THE NORTH AND SOUTH administrations of County Tipperary will amalgamate sometime in the lifetime of the current Irish government and as I look down on the main rail line running outside our college campus, I can see how the economies of scale can only run so far.
That's because once you merge the overlapping entitites cited by the 2010 Local Government Efficiency Review Group report (i.e., enterprise boards, arts officers, human resource managers, finance section, information technology, heritage officers, directors of services, corporate affairs divisions), you're left with a wide expanse of physical space to cover with fewer people on the ground. The arguments are being set for where to locate the hub of the county with predictable rumblings coming from Clonmel and Nenagh where the main South and North offices now sit. Some of those rumblings are based on the sheer distance between north and south. Try using public transport to get from Nenagh to Clonmel and you'll see why the rail line in my photo makes the point very clearly. You simply cannot use Irish Rail to get from Clonmel to Nenagh at the start of the work day, spend more than an hour on site, and return during the work day. Public bus routes impose the same constraint for the 110 mile round trip journey. And with senior county staff or councillors loath to try things like virtual meeting technologies, my taxpayer antenna picks up on the thousands of miles of essential travel that will be lodged for reimbursement on the run-up to every holiday period. I think three questions need immediate consideration.
1. Why not reduce mileage compensation or cap mileage amounts for civil servants and county councillors?
As an educator, I have to live within a "campus travel" mileage category. That means I get enough money to pay for my fuel and for a quart of oil every time I make a 66-mile round trip from the southern campus to the northern campus. Those civil servants employed in the council should be asked to live within that same frugal reimbursement schedule or be told that there's a limit on the number of reimbuseable miles that can be logged every quarter. The money saved can be redirected to essential works. With the financial incentive for travel removed, people might rediscover the telephone, learn to collaborate electronically and meet virtually. It's important to challenge the addiction many mid-career civil servants and county councillors have for face-to-face half-day meet-ups every week. It's also important to realise that although civil servants have rolled back their wages to 2007 levels, elected councillors have not offered up the same sacrifice for the needs of the Irish Exchequer.
2. Why not add weekly virtual meeting requirements for staff and councillors?
Some of this conferencing technology is now available for county staff in both Nenagh and Clonmel. Why not connect it up? It may require the purchase of new desktops and laptops equipped with webcam, microphone and earbud ports. Once the kit is in place, it should be used to talk between functional areas. Elected local representatives, many in possession of subsidised laptops with webcams, could learn how to use the technology by watching how staff does this at the LIT School of Tipperary. Once you've done it a few times, it's very straightforward to start to meet local residents and constituents over Google Hangouts, Skype video, or Online Meeting Rooms.
3. Why not set up a main county base that's closer to the locus of activities?
Thanks to the M8 motorway, people can travel from the outstkirts of Clonmel to the outskirts of Thurles in less than 30 minutes. In my experience, it takes eight minutes longer to go from Nenagh to Thurles because of the slow-moving farm equipment on rural roads between the towns. If the new Tipperary authority was based in Thurles, we might expect to see more frequent bus transportation between Clonmel, Cashel and Thurles. That would help a lot of people, especially those involved in education and health services.
I doubt that any of these things will happen until the 2014 local elections. After then, the new authority needs to serve more than 159,000 people, 70,000 in the north and 88,000 in the south. Those residing in sprawling County Tipperary will hope for better delivery of public services on the heels of more tightly integrated administration.
For what it's worth, the distance between Clonmel and Nenagh is roughly the same as the distance between Drogheda and Dun Laoghaire but it takes at least 30 minutes longer to travel the miles in Tipperary. The Drogheda-Dun Laoghaire route passes through four county administrative areas. Perhaps some of the efficiencies of admnistration learned in Tipperary might be passed along to Louth, Fingal, Dublin and Dun Laoghaire-Rathdown before the end of this decade.