Skip navigation

Tag Archives: business

The strike action at Dublin Bus is more significant and more serious than most commentators seem to imagine. This is because it calls into question the quasi-constitutional understanding of industrial relations and the central role of trade unions within that.

Leaving aside the layers of rules and institutions developed over decades so that industrial relations can be orderly and manageable, there is a base and it is this: a trade union involved in strike action cannot be sued by the company for the recovery of strike-related losses. It’s old (It was formative in the birth of the Labour Party.) it’s been effective and it’s generally supported. There are two groups who dislike it. Firstly, there are free marketeers who argue that it is restrictive. Secondly, there are leftists who see that it institutionalises unions within a capitalist economy. They are both right.

In short, the state has privileged most strike actions so that strikes can be resolved while causing relatively little disruption to the wider social system. The privileged or legitimate strike action is one directed by workers and unions against their employers. If the action extends beyond that, the union no longer enjoys state protection. If there is a strike in support of something over which the employer has no control, the Union is no longer protected by statute and could be held liable for losses.

This is where the bus strike gets very serious. It is clearly a political strike and it has been made so by government policy in giving the Transport Authority control over bus routes. The bus workers want to maintain their conditions and pay, and have struck against their employer to prevent the privatisation of routes. Their employer of course is subject to the Transport Authority and certainly cannot control the pay of workers in private bus companies.

It’s not at all clear what the privatisation is meant to achieve. The Minister says that the tendering plan is aimed at creating “competitive tension in the market” and that this will in some unexplained way deliver “greater value” and “more choice for passengers”. Clearly this is a fine example of complete bollocks, no more than the mumbled prayer of a dogmatic advocate of markets. Journalism however shares the dogma; media interviews, in failing to make any challenge, are cementing a baseless belief into the wall of common sense.

What we have is the potential to place at risk a developed and trusted system of industrial relations so that there will be “competitive tension” in public transport. The risk is real because according to reports the bus company is seriously considering suing the unions for losses. Now, those who want no connection between the state and unions would rejoice in awarding damages to the company but the rest of us who rely on good industrial relations practice do not want to lose a century of progress.

This confrontation must be avoided. This means refusing to listen to clichés about returning to negotiations. The workers and management within the company cannot negotiate a solution. The solution lies elsewhere in a public discussion of “competitive tension” and in the event that the term is not only meaningful but demonstrably and greatly advantageous, then the state must move to institute pay rates and conditions (a registered employment agreement) across the public transport industry. Again, a confrontation which jeopardises the very basis of industrial relations must be avoided.


I get as much fun as the next person from the kind of language referred to as bafflegab, management-speak or simply, complete bollocks. I’ve gone considerably further, however, in suggesting that its users be sacked or at least demoted to positions from which they can do less harm. This can strike some people – perhaps, most people – as extreme, so I’d best explain.

The explanation has two parts. Firstly, I’ll talk about the takeover of management by a new and self-serving elite which changes the objective of a business or organisation. Secondly, I’ll explain why a tendency for a senior staff member to talk in riddles should lead not to jokes but to remedial action.

i) The drive to measure rather than produce
It’s important not to misunderstand the target of my attack. What I’m saying has nothing whatsoever to do with liberalism versus socialism or business versus public service approaches to problem solving. Neither has it anything to do with the traditional clash of interests between worker and manager. In other words, I’m not advancing anything remotely like a left-wing argument.

I am contrasting the relatively new parasite that is managerialism with old fashioned business and management. Management as it is usually understood is directed towards the objective of an organisation – be that profit or service. However, when the objective of those in control has less to do with the purpose of the institution/organisation/company which employs them and more to do with the common cause of similarly placed people in other organisations, management as traditionally understood has been usurped.

The managerial parasite works by making the production of management information the primary purpose of an enterprise. Again, there is a need to clarify because I’m not assaulting the production of management information or indeed effective management. Management information is both essential and costly. Its production diverts people from their work and requires support staff. Each and every management report has to be accurately costed before a decision can be made to begin producing it. In short, management information has to be kept to the minimum necessary to achieving an objective. In the absence of rigorous costing and an eye to the bare essentials, it is very easy for measurement, data collection and the manufacture of reports to get out of hand. Professionals in management information have been aware of the paradox for decades: management information is part of a control system but its production too needs to be tightly controlled. As with any product, if the distinction between production and control breaks down, management has broken down.

To get a hold in an organisation, managerialism must first oust efficient managers. Then it creates a layer of employees who live off information processes that effective management would never tolerate. Despite its cloaking image it is no friend of business.

The bloated salaries within this expanded elite are in evidence across companies and in both the private and state sectors. The same is true of bizarre new job titles. New structures are created which facilitate high level appointments. Most affected companies will have seen an expansion in the numbers appointed to what were once very senior – perhaps unique – well paid positions (e.g. “Director”). Most obvious is the recourse to a lexicon which is silly and frequently derided – the complete bollocks which is often termed, management-speak – as if a real manager would ever have need of such nonsense.

ii) Bafflegab as affiliation signal
There was a time when I assumed that the function of talking in obscure management-speak was to provide cover to a wasteful system by way of constant use of seemingly businesslike and efficiency oriented words. That is to say, I thought the bizarre language was a device to cloak futile activity in terms that give the impression of innovation, progress and effective decision making.

The problem with my early view of course is that the bizarre language is so transparently false. No thinking person would be fooled and the familiar reaction is laughter and derision. With the possible exceptions of some particularly dense practitioners, the speakers must be aware that people are laughing at them. It is certain too that they get the joke and know full well that they are talking bollocks. This prompts the question of why they persist with it.

Borrowing from anthropology, a plausible explanation is that the silly manner of speaking or – to be blunt – the complete bollocks is an affiliation signal. The adoption and use of the latest buzzword, the elimination of clarity, the overblown expression and the rest that go to make up management-speak is a signal that the speaker is a member of the new elite, will adhere to conventions, will not criticise, will support and promote his/her fellows or that the speaker aspires to membership.

This ease of identification is possibly the one advantage that a manager might have in trying to eliminate the problem in a company or organisation.

Regaining control
Depressing as it is to consider, there may be no way back. It is worth bearing in mind that quite large numbers of people earn a living from all this waste and any attempt by one organisation to reform will be resisted, characterised as backward and eccentric. On the other hand, as a whole it is unsustainable. What an organisation might seek to do is return salaries, staffing, structures etc. to those pertaining at a chosen time in the past. Apart from the shock to the system, the pay cuts and the numbers made redundant or demoted, the choice of date would be difficult and critical. Choose too late a date and the roots of the problem might be left intact. Choose too early a date and there’s a risk of going back too far in the history of ICT, thereby stripping an organisation of its ability to operate legitimate, up-to-date systems.

Then there is the opportunity presented by the affiliation signal. A reforming CEO or group of managers could first purge senior levels of those who are signalling membership and gradually work downwards. Once it becomes clear that new, reforming management is taking back control of the organisation and that the managerial elite is under threat, aspiring members will stop signalling, cohesion will be lost and the organisation should ever so slowly – perhaps too slowly – begin to revert to purpose.

Moreover, this will gradually confer a mixed blessing on the rest of us: we’ll be subjected to a little less complete bollocks, we’ll be aware that businesses and services are being liberated, and allowed to flourish but at the cost of making the fun of bullshit bingo a thing of the past.

My long-time friend, Eamon Tuffy, socialist and former county cllr, reminded me recently that it’s no longer clear if South Dublin County Council has a county manager. That post now seems to be Chief Executive.* It might be argued that this makes no difference. However, it is certain that the change was discussed and decided upon. In other words, there are reasons.

The change was, moreover, not done in isolation. There are now “Directors of …” and the council is adamant that it will redefine citizens as customers.

What we are witnessing is our local county council taking part in much wider phenomenon: corporatisation. **

Too many local politicians want to be community workers and to avoid bringing politics into … well, politics – and they’ll try to convince themselves that words don’t matter.*** Words do matter and these changes will appear over and over in media in order to drive home their acceptability and the acceptability of the political changes they reflect.

There’s no point in attacking Frank Flannery or indeed Angela Kerins. His argument needs to be addressed. What he is saying is that because Rehab is a private company which sells to the HSE among others, the State has no business looking into its internal affairs. The problem is that the way things are he’s right.

Let’s leave aside the question of supplying citizen services through a private company and consider implementing public policy by way of placing conditions on the awarding of state contracts. We do this already in that companies seeking state contracts have to prove they are tax compliant.

If ludicrous salaries paid within companies working for the state are to be addressed, it will have to be a condition of the contract. A condition of a state contract could be that no employee or director or pensioner of the company has an income in excess of some multiple of the lowest paid employee or perhaps the legal minimum wage or the median wage in Ireland.

It’s really a matter of deciding whether or not we want to do anything about ludicrous salaries. If we do, it will necessarily mean discussing and deciding on an amount above which we do not want our state to facilitate.

Apart from stratospheric incomes like those of the top 1%, rich people tend not to consider themselves rich or to be in receipt of ludicrous salaries. They think their pay is moderate and that they’re worth it. They need to be disabused of that view.**

They also tend to resort to “fairness” to oppose any move to reduce inequality. They argue that it would not be fair to do anything to anyone until all of those similarly situated can be treated equally. Like all forms of “whataboutery” this argument should be vigorously resisted.



Here is Tom Lyons, Senior Business Correspondent at the Irish Times, reporting on a new league table on “competitiveness”:

The headline reads, “Ireland moves up to 15th in competitiveness rankings”

He tells us about his source: “The World Competitiveness Yearbook is compiled annually by Swiss-based business school IMD and measures how countries manage economic and human resources to increase prosperity based on statistical criteria and a survey of 4,300 international executives.”

Here’s the problem. For citizens the debate about competitiveness has been about keeping wages low so that Ireland can compete with low wage economies. Tom’s report, however, tells us that Ireland is ranked at 15th, while China, India and Brazil are ranked 23rd, 44th and 54th respectively.

He also notes that Japan has moved up to 21st place and quotes the W.C. Yearbook: “helped by a weaker currency that has improved its competitiveness abroad”.

Clearly competitiveness is not primarily to do with low wages. Indeed it may have little to do with wages.

It might be argued that it is unreasonable to expect Tom Lyons writing for specialists in the Business and Technology supplement to explore or even mention this but “competitiveness is not primarily to do with wages” is a mere eight words. Moreover, an article could be written in the main newspaper itself advising citizens not to confuse professional measurements of competitiveness with data for use in debates about the minimum wage and other low earnings.

I wrote recently about how concern over commercialisation of the universities was masking the larger problem – and frankly, the scandal – that is the usurpation of conventional management. A relatively new elite have changed the objectives of the universities to their own interest. In doing so they have used a familiar lexicon to disguise their efforts, to make them appear efficient and business-like. They have misused access to information systems to invert the relationship between management information and management objectives.*

My reason for returning to the topic so soon is that reaction to the original piece, while oddly favourable, has missed the point. Many of those who’ve spoken to me about the piece assumed that it was taking sides in the entirely bogus debate that is frontline workers versus administrators. It’s worth emphasising that what has been done to university management is common to many – perhaps most – organisations. I’ve had lecturers and post grad workers say to me that I was right to comment on the growth of admin. staff and the decline in academic staff. I made no such comment.

With the rise of electronic and the decline of paper systems three things were inevitable. Firstly, many of those who operated the paper systems would have to go or adapt. Secondly, the electronic systems would require technical and user support staff. Thirdly, the increase in data production would create a need for more administration. In short, it’s not in the least paradoxical that more efficient systems would demand staff increases. All of this can and should be managed. Change is not a recent phenomenon and has always had to be managed. The contrived specialisation of the likes of “change management” is as much a fetish as the production of management information for its own sake.

Setting frontline workers – be they doctors, firefighters or academics – against administrators suits those who are the real problem. They will side with the frontline workers and condemn administration in the language of efficiency. If successful, they are so well entrenched that it is they who will decide which administrators will go and what is best done by contractors. Thus, aided by their apparent critics in academia, their grip on universities will tighten at the expense of poorly paid staff and those remaining managers who might have offered some opposition.


Arguments over the commercialisation of university education are part of two wider controversies. Firstly, there is a familiar dispute between extreme liberals and the rest of us. Liberals think that businesslike approaches and the imposition of markets will solve all or most problems. The rest hold that such thinking has limited application and that there are products and services which ought not be traded or subjected to competition and markets. There is, however, a second, less obvious and usually neglected controversy, and in this the universities represent one site in which a wider struggle over the future of management is being played out.

The ease with which this second controversy can be neglected is plain in a recent piece by Fintan O’Toole. It is also evident in a university manager’s attempt to get off the hook for what was done to universities in order to create a match with similar inefficiencies in other organisations.

The fundamental mistake in analysing the damaging process of commercialisation is to view it as merely a clash of market or business management values with those of public service. It is very definitely at odds with public service but it is also at odds with good management – even management whose focus is entirely business oriented. When Fintan points out that the apparently market driven university is failing in market terms, he gets close but misses the entrance to the more labyrinthine truth. That a commercial approach is failing in commercial terms should prompt a doubt that market success is the objective. What Fintan misses is that it has little to do with market success and a lot to do with turning the objective of a university into the objectives of a new elite.

Attention must turn to what is usually termed managerialism as opposed to management. Many of those made fat by the former deflect criticism by characterising all questioning as some kind of worker opposition to management. It is nothing of the sort; assaults on managerialism tend to be a defence of management in the face of a hostile, destructive takeover.

When the objective of managers has little to do with their institution/organisation/company and more to do with common cause of similarly placed managers in other organisations, management as traditionally understood has been usurped.

The bloated salaries are in evidence across companies and in both the private and state sectors. The same is true of bizarre new job titles, the creation of new structures which duplicate management and facilitate high level appointments, expanding the numbers in what were once very senior – perhaps unique – well paid positions (e.g. “Director”), reliance on a lexicon which is silly and frequently derided but which gives to waste the impression of being businesslike and efficient. Above all this is a shared change of “product” so that the creation of management information becomes an end in itself.

The production of management information is both essential and costly. It diverts people from their work and requires support staff. Each and every management report has to be accurately costed before a decision can be made to begin producing it. In short, management information has to be kept to the minimum necessary to achieving an objective. In the absence of rigorous costing and an eye to the bare essentials, it is very easy for measurement, data collection and the manufacture of reports to get out of hand. Professionals in management information have been aware of the paradox for decades: management information is part of a control system but its production needs to be tightly controlled.

Universities fell to the parasite as inflated salaries, new titles, changes in structures, a bogus business approach and way of speaking, and a drive to measure rather than produce became the predictable course. It is simply untrue to say that the HEA or any other external pressure caused this. The HEA is similarly troubled and is as keen to demand information as the new “industry” is to produce it.

The change was complex, thorough and involved a large number of staff. However, if one development were to be selected as typical and demonstrative of a university parting company with its age old objective, it might be the demand for stated “learning objectives”. While “learning” itself suggests the thoughtful, critical, creative aspect of a university education, a “learning objective” suggests the acquisition of a skill. At that point the desire to measure, to gather information was changing the role of the university.

Depressing as it is to consider, there may be no way back. It is worth bearing in mind that quite large numbers of people earn a living from all this and any attempt by one organisation to reform will be resisted, characterised as backward and eccentric. On the other hand, as a whole it is unsustainable. What an organisation (in this case a university) might seek to do is return salaries, staffing, structures etc. to those pertaining at a chosen time in the past. Apart from the shock to the system, the pay cuts and the numbers made redundant or demoted, the choice of date would be difficult and critical. Choose too late a date and the roots of the problem might be left intact. Choose too early a date and there’s a risk of going back too far in the history of ICT, thereby stripping a university of its ability to operate legitimate, up-to-date systems. One thing is certain: there can be no reform if the problem is understood as simple commercialism.

Michael Taft writing in Unite’s Notes From the Front reports favourably on Switzerland’s 1:12 initiative and other moves to reduce inequality of income.* This is really good stuff from Switzerland and it’s the sort of approach the Irish Labour Party and the left generally should be taking: Link top pay to the minimum wage or the pay of low paid staff members. Moreover, every initiative, every policy, every budget should be evaluated with reference to inequality of income. I might add that every cut in public expenditure should be similarly evaluated. Since 2012 this kind of equality audit has been Labour Party policy but it’s a well-kept secret and labour’s critics on the left show not the slightest interest in it.**

The notion of limiting top pay to a multiple of the lowest pay appears in the thinking of even the British Conservative Party.

I put forward an argument that the first cut in the public service pay bill should be a cap on pay and extras of 100k and a 50k ceiling on pensions. It was met with hostility to the extent that I couldn’t get my own branch or constituency Labour Party to put it on the 2012 conference agenda.*** How about now putting it to a plebiscite now?

There were other proposals. One was to call the bluff of those who said that increases in the minimum wage would close businesses especially in the hospitality industry. The suggestion was that the minimum wage would be payable only within companies whose top earning staff member or director had an income of less than, say, three times the minimum wage; all other firms would pay the minimum wage plus, say, three euro per hour. Another was that state contracts would be confined to companies whose top earning staff member or director had an income of less than, say, three times its lowest paid staff member or, say, four times the lowest paid staff member in any of its contractors.

The multiples can be debated and indeed changed periodically. The important point is that inequality of income becomes a matter of public controversy.

Media coverage of Pat Kenny’s transfer from RTE to Newstalk was of two types: celebrity gossip and business news, neither of which pays the slightest attention to how public controversy should be presented by broadcast media. The move prompted not even a mention of content.*

Think about it: the biggest name in Irish broadcast politics moves to a rival organisation and editorial policy will be unaffected by his going or his coming. That should be pretty shocking; it should prompt people in the industry to question their understanding of “rival” – or indeed “competition” or “alternative”.

It is easily forgotten that Newstalk’s purpose was to have been an alternative to RTE. Purveyors of the public consensus or conventional viewpoints moving between stations is a measure of the failure of a basic policy: it is simplistic to believe that broadcasting stations under different ownership will deliver choice in any meaningful sense of the word. If we want challenging, alternative, discursive media – or media nailed to any other praiseworthy communication adjective – we will have to regulate to make it happen. At this stage in the history of media it is pretty silly to continue to believe that competition alone will deliver.

Of course no one ever seriously believed that competition would deliver the range or type of media that is thought desirable; that’s why there are regulations to ensure balance, Irish language content, news, limited advertising etc. etc. The notion that different owners would deliver different political perspectives, or alternative or challenging points of view was entirely unfounded but still formed the basis of a belief that competition would be good for Irish public controversy.

The problem of course is stations staffed by bien pensants, having a shared perspective on the world, will inevitably compete for audience by offering not different content but different formats and personalities. There is a great deal to be said for this detached professional approach but it does lead to sameness and at this stage of its development it is quasi-institutional.**

Public Service Broadcasters in Ireland, like the UK, are subject to regulations in relation to coverage of public controversy and other matters broadly political. If a citizen considers a regulation to have been breached, he/she is entitled to submit a complaint and receive an explanation. The complaint may go to the BAI for determination. Having to explain oneself and be criticised in public is considered sufficient to ensure compliance. A problem, however, is that staging a thorough debate is not an obligation and cannot be a matter of complaint. Bluntly, it’s not something that need overly concern the producers. Now, a dismissive response would be to say that “thorough debate” is too vague to constitute an obligation. Firstly, that’s not true; most citizens have a grasp of what is meant and a list of features could be produced. Secondly, the essential feature of complaint as a compliance mechanism is that it forces people to respond, to say what they were trying to achieve in the programme. In short, if we wanted a debate, we’d make it an obligation.

According to last Tuesday’s Irish Times, the following appears in an unpublished draft of the HSE’s spending plans.
“It is planned that the investment will take place in quarter 4, 2013 contingent upon the achievement of the PSA [public sector agreement] savings. A ceiling uplift is needed for these developments,” –

“A ceiling uplift”!! Jesus wept! Now, this kind of complete bollocks might be funny if it were not indicative of a parasitic scourge which prevents effective management. The parasitic element is usually distinguished from management by use of the term “managerialism”.

Whoever wrote the HSE draft should go and anyone more senior, who did not fire the draft across the room and insist that it be rewritten, should join him or her. Furthermore, the report itself should be disregarded because – being infected by managerialism – it will be self-serving. Its purpose will not be to improve the HSE or to serve the citizen. Managerialism doesn’t work like that; it uses a language deceptively close to the language of efficiency and business to ensure the prosperity and growth of its adherents.

To get a hold in an organisation, managerialism must first oust efficient managers; it is no friend of business. The bizarre language that is used cloaks futile activity in terms that give the impression of innovation, progress and effective decision making. It also creates a layer of employees who live off information processes that effective management would never tolerate. It is a very, very serious problem and dealing with will be difficult because its adherents now hold key positions and because doing away with it would result in many job losses.

However, many organisations could usefully look at their structures and staffing of about ten years ago and see what has been done to them as systems became central rather than service, as job titles increased and became bizarre, and as the language of effective management was reduced to complete bollocks.

Let’s be clear. This was an Irish scam. Lending companies had access to lots of relatively cheap “international” money. This was “imported” and lent to the relatively poor so that extraordinary property prices could be paid to the rich.

In terms of page-one economics the price of a house was determined by whatever people were prepared to pay. The graph shows that income and costs increased steadily but house prices took off on a bewildering upward trajectory.
From Michael Taft’s Notes from the Front.

Traditional lending conventions linking income with loan size were dropped in order to maximise borrowing and this made large payments to the rich chancers possible (” ). The scam was greased by making some people desperate (“You need to get on the property ladder.”) and by convincing others that they too could be successful speculators (“It’s a no brainer; property prices don’t fall in Ireland.”).

The interesting question is this: How did so many people fall for the scam? Firstly, it needs to be emphasised that not everyone fell for it. Secondly, while citizens correctly expect those of their fellow citizens who are paid to think, manage and comment to warn them of scams, they were sorely let down. I’ve argued elsewhere that these well-paid failures who did not speak out time and again either because they were too stupid to see the scam or so lacking in integrity that they abandoned their jobs to hide within the scam, should now be moved to jobs more suited to their shortcomings. In short a significant portion (perhaps a majority) of Ireland’s professional elite has been exposed as thick or turpid or both. (” )

It is, however, a mistake to view all of the victims of the scam as blameless. No matter how many times managers and media encourage a person to be foolish there remains a personal obligation to be prudent. Of course there are times when a scam is so well done that little or no blame can attach to the victim but that is not the case in relation to the Irish lending scam. Despite the elite chatter and media torrent in support of foolishness, ordinary conversations about the dangers were commonplace and there were many warning voices which could have been heeded. Moreover, as the scam developed there was increasing concrete evidence in plain sight sufficient to warn all but the wilfully blind or the addicted risk-taker.

Young people are particularly vulnerable to scams and are often preyed upon. The property scam was no exception. The pressure to “get on the property ladder” was relentless and in a just world a nasty fate would await anyone who dispensed this advice – especially when it was dispensed as it became more and more clear that the end was approaching.

Mature victims drawn into a reckless gamble were less vulnerable and their fellow citizens should be less forgiving of their stupidity and/or avarice.

The argument that the victims should be bailed out for reasons different to those offered for baling out the banks is untenable. There was no moral or legal reason for baling out banks. Leaving aside young people and cases where no blame could attach, there is no moral or legal reason to bail out victims of the scam either. However, a functioning liberal economy or the view that these people in aggregate qualify as “too big to fail” may be very good reasons why careful, thinking citizens will have to bail out these people as well as the banks.

On this morning’s Marian Finucane radio programme * a discussion began about the culpability of former Taoiseach, Brian Cowen, for Ireland’s economic mess. From former minister, Mary O’Rourke, came the familiar routine of “we all had a party, so no one is at fault” and then Eddie Hobbs offered the view that the ordinary person couldn’t be expected to understand an economic bubble and that those he calls “gatekeepers” failed to warn the general public.**

Eddie is wrong. Anyone with normal intelligence, a basic education and a little interest in their surroundings could see that – whatever about the wider world – Ireland was headed for a fall. Failing to see this required enormous stupidity or wilful blindness. It was a topic of discussion among ordinary people, many of whom could see that the property boom was a scam, bound to end. These ordinary people held on to their savings and/or didn’t borrow to buy property.

Eddie is right, however, to blame “gatekeepers” for failing. The term usually refers to media workers but Eddie included public service economists. Two points need to be made. Firstly, the distinction is correctly drawn here between people who are paid to think, write, speak up and manage and the rest who are merely expected to do these things. It is the difference between citizens and those whom society expects to do a particular job because they are paid for it. Who are these people? Clearly, elected politicians, advisers, civil servants, economics professionals, journalists, producers and researchers are included but so too are public commentators, lecturers, teachers and managers – particularly managers in banking and finance.

Secondly, nothing whatsoever has been done about this failure. Let’s be blunt: If an electrician or plumber failed to perform to the point of wrecking the house, they’d hardly be let continue. (Well, in view of the dangerous buildings now coming to light, that may be a topic in itself.) In the case of those paid to think, write and speak up … Nothing! They are all still there. They did not do what they were paid to do and they are all still there. They are known to be useless and they are all still there.

They didn’t fail to perform some difficult task. There are many failures trying to find cover in the fabrication that Ireland’s economic crash came as a surprise. It bears repeating that only a complete fool could have confused a building boom with a productive economy and only the wilfully blind could have failed to see the bricks and mortar evidence accumulating across the country. (That some did see the problem but remained silent is a different kind of failure. ***)

It is simply implausible to suggest that some kind of recovery could be achieved while so many of those paid to think and to manage are demonstrably unable or unwilling to do their jobs.
** At about 11.00 mins. into the programme.

The list of things which well-meaning people have suggested should be added to the school curriculum is endless. Karlin Lillington, a very good tech. journalist, has argued in The Irish Times Business and Technology supplement (March 28th 2013) that coding be taught at school.* The thesis is that since many companies have started with the lone, self-taught coder, having a mass of people able to code would prompt business start-ups and would make many young people ready to take up employment in the tech. sector.

On the face of it, it seems an attractive idea but – and surprisingly from someone like Karlin Lillington – it is strangely outdated and out of touch with the reality of work today.

Two of the central planks supporting the argument are very weak. Firstly, while it is very likely that those who started and built a business on their inventive coding were at it from age 14 or younger, that observation has a familiar ring because it is made regularly about all manner of industry. Media regularly carry anecdotes about business people being enterprising from a very early age and these reports are often linked to a demand that business and enterprise appear on the school curriculum.

Secondly, there is nothing to indicate that anything like the majority of jobs in the tech. sector call for coding skills. A cursory examination of the recruitment sections on the websites of the large tech. companies reveals an interesting research project. Some of these companies recruit some coders, some recruit none. All, however, require competence in operating the new technology and in the ways of working that the technology has created. Indeed it might be argued that the belief that coding skills should be universal rests on a simple misunderstanding around the term “tech. industries”.**

Aside from the basics of the argument, Karlin may be getting too close to the technology and paying insufficient attention to its effects. “Today’s children,” she says, “will graduate into an overwhelmingly digital world, where daily life is immersed in code.” That’s simply untrue and misunderstands mass use of digital devices and media. Most young people don’t understand the word “digital” and think it means “modern” or even “cool”. Their life is not immersed in code; they are unaware of the code running their devices. Their playful indifference to matters technological, coupled with ease of use, may even obscure something that flies in the face of the thoughtless consensus that “the kids are great with the computers!” At the heart of the error is the observation that children and young people generally use computer devices almost constantly. They seem to be very comfortable with them and they learn to use new devices and apps quickly. To complete the myth there’s an endless supply of old duffers prepared to feed the stereotype that is the older person, unable to adapt and acquire the skills to operate these new gadgets. The truth is that technology always develops from specialist to mass or domestic use. In the 1970s a basic video recorder was analogue, huge, expensive, confined to TV companies and required a skilled operator. Similarly, there was a time – and it is a long time ago now – when expertise was needed to do anything on a computer. Nowadays little or no skill is required for many uses.

Those young people who appear so computer savvy for the most part are doing little that is creative or clever.*** It is true that being inventive and developing new apps etc. requires skill but that kind of activity is rare. The difficulty is that not only do the majority of young people make little creative or intellectual use of the technology but they generally lack the skills to go beyond social media and games or even to maximise the potential. Imagine years ago if someone had admired a young person for being able to operate a television set! Well, admiring a young person for being constantly and comfortably on-line is almost as daft. It is also patronising.

There is a final theme in Karlin’s piece. It seems reasonable to suggest that coding skills would teach people how to think. There certainly is a need to teach young people to analyse, criticise, organise, solve problems and present their findings/arguments. However, teaching coding skills with this end in mind would be very restrictive and conservative. It would be a poor substitute for logic or philosophy more generally.

There needs to be a hard look at the easy assumptions that lead to demands for more and more training as opposed to education in schools. It was always the case that schooling needed to be general. Schools needed to produce people who could make their way in the world as both citizens and as workers. What technology has done is to emphasise this need. Put aside for now the making of decent, socialised people and of citizens prepared and able to participate in a republic. Those looking to serve the “jobs market” by reforming the education of children need to look more closely at the jobs.

It is absolutely certain that science and engineering specialists are required but there are two other things which are equally certain and they have been created by the technology at the heart of this discussion. Firstly, it is certain that aside from the most menial of jobs, there is now no employment in the developed world for the unskilled and uneducated. Secondly, outside of technical skills the world of work today calls for the generalist, someone who is adept with information, someone who can research, argue and present. These of course rest on literacy, numeracy and a great deal of general knowledge.**** In the short to medium term there is a demand for a second and third language.

There really is no place in the office (or at home or abroad linked to the office) for someone unable to speak and to write fluently and well, for someone unable to research independently, for someone without general knowledge and for someone with no grasp of mathematics, science and technology.

When thinking about the reform of education, it is a mistake to fall back on the centuries old division between humanities and science. It is a mistake too to emphasise training over education. These are not mistakes purely in terms of concerns that teaching should lead to the enjoyment of a full life. These are now mistakes in terms of serving industry.*****

If Karlin were to look around the office at the Irish Times and see what is actually being done and who does it best, and then travel to the tech. companies around Dublin, look again and perhaps sit in on a few routine meetings, she would see that teaching skills – other than literacy and numeracy – to children is a very outdated notion.


John Fallon reported in the Irish Times today that David Duffy, the CEO of Allied Irish Banks, intends a clean-up within the bank.* However, what is reported is that David Duffy has joined Fianna Fáil and Sinn Fein in asking citizens yet again to go WAWA (“We are where we are”). Yes, here we go again. What he proposes is that past wrongdoing be attributed to “culture” and that the bank makes a fresh start without getting rid of wrongdoers.

The wrongdoing in question is managers borrowing from their own bank to become developers or investors. David Duffy is clearly of the view that this is not just a bad practice but unethical and lacking in integrity. He is resolute that it will never happen again and that if it does, the manager will be dismissed.

The problem of course is that it can’t be wrong today but not wrong yesterday. That’s where the old reliable WAWA escape clause comes in and it’s all too familiar: “No one is guilty; it was the culture”. It’s a constant refrain in Ireland today. It is offered as an excuse for all sorts of failure and for crimes: failure to speak up while the economy was ruined, child abuse, political murders, laundry slavery and now dodgy borrowing by bank managers has been added to the list.

It is simply not credible that the chancers who were involved in these loans will now suddenly become people of integrity fit to be managers in an important institution. It is not acceptable that the CEO of this institution is prepared to go WAWA and to leave those not fit for office in place.

I realise that Una Mulally’s piece in the Irish Times on Saturday (*) last was essentially about the lifestyles of young workers in successful, fashionable companies located in Dublin’s docklands but there is something odd about it which prompted me to return to doubts I have about the basis on which rests the view that Ireland needs to increase the numbers graduating in science and engineering.

While I fear that the level of general knowledge and basic expertise in maths, science and engineering is well short of what a competent citizen requires to participate fully today, I can’t seem to find data which compels support for the view that the third level educational system should increase significantly the number of specialist graduates. The conventional media view, fuelled by those who teach maths, science and engineering – especially I.T – is that students are foolish if they do not clamour for entry to these courses which more or less guarantee employment. This is at odds with anecdotal evidence which suggests at least some level of unemployment. The key to this puzzle may lie in the term “tech sector”.

Here’s what Una Mulally reports, “Apparently some kind of economic crisis is going on, but in Dublin’s tech sector, where Facebook, Google, Twitter, LinkedIn, eBay, PayPal and Microsoft reign, the only way is up.” She then goes on to talk about skill shortages in Ireland which result in the immigration of bright young people from across Europe. However, here’s the interesting aspect: the only specific skill mentioned is languages and the only formal degree mentioned is a PhD in politics held by a young Italian woman who works in Dublin for PayPal.

With the possible exception of risk management (**) none of the jobs mentioned suggest that a degree in science or technology is a requirement; these people are working in marketing, customer support, business development and recruitment. However, they see themselves as working in the “tech sector”. It seems plausible to suggest that when journalists talk about career opportunities in the “tech sector”, they are not talking exclusively about technical jobs but about jobs traditionally filled by humanities and business graduates who now need a range of skills – well short of graduate level expertise – such as to make them employable not in a technological role but in office-type industries created by or fundamentally changed by I.T. generally and the net in particular. (***)

The almost cavalier use of the term “tech sector” may be contributing to woolly thinking about third level education in two distinct ways. (****) Firstly, there is risk that the requirement for science and engineering graduates becomes overstated. Secondly, there is a risk that the degree to which the office workplace has changed is not recognised and – language skills aside – this may be why the companies mentioned in the article need to search far and wide when recruiting graduates.


** The article doesn’t mention it but it is posibble that maths graduates are involved here.

*** I’ve written before about the changes wrought by technology and the skills which are now essentially a precondition for the employment of humanities graduates:

**** The two are discussed here:

It is intriguing that the presence of tiny amounts of horse DNA in beef burgers and the presence of 29% of horse in one beef burger continues to be covered by media as one story. It may be a profoundly depressing suggestion but it is possible that the reason for the conflation is an alarmingly poor grasp of basic mathematics.

Industry explanations for the presence of horse DNA go something like this: “We use pure Irish beef but we add some filler which we buy in from the continent and it is possible that this may have somehow been contaminated by horsemeat.”

Clearly if this explanation is applied to the 29% finding, it is complete bollocks. 29% is pushing on for one third horsemeat.

Let’s slap the beef down in front of us. It’s 100% Irish beef but in order to make it stick together and/or to reduce cost, we increase its volume by adding 50% imported filler. It is now roughly 60% Irish beef and 30% imported filler.

Assuming that the truth has been told about the Irish beef content, there is only one way that there could be 29% horsemeat in the burgers: the filler must have been almost 100% horsemeat! Pure horsemeat, not traces of horse DNA!

Yes, the figures above were made up but they are not fantastic. The point is that the story about traces of horse DNA is not the same story as the 29% horsemeat content. That it is treated as such feeds a fear either that journalists can’t grasp the numbers or that they can but they believe that citizens cannot.
I’ve mentioned poor basic maths before:

Deciding which political values will motivate policy is a great public controversy and it is one which the left is losing.

Contrast the following quotations.

Young people are “bringing a completely different set of values to the workplace. They’re not interested in a permanent pensionable job. They’re not interested in someone to mind them . . . They are interested in experiences and satisfaction and will move if the work is not satisfying for them.

“Organisations can satisfy that today because they are not providing permanent pensionable jobs. So there’s a completely different psychological relationship, and a really different type of commitment, between the employer and the employee. It’s far more contractual.” – Dr Melrona Kirrane, an organisational psychologist at DCU Business School, quoted by Joe Humphreys in the Irish Times January 12th 2013

In this article radical individualism is presented by Joe Humphreys as realism, youthful, progressive, satisfying.

Now try something very different.

“We know that the present economic morass through which we are struggling did not come about by accident. We know it came about because of a failed paradigm of economic policy, undeclared assumptions, skewed values, and the growth of a culture where our assets were valued and utilised on purely material considerations. It was a version of economics that was rooted in a radical individualism and a theory of infallible efficient markets delivered through policies of light or no regulation. We are all now grappling with the enormous consequences of that failure and must now move forward to a better model – one that will build social cohesion and provide a sustainable basis for economic development. We must reject the notion of normative citizens being reduced to the status of disaggregated rational utility maximisers in our theories and policies.” – President Michael D. Higgins at the Trinity Economic Forum, Friday, 3rd February, 2012

Michael D. bangs on in this vein regularly. He tends to be presented in the media as everyone’s favourite old uncle. He is heard with respect and ignored and all the while the causes of the economic collapse are pushed as antidotes under the pretence that they are new.

It was reported in The Irish Times of Jan. 4th that the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, Pat Rabbitte, was concerned about where Irish journalists’ denigration of politics will take us. He is essentially correct. However, his approach is far too simplistic.

He seems to think that better reporting would be a remedy. He neglects to consider that there is a consensus among journalists that amounts to a political theory. The informed, deliberative citizen of a republic does not feature. Rather the customer is supplied with revelations of wrongdoing and “unfairness”. Not convinced? Think about what even the best journalists say they want to do: investigative reporting! Politics is seen as antagonism between the “political class” which has control over endless resources which they are too mean (“not in touch with reality on the ground”) or too stupid (“It’s not rocket science.”) to spend, and pressure groups who force the “political class” to spend on whatever mobilises effective “activists” at the expense of groups less powerful.

It is both a complex and a deeply conservative political viewpoint and Pat poses no challenge to it other than to raise again the decades-old worry about the derision of representative democracy. A challenge, I’m convinced, will come only from siding with a republican/participative model of citizenship (as opposed to a liberal/consumerist model) and thinking about what – very approximately – the citizen requires of media. Then consideration of regulation can follow. After working out citizen service Pat could start with a broadcasting bill whose core is citizenship and not existing structures, practices and conventions.

There is no comparison between public service and private enrichment. Let us stop making one so as to attract “the right stuff” into public service.

“There may come a time some day when the country will have to face the question of paying the great heads of the Civil Service on a commercial basis. There is a constant temptation, and it is only those who, like the right hon. Gentleman opposite (Mr. Austen Chamberlain), myself and others who have had some experience, know what the temptation is. Great commercial undertakings are constantly trying to lure away our great Civil Servants by offers not of the same salary, not of twice, but of five or ten times the amount that they are receiving as Civil Servants. Some of them, for family and other reasons, succumb to the temptation, but most of them resist it. But there is an element of honour in the public service which will always be some sort of contribution and make towards the retention of these great public servants. When we offer £400 a year as payment of Members of Parliament it is not a recognition of the magnitude of the service, it is not a remuneration, it is not a recompense, it is not even a salary. It is just an allowance, and I think the minimum allowance, to enable men to come here, men who would render incalculable service to the State, and whom it is an incalculable loss to the State not to have here, but who cannot be here because their means do not allow it. It is purely an allowance to enable us to open the door to great and honourable public service to these men, for whom this country will be all the richer, all the greater and all the stronger for the un-known-vicissitudes which it has to face by having here to aid us by their counsel, by their courage, and by their resource.” –

The UK CHANCELLOR of the EXCHEQUER (David Lloyd George) moving his Payment of Members motion, HC Deb 10 August 1911 vol 29 cc1365-4831365

I’ve written before about managerialism [i] (as opposed to management) as a self-serving, parasitic weight on a huge range of enterprises. The HSE seems to be particularly burdened. Here’s a quotation from Kitty Holland in The Irish Times (Saturday, October 13, 2012):

“A HSE spokeswoman says a procurement process had been completed this year for the provision of enhanced home-care packages for which private and voluntary operators can tender. The packages include occupational therapy, physiotherapy and chiropody as well as home-help hours.

‘The arrangements commenced on July 1st, 2102, for a minimum of 12 months. The new arrangements refer to new packages to be allocated during that time,’ she says. A number of providers have won the contracts in each region, and about three-quarters of those are private operators.” [ii]


We’ve joked about management-speak or bafflegab [iii] for years; it is an amusing symptom of a deep malaise. However, it does help us to locate the malaise. When we hear of the composers of “mission statements”, “standard operating procedures”, “core competencies” and the likes, we should no longer laugh but approach the source with a view to excising it.

Anyone on the staff of the HSE who thinks that it makes sense when talking about home care to say that, “a procurement process had been completed this year for the provision of enhanced home-care packages for which private and voluntary operators can tender.”, must GO and go soon before they do any further damage. There must be some managers in the HSE who can be relied upon to manage in the meaningful sense of the word. It’s time they showed a little integrity and spoke up.


It’s not necessary for me to expand here on the difference between home-care and a standardised package which can be procured from competing operators because any thinking person is perfectly aware of the difference. One would have to be baffled by one’s own bafflegab, blinded by ambition, indoctrinated beyond the reach of common sense or plain stupid to think seriously that home-care is a product.


A leftist response might talk about this in terms of the move to privatise but privatisation is simply a consequence – a very profitable – consequence of what is happening here. Leftists would do better to think in terms of a powerful clique – even cult – having gained control over management and administration.


This is managerialism and its practitioners are confined neither to public nor private industry. When they assume control, the service or industry will be changed to operate in their interests. At this stage they are fairly large in number, so getting rid of them will cause unemployment but it will have to be done. They are redundant and should be treated as such. The problem will be finding real managers who can reorient an enterprise to its real purpose.