PIVOTAL ROLE Economist TK Whittaker in Castlebar Library in 2009. Pic: Ken Wright Photography
Mayo County Council and the missing Mayo 2040 strategy
The year is 1958 and the recently appointed young Secretary of the Department of Finance, Dr Kenneth Whitaker, sits in his Merrion Street office coming to terms with his realisation that the Irish economy is going down the tubes.
Massive emigration, population down to 2.8 million and in free-fall. Budget and balance of payments crises because inefficient firms, protected for decades behind tariff barriers, failed to generate export earnings. Agricultural incomes squeezed by the notorious British cheap food policy.
Something must be done, and quickly, if the country is to survive. So, Dr Whitaker has an idea. Why not hire a business consultancy firm to come up with a plan for a more prosperous future? Actually, no! What he did was to bring together a team of the best minds in his own, then small, department, with cross-departmental co-operation, and come up with the analysis that has guided Irish economic strategy from 1958 to the present day.
‘Economic Development’, published in 1958, contained no fanciful visions. No uplifting photos of people staring into the future. No images of lab technicians gazing into microscopes. No quizzical sheep in green fields. All it had was a detailed, sobering analysis of the state of the Irish economy, a diagnosis of what was wrong with economic policy, and concrete suggestions on changes that were necessary and feasible.
Dr Whitaker was lucky that the Taoiseach of the day – Seán Lemass – was pragmatic, down to earth and accepted good advice no matter where it came from. He encouraged the separate publication of Dr Whitaker’s ‘Economic Development’ as background to a series of political Programmes for Economic Expansion that gradually started to dig the economy out of the bog hole it was being sucked into.
Fast forward 60 years. It’s 2019 and Mayo County Council, perhaps recognising that Project Ireland 2040 – the national development strategy – had offered slim pickings for the county, sees the need for an economic strategy of its own to correct the imbalance: Mayo 2040. So, a team of the best minds in the council is brought together, with co-operative outreach to a wide range of relevant county organisations who could assist, and a Mayo strategy is quickly produced? Alas, no!
What actually happened was that terms of reference were drawn up and the work farmed out to the Dublin-based consultancy, EY. The cost was €100,000 and the delivery date was six months from commencement of work in November 2019.
Recognise the name EY? You’ve got it! This was the firm hired by Iarnród Éireann/Department of Transport and paid over €300,000 to do a hatchet job on the extension of the Western Rail Corridor from Athenry to Claremorris (published in January 2021).
But it gets worse. Much worse.
In January 2020, I was invited to join a group of about 20 people in the council HQ to toss around ideas for a ‘vision’ for the county. I did not make myself popular when I said that I was not into ‘visions’ and preferred strategies emerging from rigorous analysis after wide consultation. The council considers these kinds of meetings as ‘significant consultation and engagement’, but they are no such thing. The two EY staff attending my meeting took little or no part in the desultory exchanges and did not disclose any information about how they proposed to tackle their contractual assignment.
At regular intervals since mid-2020, the due date for delivery of the EY contract, I contacted the council and asked when Mayo 2040 would be published. All I ever got were lame excuses lacking credibility: the Covid lockdown; changing external circumstances; the arrival of a new council Chief Executive; and most extraordinarily, the fact that council resources had to be devoted to handling the serious accounting problems that have been extensively covered in this paper. Does it bother stakeholders that the report is now two years late?
The current state of play, according to the council, is that EY has submitted a draft report that is to be circulated to the Chief Executive and the council management team for evaluation. After that, it will be issued to the elected council members for their comments and observations. It will then come before a full meeting of Mayo County Council for adoption, at which stage we, the public, may get to see it and decide if the council has obtained value for their €100,000.
What lessons emerge from this debacle?
First, it is shocking that the council did not itself take ownership of the task of producing a Mayo Strategy but farmed it out to a consultancy organisation whose name will be forever associated with a deeply flawed demolition job on a potentially crucial element of Mayo infrastructure.
Second, credible, deep consultation and engagement by EY with Mayo stakeholders appears to have been almost non-existent. For example, my own study of the economy of Mayo, produced pro-bono in 2019 for the Atlantic Economic Corridor group and available at the Westport Chamber website (www.westportchamber.ie/presentations), was designated as a ‘relevant source’ in the original call for tenders, but EY never came near me.
Third, the long delays in finalising and publishing the strategy are unacceptable and suggest that council oversight of EY’s performance during the contract was seriously deficient.
So, where is Mayo’s Whitaker when needed?
John Bradley was a professor at the ESRI and has published on the island economy of Ireland, EU development policy, industrial strategy and economic modelling.