I have been bent and broken but—I hope—into a better shape (Charles Dickens, 1860)
Ireland begins a new decade with an unquestionably stronger economy than it did ten years ago. There are over 365,000 more people in the country, 325,400 more in work and GDP is 77% higher (in today’s prices) than a decade ago.
Ireland was a much different country ten years ago. In 2009, the country was in the grip of recession, house prices were falling sharply and unemployment was rising with no-one sure when the market would bottom out. The term ‘negative equity’ suddenly became a phrase used almost daily in people’s lives. While many citizens would have lived through other recessions or market corrections, this one felt different. Very different.
Arguably, what has been the most remarkable feature of the decade has been the stoic and accepting nature of the Irish citizen. It is true that many of the harshest critics may well have emigrated - net migration fell to 27,500 in 2010 from a peak of 105,000+ in 2007 - but the public did not take to the streets en masse despite the challenging conditions. The spending cuts and Troika oversight were accepted begrudgingly and there was no wild swing to the left or right politically nor any emergence of the populism witnessed in other parts of Europe. Only in the journey of proposed water charges could a significant level of public angst be detected. One could conclude that the Irish citizen knew the boom was unsustainable and that there was a price to pay for the largesse and hubris.
2020 starts with Ireland in a very different mood and much will be expected of a country experiencing the fastest growth in Europe. One that is no longer in deficit and home to many of the world’s leading companies. A move from begrudging acceptance to one of great expectations perhaps.
The phrase ‘Great Expectations’ will evoke memories of the Charles Dickens novel, once a mainstay of the school curriculum, and it is not just the title that is apt. Ultimately, it is a story that teaches us that a life of privilege and wealth is not a guarantee of happiness and fulfilment. This is appropriate as economies around the world shift their focus onto different measures of economic and societal success. Iceland has followed New Zealand in setting a focus on well-being. Many of the best-selling economics books in 2019 were questioning the traditional measures of success and firms around the world are embarking on a ‘beyond shareholder value’ journey. This broader view of success asks us new and challenging questions. Who benefits from growth? Which places prosper and which do not? Who is being left behind? It has also brought environmental issues to the fore: do we accept growth (or profit) at all costs? Perhaps in this century the ‘roaring twenties’ will refer to issues of climate change rather than economic prosperity. This recalibration of expectations will put pressure on the Government and employers alike during the decade ahead. It picks up on themes covered in previous articles in this series – is ‘more’ better?’
The change in citizens’ expectations is partly a function of the passing of time (people feel that society has paid its dues for previous excess) and partly a realisation of what is now possible. People have witnessed technology transform many aspects of their lives and our consumer experience is unrecognisable from a decade ago. In our increasingly connected and frantic lives, time has become our most precious commodity. Delays are less likely to be tolerated and it is becoming unacceptable that problems that are within our abilities to resolve remain as prominent as ever. In the OECD 2017 ‘How’s Life’ series, Life Satisfaction, Health and Work Life Balance were listed as the three things that mattered most to Irish citizens - income was only fifth. Focussing on these themes will be the focus for the decade ahead and citizens and businesses need to come to terms with the fact that Ireland’s reward for a return to economic solvency will not be tax cuts. However, as we start a new decade, we should not do so with a mood of despondency. It is an exciting time: the rapid advances in technology and data analytics present real opportunities to improve services, find savings and trigger new ways of thinking about the toughest societal problems. Already several changes have made small but significant changes to peoples’ lives:
- Waiting at a Bus Stop: Remember waiting at a bus stop – wondering had you just missed the bus? Think how real-time information and the introduction of the Leap Card in 2011 materially changed bus journeys. Commuters now only arrive at a bus stop minutes before a bus arrives, having checked their App prior to leaving, and can board the bus faster given their Leap Card. Similar for Luas, Dart, Dublin Bikes etc. This increased ease of commuting and most importantly, increased reliability, is one of the key drivers as to why public transport is seeing significant growth.
- Waiting for a Taxi: Similar to waiting for buses, taxis were no different. Now with advancements in technology and GPS, and the introduction of apps like MyTaxi, getting a taxi has never been easier. Further, it enables passengers to pay directly, thus removing the need for cash. Fundamentally different to ten years ago.
- Waiting for a Passport: If you have recently renewed your passport, you will have observed how relatively easy and seamless the process now is. Gone are the days of struggling with whether your photo is the right shape or size, or whether you smiled. You will be told instantaneously if you photo is not correct, for example. Simple changes with material effects.
Much more to do
As wait times decrease for certain services, our expectations have increased for everything else, and our patience levels have naturally fallen. It is hard to imagine that, by the end of the decade, the Irish citizen will tolerate levels of homelessness, emissions or hospital waiting lists as they do today.
The image of Pip, in Great Expectations, stealing food, sadly, still has resonance today. The number of food banks grow, charity appeals for the less fortunate at Christmas remain as poignant as ever and, apparently, untouched by the 77% growth in GDP. These are not easy problems to solve and changes in the way of doing things are never easy. Technology and data are, understandably, viewed sceptically by many. There is much work to do to convince citizens that, with more information, we can craft better policy and more effective ways of delivering services. The potential, however, is enormous.
By 2030, we may see an Ireland characterised by:
- near-zero congestion: by continuing to leverage advances in technology and data analytics, we can move closer to removing congestion in our Cities and towns in the shorter term. Simple tweaks to peoples working hours, or promoting options to work flexibility, will all have the positive benefit of reducing congestion at peak. Further, smart planning conditions, like IKEA not opening before 10am in Dublin, will similarly again improve traffic flows and thus economic prosperity.
- climate change leader: Remember the smoking ban? Or when Ireland became the first country to impose a plastic bag levy? We mattered on the world stage. Wouldn’t it be a fantastic legacy to look back at the 2020s in ten years’ time, and be seen as a climate change leader? But first we need to deliver on our Climate Action Plan, not just as a Government, or as Corporates or as Students. But as one.
- personalised policy: if we know each citizen’s usage/experience of public services, we could design new training supports, new mental health plans etc, thus improving their overall employability. Effectively, supporting a move away from a ‘job for life’ and towards a more sustainable and rewarding working life.
- giving back time: our ability to cut out waste, reduce traffic delays and duplication should give back citizens their valued time. Maybe not quite delivering on Keynes’ prediction in the 1930’s that we would work 15 minutes a week, such will be the productivity revolution, but maybe a shorter working week will be the norm.
So who will make it happen?
The reorientation towards the importance of public service delivery necessarily puts the government front and centre of the discussion. It has been a very tough decade for elected officials and civil servants. Operating with one or, in the early part of the decade, both arms tied behind their back, there has been little room to innovate or transform. However, this is not a question for governments only.
The private sector is key to the environmental, social and economic journey ahead of us. Increasingly, citizens are looking for civic leadership from employers. EY’s global CEO survey found that 67% of CEOs feel under pressure to address global challenges. A study of published strategies and policy documents of major corporates reflects this change. Sustainability, responsibility, culture, purpose - these are the words taking precedent over EBITDA, dividends and margin. Clearly, as a society, we stand little chance of tackling the most intractable of problems without a healthy and vibrant tax base, so it is not that profitable business is not the goal, it is just that it is no longer our singular north star.
We often think of lessons from the private sector that can be translated into public service, but there are lessons the other way around too. In Ireland last year, 67% of senior appointments were females, a lesson for much of the private sector when it pleads for patience in making such progress.
The last decade has been very challenging for Ireland: the economy has recovered from a devastating recession that has left many long-lasting scars that will be visible for generations. It can look ahead with confidence that the economy has not returned to old imbalances and that many of our policy choices have been positively informed by our history. Or, as Estella says to Pip towards the end of Great Expectations, ‘suffering has been stronger than all other teaching.... I have been bent and broken but—I hope—into a better shape’.
This article was originally published in the Irish Independent on 1 January 2020.