The Your Country, Your Call saga continues. The Irish Times has reported that Martin McAleese, the “initiator” of the competition, has said that Government funding is no longer needed. I have written about this strange competition a number of times (1 ¦ 2 ¦ 3 ¦ 4) but Simon McGarr posted an update yesterday which puts the latest news in context. He concludes by reference to the initial request for funding:
[T]he serving President’s husband contact[ed] the Taoiseach of the day about paying public money to a private company whose activities he was promoting.
Even I stopped for a moment when I read that.
This is the core of the issue with YCYC. It was run by a private company set up by a range of corporate enterprises, many of whom could benefit from the development of the winning proposals. To the public, however, it was presented as a quasi-official, State undertaking.
The “AIB/Cisco Ideas Campaign” would be just another prize giveaway with a winning slogan rather longer than the traditional 10 words. YCYC, on the other hand, was infused with official symbols.
The logos and names of its corporate organisers were given far less prominence than is usually the case, while the President and her husband were thrust to the forefront of the initiative. It was presented as a national competition with Government backing (which has now evaporated) and which displayed, at the heart of its logo, the national symbol.
I got no information under this category, which suggests that the issue was never raised.
It all boils down to one fact: the State brand was used to promote a private enterprise which appears to have quite a pot of cash behind it. And it’s incredibly easy to gain access to that brand, once you go about it the right way.
I was recently provided with some, but not all, of the documents held by the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Innovation relating to the Your Country, Your Call competition promoted by An Smaoineamh Mór, a private company.
Following an internal review, DETI released additional documents. However, some documents were not released, or were only partially released, on the basis that they relate to an ongoing deliberative process (section 20 FOIA, as amended). A 17 page email was not released on the basis that it relates to the President.
The documents released are available at the end of this post or here and here.
DETI ATTITUDES TO YCYC
In April 2010, DETI officials responsible for micro-enterprise were asked internally to prepare to provide a briefing on YCYC and to attend a meeting between Martin McAleese and the Minister later in the month (p.40 here). The response to that request opens: “It is not appropriate that we attend this meeting. We have no role in this matter.” This likely relates from the fact that the aims of YCYC were purportedly macro-economic (see p. 5 here), but note the forcefulness (“I think we need to be firm in our view on this.”).
The current situation is that a commitment clearly appears to have been given at political level to provide financial support to the YCYC initiative. However, no additional funding has been made available to the Department to provide such support. We therefore need to consider, in the absence of additional funding, how financial support can be provided
Furthermore, if financial support is to be made available, the Department must ensure that appropriate financial controls are put in place to ensure appropriate management and accountability of public funds.
Such controls would be difficult to apply, one would think, to an organisation that admitted it didn’t know what it planned to do with the money.
In September 2009, the Irish Times emailed an enquiry to the DETI press office seeking clarity on the proposed payment of €300,000 by DETI to ASM. The query was forwarded to Bernard Mallee, special adviser to Minister O’Keefe, who responded “i have dealt with this” (p. 54 here). No record of how he “dealt with” the query was released.
AIMS OF YCYC
A document is included (p. 43 here) which is referred to as one “which the Tánaiste would have had at the most recent meeting with Martin McAleese.” It is not clear whether this was a departmental document or one supplied by ASM but the latter would appear likely as it mostly consists of aspirational statements. The author sees YCYC as akin to “community development” as “Government of itself cannot create community.” (You might remember, at this point, that YCYC was a business proposal competition.)
The document contains some impressive claims:
It is anticipated that the competition will have a very positive national psychological impact … we [who?] expect it to generate optimism and positivity and so to contribute to a renewal of confidence in ourselves and our country’s future.
YCYC is a competition with hard nosed outcomes at its core but it is also a vehicle that is capable of lifting the national spirit just as the Special Olympics did.
YCYC will complement the [Government] Framework Document, ‘Building Ireland’s Smart Economy’ … It will bring a populist dimension to it and will soften the ‘technology’ flavour of the document by proposing that all areas of potential innovation should be explored by adding the ‘Arts and Humanities’, our culture, classics, music etc. to the more usual areas of science, IT and business.
This, from the document above, is perhaps my favourite nugget from all the documents released:
The integrity of this initiative is underpinned by the fact that those involved in the organisation of the competition have no vested interest … It is heartening to see corporate social responsibility in operation through this initiative at its absolute best in these difficult economic times.
Given that the author is unknown but can be assumed to be YCYC, the sections headed “The Role of the President of Ireland” and “The Role of Government” are astounding. No doubt many other private companies would relish the opportunity to dictate to the democratically elected President and Government of Ireland the roles those offices shall play in the operations of that company. The Government role, the document states, includes:
Contribute to funding
Engage in supportive activities through messages, speeches and other material
Promotion of the initiative by Taoiseach/Tánaiste/Minister(s) at public events
Support the implementation phase
Corporate social responsibility at its absolute best indeed!
Something I hadn’t known about until now was RTÉ’s involvement:
RTE propose to do a series of programmes on the 20 potential winning proposals from 15 June 2010 to the conclusion of the competition in October 2010. These programmes will have a human interest format similar to the ‘Nationwide’ programmes.
This series does not appear to have materialised, despite the certainty of the above directions.
I was hopeful, having received a weighty envelope from the Department, but such hope was misplaced. The response consisted mostly of a lengthy set of reasons as to why most documentation was not being released, extracts from the Freedom of Information Acts 1997 & 2003 and the four documents actually released.
The two interesting documents provided are the explanation of decisions and the schedule of documents held by the Department, both below. I will be appealing the decision not to release documents (though the “appeal” is in fact an internal review by the Department).
In the meantime, while it’s not clear what exactly is happening with An Smaoineamh Mór or its backers, it’s certainly clear that its PR machine still operates. Interestingly, a senior figure in an IT organisation that runs a range of blogs itself seems to think blogging is for do-nothing layabouts who fail to spend each and every minute of the day working.
Tomorrow, the winners of the bizarre Your Country, Your Call competition will be announced. Apart from a few isolated incidents, the media has avoided serious scrutiny of the competition and its organiser, An Smaoineamh Mór.
The following are some questions that might reasonably be asked:
Who is An Smaoineamh Mór?
Given that one of its stated aims is to lobby the Government for legislative change, has it registered with the Standards in Public Office Commission?
Why has it accepted donations which exceed the limit allowed in respect of donations for political purposes?
Why does the Government feel the need to make a significant cash donation to assist An Smaoineamh Mór in such lobbying, at a time of massive cutbacks in public spending?
Two of the high level comments by the C&AG in his press release, relating to “administrative matters that may merit consideration” are surely relevant to the existing or proposed provision of funding by the Department of Enterprise, Trade & Innovation to An Smaoineamh Mór:
The need to improve the capacity of departments to evaluate costs and benefits of proposed programmes so that evidence-based information and analysis is available to underpin decision making
The need to ensure that, where the State uses third parties to deliver programmes, there is an adequate control and inspection process to guarantee the regularity of expenditure and the correctness of the charge to public funds