Killing Clientelism (Softly)

There is probably no need to use these when trying to reduce the worst excesses of Irish clientelism (open source cleavers from: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Chinese_and_old_North_American_cleavers.JPG)

One point not usually made about clientelism is that it is a bit ambiguous. Some types of clientelism may not be harmful in a democratic sense. It is not simply synonymous with corruption, although clearly there can be a link. Moreover, some of the research has suggested that benefits and strokes that TDs perfom are sometimes more apparent than real: ‘saving’ a local hospital from closure may actually mean just deferring a downgrading of certain services and letters informing grant recipients of their ‘success’ may have no connection with that successful application. Much of clientelism is appearance but there are also numerous examples of tangible ‘strokes’ or favours.

Many TDs now say that people come to see them NOT looking for strokes as such, but they want to make face to face representations on local and even sometimes a national issue. There is absolutley nothing wrong with this. Equally if TDs are helping advise and even fill in complex state benefit forms, this does not seem to me an obviously undemocratic practice. I can see how it can breed a culture of obligation and how it can exploit vulnerable citizens who should get that help from citizens advice bureau or perhaps state benefit forms should be made much simpler and user friendly. Equally administrative law reforms could regulate the clientelistic paperchase somewhat-for example by prohibiting TDs writing letters on behalf of constituents or TDs discussing individual cases with civil servants. The point here is that if we want to reduce clientelistic behaviour many of the ways of doing that would not necessarily involve changing the electoral system! If we really want to kill off the worst forms of clientelism we probably need to do three things

1. Massively increase the powers, budget and scope of the Ombudsman.

2. Increase the network of Citzens Advice Bureau and the services they offer.

3. Ensure there is proper legislation governing civil servants to protect them from excessive ministerial interference in the course of their duties. I can’t specify here what exactly that would entail and one would want to be careful that any legislation did not make the civil service unresponsive, but dealing with individual constitents on behalf of a TD’s written representations should not really be part of their business. That does not mean civil servants should not answer letters or emails from ordinary members of the public. Whistleblower legislation would also be vital to act as a means of uncovering any hidden pressure, interference or manipulation to get ‘strokes’ done. We still have not passed a whistleblower law to protect those who uncover such wrongdoing.

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