the ‘court’. In Part 2, I explored how the fading away of grand narratives and the arrival of ‘audience democracy’ put the relationship between politicians and civil servants under stress. What reforms are necessary? In Part 3, I examined more closely the role of the civil servant in a discussion of policy-making. Herbert Simon and his colleagues, working within the instrumental-rational model, demonstrated its limitations when applied to policy-making. However, given their starting point, they were unable to indicate how these might be overcome. Pragmatism does. We should understand policy-making, not as a procedure for finding the optimum means to well defined ends, but as a narrative, in which aims, purposes, and interests are accommodated, adapted and adjusted as obstacles are encountered. In this Part, I explore what changes are needed if we are to write policy-narratives in the absence of grand narratives.

The first point to make is how far off target are the predominant prescriptions. The cure for the civil service goes back as far as the ‘Devlin Report’. With each reiteration its force weakens, as arguments give way to bullet points. The focus is on the improvement of the administration of settled business, the problem is one of performance management, the solution, better bureaucracy. However the patient continues to resist the medicine. Their analysis having failed to convince, the reformers believe that they have no option but to shout louder and abuse the civil servant. They leave their area of expertise and mount the pulpit to preach sermons on ‘values’. Civil servants have lost their sense of public duty, they must recover their traditional values (the very ones that resisted the Devlin and subsequent reforms) and learn to stand up to ministers. The reformers would be better off revisiting their analysis. Their solutions suppose that the civil service can be separated from the politics, problems of accommodation can be segregated from those of adaptation and adjustment. As we have seen in Part 3, they cannot be.

Proposals for reforming our politics also miss the target.  Matters we are told are urgent: the platform is on fire, the crisis is existential.  We need more transparency and greater accountability. The problems that these would solve are readily identifiable. They certainly are real problems, but, it can be asked, are they the problems, the ones that contribute to our malaise? We need, I suppose, more transparency and accountability because of the bad things that go on beyond the closed doors where ministers and civil servants concoct and manage policies. Accounts of what these bad things are vary. Some emphasis how a lack of accountability and transparency allow governments subvert the general interest in favour of particular interests. Others worry that the opacity of the governments activities allows, if it does not encourage, incompetence. Individuals, who have little fear of being caught out, have little incentive to try harder. The comforts of working within the status quo win out over the discomforts of adapting or adjusting it.

While incompetence and partiality are part of the problem, perhaps even an important part, are they the principal cause of our troubles? After all incompetence accompanies all human endeavours and partiality, all politics. Certainly, they are not new arrivals on the scene. We can think of it in terms of capacities and interests. Those who argue for more accountability and transparency suppose that government and civil service have the capacities to perform well. It is just that they do not have the incentive to deploy, or develop, this capacity. The government has the capacity but not the incentive, the Dail has the interest in seeing that they do, but not the capacity. A reformed Dail capable of knowing what the government is doing and holding it to account for doing it, would provide the incentive. The solutions suppose that the faults lie entirely within the electoral-representative system. They can be corrected by adapting elements within it.

It is easy to understand why the electoral–representative system attracts all the attention. It brings politics to life. It provides the stage on which the drama of our democracy is played out. However, once we start to trace the elements that link together to shape that performance, we quickly find ourselves outside the system. The grand narratives that framed the apprehensions and evaluations of so many citizens scripted the performance. These were nourished and sustained in contexts remote from politics. Allegiance to a political party was, more often than not, a by product of relationships within a family and its links to the wider world. Political parties were the medium through which narratives were transported into the electoral-representative system. The medium was not the message, however profoundly it may have shaped it.

The narratives have faded away. It is their disappearance that has reduced to system’s capacity to relate the particular to the general and propose futures for the collective .This loss of capacity is serious. It is difficult to see how reforming the Dail, changing the electoral system or exhorting politicians to show ‘leadership’ and provide ‘vision’ will help restore it. We need to look for new forms of linkages between citizens and the state that allow policy narratives be written in the absence of grand narratives.

The best place to look for indications of what from these new linkages might take is existing practice. How are policy narratives adapting to the new circumstances of audience democracy? Partnership is the most obvious attempt at adaptation. It was successful at the national level when it reconciled the conflicting interests of employers and trade unions. As it ramified into the local level it promised an improved, more participatory democracy. Of course, not all accepted the success or recognised the promise. Some critics, looking back to a past where a left-right split could represent social conflicts and allow their democratic resolution, saw partnership as the state‘s ploy to subvert civil society by co-opting interest groups at the price of their silence. Others worried about the displacement of power from the electoral-representative system to the unelected and the unaccountable. Economists, the last utopians, looking forward to an interest group free politics attacked the licence Partnership gave ‘vested’ interests to escape market disciplines. These laments for an unrecoverable past or an unattainable future did not stop Partnership. Its failure as a link did. If, as is clear, we need new links, then, the analysis of its failure is a matter of high priority Such an analysis is beyond the scope of this essay. However Partnership is not the only example of how new forms of linkage are emerging. Education policy and how it is tackling the problem of primary school patronage provides one case study

The minister for education Ruari Quinn launched the forum on ‘Patronage and Pluralism in Primary Schools’ in April 2011. The report of the forum’s advisory group was published a year later. It provides a succinct narrative of the policy on the control and management of primary schools before proposing how the narrative should be carried forward. The story begins when grand narratives were important; it ends when they are in decline.

Education is of vital interest to the institutions that promulgate grand narratives.  Without the opportunity to educate their followers, how can they transmit their traditions? To be denied access to education is a grievous blow. Consequently when there are several competing grand narratives, there are problems. For example an educational regime that matched the aims and purposes of Catholicism would not enthuse Protestants and would be even less congenial to those committed to the enlightenment project. Both would lament its corrupting superstition with the latter adding condemnation of its fundamental irrationality. States confronted with these conflicts sought their own grand narrative in which the competing grand narratives could find a place. A political project was proposed that aimed for the security and general well-being of the collective conceived of a nation. All regardless of their allegiances could accept this, recognising their narratives dependence on its success.  This was difficult. Grand narratives did not exist on the plain of ideas alone. They were the media through which social and economic issues were represented.  The history of France in the 19th century is a prime example of how fraught with conflict this project could be. At every stage in the conflict education was a key issue.

Matters were not so conflicted, bitter or complicated in the United Kingdom. Ireland, of course, was a serious problem. Rows over denominational education, that reflected the anti-catholic prejudice widespread in the rest of the UK were one factor drawing the Catholic narrative closer to the nationalist narrative. Combined, they proved strong enough to resist the imperial, Protestant, British narrative that evolved to sustain democracy elsewhere in the UK. After independence, the two narratives continued to support each other. The Catholic narrative contributed to the legitimacy of the new state, compensating, perhaps, for the fractures in the nationalist narrative manifest in the civil war.

The Constitution of Ireland, 1937, illustrates the alliance. As per that standard , republican democratic narrative ‘we the people of Ireland… do herby adopt, enact and give ourselves this Constitution’. The Constitution recognised human rights (legal, political, economic). In particular, it recognised freedom of religion and forbade the state endowing any religion. However the people of Ireland recognised themselves as Christian-‘humbly acknowledging all our obligations to our Divine Lord, Jesus Christ’- with a clear catholic outlook- ‘and seeking to promote the common good with due observance of Prudence, Justice, and Charity’. The Constitution recognised the ‘special position’ of the Catholic Church as the church of the majority of the citizens.

The alliance is also clearly visible in the treatment of education. The state’s role in education is acknowledged. It ‘shall provide for free primary education’ and ensure ‘that the children receive a certain minimum education, moral, intellectual and social.’ The state’s responsibility for the content of this education is limited. It is parents who are responsible for selecting the grand narrative that they want to frame their children’s’ education. They cannot be compelled to accept any narrative – ‘the state shall not oblige parents in violation of their conscience and lawful preferences to send their children to schools established by the state, or any particular type of school designated by the state.

This suited the Church. They knew that their narrative was hegemonic. The republican narrative could also accept it: after all this hegemony was not secured by rights, or privileges, but by numbers. In 2010/2011, Churches controlled 96% of Primary Schools (Catholic Church 94%) whose standards the state supervised, whose teachers it paid and whose buildings it subsidised.  Despite the Catholic Church’s control over this vital means for the transmission of its narrative, the numbers changed. The church lost its hegemony but not its control.

As the number of committed or docile Catholics declined, both parents and catholic schools faced problems. The number of parents who did not want their children to receive religious instruction increased. Many of them found that they had no option but to send them to schools were such instruction was offered. The problem was exacerbated by developments in educational thinking that favoured a holistic over a subject based view. Education was more than teaching subjects, it was the creation of learning experiences that could be assessed for the opportunities they provided for advancing literacy, numeracy, social skills… It followed ‘that the separation of religion and secular instruction into differentiated subject compartments serves only to throw the whole educational function out of focus’. 1 If religious education was an aim then ‘a religious spirit should inform and vivify the whole work of the school’ 2. The problem was attenuated in that in an increasing number of homes religion had but a vestigial presence. If religion did not permeate the ethos of the home it is hard to see how it could in any practical sense permeate the ethos of the school. Nonetheless, the problem could not be avoided. The first moves to solve it sought accommodations that would cause the least disturbance to existing arrangements.

The Department of Education became more willing to accommodate parents who were prepared to manage schools with an ethos that they favoured. The number of schools under the patronage of ‘Educate Together’ and Gaelscoileanna increased. The Catholic Church recognised the diversity of the students in their schools. No child would be obliged to attend religious instruction against the wishes of its parents. No child would be marginalised for not attending such instruction. Catholic schools had traditionally concentrated on education in religion, now they recognised the merit of supplementing it with education about religion. The problem did not go away.

The narrative would have to move from accommodation to adaptation. Adaptation seeks to find solutions with the minimum impact on the balance of power among the interests involved. As we have seen the Catholic Church, thanks to its past status and present position as patron, is a major player. It is not surprising that next development accepted its position on the importance of religion in education. The question was not how we can exclude religious instruction from schools but how we can devise a system of patronage that respects a diversity of faiths in the ethos and curriculum of schools? The solution was to ask VECs to take responsibility for the patronage of ‘community national schools’. Representatives of various faiths and educationalists would work together to advise them on a curriculum that would be an ‘education in religion’ and not just an ‘education about religion’. The solution was pertinent in those areas where immigration had introduced a sizeable number of adherents to faiths that had previously been too small in number and too widely dispersed to be significant. It was less relevant, if not irrelevant, to the more general circumstance where indifference to religion or hostility to the Catholic Church were the issue. The adaptation may have resolved a problem of competing aims; the problem of finding purposes matched to them remained. And it was difficult. The task of devising a curriculum for a multi-faith school is not guaranteed success.

It is difficult to see how a major rethinking of the aims of education and the state’s role in attaining them could be avoided. One grand narrative had fade what could replace it? As we have seen, the Constitution reflects an alliance between two narratives.  If the people who gave themselves the Constitution recognised themselves as predominantly Catholic, they also recognised themselves as members of a nation (‘gratefully remembering their [fathers’] heroic struggle to regain their rightful independence of our nation’) who as republicans believed the people to be sovereign in a democracy.

The alliance did not deliver a synthesis. While the narratives overlapped, they had contradictory elements. Groups could mobilise support by exploiting the contradictions. Right wing groups asked how Catholics could be loyal a state who did not acknowledge the supreme authority of their god as mediated by the church. The nation was Catholic, how could the state not be? Left wing or liberal groups asked how republican was a state that conceded so much de facto power over education and social policy to an unaccountable and ‘authoritarian’ church.

There is no doubt that the republican/nationalist narrative could provide an inspiring account of the aims of education. This republican education would unite children of different religious backgrounds or none, in an understanding of their nation’s aspirations to advance the welfare of all while securing and extending their freedom. The problem is not complicated. A sizeable number, if not majority, of citizens are either opposed to, or uncaring of, the aims and purposes of catholic education. The state should move in and take over the patronage of schools, replacing the catholic ethos with a republican ethos. The Constitution protects the rights of the fervent catholic minority. They cannot be forced to send their children to republican schools. No doubt arrangements could be made to allow them their own schools. But as befits a modern republic the majority of children will attend secular schools.

It is easy to track the decline of the catholic narrative. The figures of attendance at mass are available. Surveys of opinion report the extent to which church doctrines are accepted. Indirect evidence comes from the media. They would hardly persist in their unremitting hostility to all things catholic if they believed that it damaged their circulation or reduced their audiences: whatever their aims they have a clear interest in sustaining advertising revenues. It is harder to assess the health of the republican/nationalist narrative. The low level of trust in politicians and other public servants, the decline in the numbers voting in general elections or joining political parties are evidence of decline. The calls for ‘leadership’, ‘vision’ or a ‘new mythology of what it means to be Irish’ suggest a lack of motivating aims. The failure of the republican education narrative to supplant the catholic narrative is further evidence of its decline. While this narrative could be heard, the surprising thing is how weak was its voice.

The recommendations of the Advisory Group can be seen as another effort at adaptation. All agree on the demand for greater diversity. The Catholic Church acknowledges reality and is prepared to divest itself of patronage to meet it. It had asked the Department of Education to identify districts, or catchment areas, where there was a settled population, a lack of diversity of schools and a number of schools within a reasonable distance of each other. In these districts, the Church could surrender patronage while ensuring that parents who wanted a Catholic education for their children could find a school within a reasonable distance. The Advisory Group recommended that parents in these districts should be surveyed on their preferences. The results will inform decisions on the transfer of patronage. The Department of Education has identified forty-four districts and invited expressions of interest in the patronage of primary schools in them. Parents will be surveyed in October 2012.

While the report of the Advisory Group maybe an adaptation of policy, it marks a significant adjustment in how policy narratives are written. It does not find a new formulation of ends and purposes to carry the narrative forward but it does present a new way of determining what these might be. The minister in welcoming the report of the Advisory Group said ‘For many parents this will the first time they will have a say in the type of primary school that they want their children to go to, whether it is denominational, multidenominational, all Irish or other’. The choice that they will make will inform decisions that the government will make about patronage. Parents are being linked into the education policy narrative in a new way. Henceforth, they will be important players in shaping how that narrative proceeds. What is the character of the new link, which we may expect to see replicated, in other policy narratives?

It is not an exercise in deliberative democracy. Parents are not being invited to come together as citizens charged with identifying aims and purposes that the state should favour in primary education. They are linked into the policy narrative as consumers. Their interests with regard to their children’s education will be taken into account. The reasons behind these interests remain out of view. While the state has no view on the aims and purposes of education, it does have interests. These result from its role vis a vis the consumers of education. It seeks to achieve the maximum choice for parents.  Although indifferent to the substance of ethos, the state is far from indifferent to the standards achieved within any particular ethos. Hence, the government’s frequently voiced concern to improve standards of numeracy and literacy. Supposing that religious instruction is the subject through which ethics is taught to primary school students, it is concerned with the ethical standards (ethicancy?) of those who do not attend such instruction. A new programme is to be introduced: education about religion and beliefs and ethics (A fourth ‘R’ Right thinking/doing?).  This turn in the policy narrative exemplifies Bobbitt’s well known analysis that western states have moved from ‘nation-states’ to ‘market-state’: the former win legitimacy with their claim to defend and expand the welfare of the nation, the latter with their claim to maximise the opportunities of their citizens.

The term ‘market-state’ can mislead. It could suggest that a doctrinaire view that economic markets are the best, the most reliable allocator of resources, prevails. This is clearly not the view of either the Minister or the Advisory Group. If it was, they would have solved the problem with a voucher system and without the attention that they pay to equality and rights. They do not opt for an economic paradigm but they do opt out of a political paradigm that offered the possibility of an authoritative aggregation of aims, purposes and interests.  That political paradigm with its political parties and grand narratives has failed. The case of the development of policy on the patronage of primary schools indicates that new paradigm will involve writing policy narrative from the ‘ground up’. The centre will no longer write the script. Its role will be to identify what problems merit attention and how the ‘grass roots’ can be facilitated in finding solutions to them.

The new linkage can be seen as an improvement. Indeed, it might be argued that it is the first time ‘the inalienable right and duty of parents to provide… for the religious and moral, intellectual, physical and social education of their children’ has been given full effect. When the Constitution was adopted and right up to the present, the force of this article was to keep the State out, rather than let parents into, important dimensions of educational policy.

The fixing of aims/purposes of education is a complicated matter, It involves the expertise of teachers, philosophers and educationalists. The majority of parents because they were Catholics accepted the authority of the churches experts on these matters.  The new linkage does not replace this authority with another more acceptable one. It dispenses with authority. The parents believe that they know their interests in the matter of the education of their children. The state believes that it knows its interest in education generally. The reasoning that justifies these interests remains unarticulated. It is not exposed to challenge. It is not open to learning or development. Is a design for democracy where parents converse with experts, where aims/purposes enter the debate alongside interests inconceivable? Is a design that excludes this possibility workable?

I address these questions in Part 5.


  1. Primary School Curriculum, Teacher’s Handbook, Part 1 1971, p19
  2. Ibid p23

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