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Poor communications has a cost – Irish Government needs to be careful what it cuts

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Irish leaders Enda Kenny and Eamon Gilmore

Government departments have spent nearly €400,000 on public relations in the last couple of years, according to figures released this week. But the fact of the matter is they should be spending more.

Saying such a thing in the current climate of swinging cutbacks is tantamount to treason. Years of austerity have frayed tempers, and the recent debacle over household and water charges have pushed many people beyond breaking point.

Regardless of the arguments for and against such measures, the government has ultimately struggled to clearly communicate its policy. Mixed and unclear messages have constantly been leaking from the coalition government sparking panic, fear and dismay throughout the country.

This resulted in only 920,000 out of 1.6m homeowners actually registering and paying the household charge.

Even after the frantic communications chaos that led up to the March 31 deadline, the government then messed up the communication of the water charge. Was it is to be paid in a lump sum? Was it to be spread over a number of years? Would there be any charge at all? The answer was yes, no or maybe depending on who you were listening to.

The business of government is never easy. Ministers receive constant briefs and daily updates from civil servants and then have to communicate that information to the public. But just like lawyers love to speak legalize, civil servants and government officials speak in what is often an impenetrable language for the uninitiated. It is little wonder politicians frequently get caught out making blunders.

Love or loath advisers the media has branded spin doctors, the fact is that clear communications between any government and its people is a critical necessity in a democracy.

While often derided for employing dark arts, there is nothing sinister in having public relations professionals helping government ministers communicate in a clear, concise and consistent way — the opposite of what it has been happening in many instances recently.

In a time of austerity any such suggestion is met with contempt from the media and the public at large. However, the question must be asked — what type of relationship do we want with those in power?

There is a danger in Ireland that the cold eye of the accountant is valued above all else, meaning we often end up knowing the price of everything but  the value of nothing.

We throw our arms up when we get misinformation or mixed messages from those in power, but will be filled with rage if we hear of ‘special advisers’ being hired to help.

While all government spending needs to be justified and accounted for, there is also a cost associated with good governance. However, some people seem blind to this equation.

Some would argue that the cost of flying the Taoiseach to a crunch meeting with EU heads of state in a private jet should be done away with and replaced with Ryanair. This is even though the time for planning, briefing and preparation afforded by taking a private jet can have a huge impact with regards to performance on the European stage.

The same is true with many areas of governmental spending. Strict accounting and transparency is a must, but there are some areas that when trimmed back too far will ultimately impact on the Government’s ability to govern.

So, when it comes to running Ireland, always taking the Ryanair option may provide an immediate saving, but could have far more costly implications on our future.

Paul Allen is Managing Director of Paul Allen and Associates PR, www.prireland.com.

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