Sunday, February 28, 2010

Ireland needs visionaries, and fast

Ireland needs visionaries, and fast

Radical solutions won't come from a political system wedded to the status quo, writes Brendan O'Connor

The most startling aspect of the putative Cabinet shuffle is that no one -- including, you suspect, the people directly involved -- believes in any way, shape or form that it will help solve this country's problems. But God bless them, it is the only way they know how to respond to anything. To do something within their narrow little range of political manoeuvres, and to do it three years too late

There's an old management maxim that says, "To a man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail." In other words, when we solve problems we often don't look at the problem and try and come up with an apt solution. Instead, we look at the tools we have at our disposal and define the problem in such a way that our tools fit. So even if the problem we have right now in Ireland is with a screw, the Government, because it doesn't have a screwdriver, is just going to take its hammer and bang away. And then we will all wonder why the wall falls down.

It was all exemplified in Mary Coughlan's performance on Prime Time the other night. When confronted with the issue of unemployment, she waffled on about the money spent on training and other nonsense. Her basic mission was not to say something inspiring or to reveal any creativity or imagination or grand plan; it was to maintain that she and her colleagues were not doing a bad job. At most, she seemed willing to consider how the existing civil service institutions that have been there for decades could possibly be looked at to deal with the scourge of unemployment.

In other words, she stressed that there was nothing wrong with the hammer and that the Government was even considering putting a rubber handle on it. And who can blame her? Mary Coughlan lives in a world where a certain culture dominates, and she cannot see beyond this. How can we expect her to come up with inspiring answers to unemployment?

She needs to believe that politics, as we know it, and done the way we've always done it, is the answer. Just as Brian Cowen needs to believe that Fianna Fail, as we know it, doing things the way it has always done them, is the answer.

And, as far as Leinster House is concerned, if there is to be radical change to face radical situations, it must work within the parameters of politics as it exists.

So this from the Irish Times last week as speculation about a reshuffle started to gain traction: "Cabinet sources expect Mr Cowen will reorganise the economic departments as part of the reshuffle to provide a stronger focus on the major problems facing the country. Mr Cowen is said to be considering establishing a department of economic planning incorporating parts of the current Department of Enterprise and Employment."

The poor politicians, and many of the people who write about the political process, actually believe that this is action -- to reconfigure who is in charge of what and maybe, if they get really radical, to put some new people in to some areas. But these new people will still be politicians, just like the politicians they are replacing. A new hammer.

Any normal organisation, when faced with the catastrophic events of the last few years, would have put itself on a war footing, would have radically restructured its whole way of doing things, and would have done it within a week. Two-plus years into it, our crowd are slowly and reluctantly thinking that maybe they should shift around a few desks. It is kind of depressing.

And lest this be seen as Fianna Fail bashing, does anyone have any confidence that things would be any different if Enda Kenny was in charge of the country? We need to break the cycle. Politicians need to realise that there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in their philosophy.

Fortunately for our politicians, there is a whole other culture in this country that operates very differently to politics and that is primed and geared to deal with the rapidly changing world we live in. It is a culture that moves fast, that thinks laterally, that takes risks, that has imagination and bravery and vision. It deals with catastrophe -- and the prospect of becoming obsolete -- all the time. In fact, in exactly the same way that the culture of politics seems specifically designed not to deal with the reality we face right now, the culture of enterprise in this country is designed to suit current reality to a tee.

"Business" has become a dirty word in this country. But business creates jobs. Business people create jobs. Sure, they make money and some of them are crooked. But, fundamentally, the biggest impact business people make on a society is that they create hundreds of thousands of jobs. They do this by thinking up new ideas, by attacking the old ways of doing things, by cannibalising the status quo to build the future.

They are the opposite of Mary Coughlan, or any other politician, sitting there with the primary mission of convincing people that the system works. Entrepreneurs are anti-establishment, anti the system. They believe they can do things better, do new things in a new way. They question everything. They ask, "Why not?" They are the kind of people you need around when the system isn't working.

This country is jam-packed with such people, people who embody everything that makes us proud to be Irish. Nowadays these people tend not to go into politics, and if they do the system knocks these rough edges off them fairly quickly.

Most of us cannot readily see the answer to the unemployment problem. It would be safe to say that most politicians can't either. So what have we got to lose by taking a punt on some people who specialise in thinking of bold, creative solutions?

You can take the mickey out of Bill Cullen, but Bill Cullen clawed his way up from nowhere to become one of the country's most successful businessmen. When he decided to write a book, he sat down and wrote a bestseller. When he decided to become a TV star, he fronted one of the most successful TV shows in the country. He is hugely committed to young people, hugely visionary, and Bill Cullen doesn't think about why things won't work, he thinks about why they will work.

Equally you might not like Michael O'Leary, or his airline. But Michael O'Leary rose from owning a corner shop to running the biggest airline in the world. He breaks all the rules and has no tolerance for things being the way they are just because they are. He thinks laterally. He is constantly tinkering with everything about the status quo. He questions the way we do everything. He questions everything about his own business and it could be said he invented the future of the airline industry. He is a visionary who gets things done, and fast.

So let's ask the two of them to take charge of a task force to create employment. Just ask them to create jobs, to reinvent the future. And in case you worry that these two hotheads would find it too difficult to work with the dusty old institutions of the State, let's put in a mediator. Let's ask Ray MacSharry, who brings to the table a unique understanding of our current problems, buckets of wisdom and experience, and an understanding of how the dusty old institutions of the State work.

You might think it's daft and it might not work. But have you heard a better idea recently? And let's face it. They can't be any worse at creating jobs than Mary Coughlan.


Politics seems to be the same the world over. Whether in Ireland or here in the U.S., there are bailouts for banks, insurance companies, and stock brokerages. They are rewarded for gross incompetence with money supplied by the long suffering taxpayer. Then they reorganize by putting other taxpayers, who happen to be their own employees, out in the street. When the reorganization is complete, they go back into business and have the audacity to reward their top executives with what can only be described as obscene bonuses. In the meantime, the employees who were made redundant, stand in the dole queue week after week. Will there ever be an end to this nonsense?

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