Thwarting – stopping something from happening or someone from doing something
Subversion – the act of trying to destroy or damage an established system
Big words that describe how my year got off to a start. This is the story of how I prevented someone in the Department of Rural and Community Development, DRCD from destroying the independent Public Participation Networks PPNs of the country, including Clare PPN. Looking back on my achievements over the past decade I can safely say that some of my most successful acts have been thwarting! I don’t achieve these alone of course as there are really great people to collaborate with – but I can’t tell their stories.
Back on December 6th 2018 I received an email from the Department of Rural and Community Development, DRCD. I had been appointed to the National Advisory Group, NAG for Public Participation Networks, PPNs in November 2018 to represent the PPN secretariats or management committees. This email on Dec 6th was one of the departments first communications with me as an official NAG member.
Dear National Advisory Group member
I refer to the National Advisory Group meeting on 7 November at which the attached document* was circulated.
By the time the agenda item regarding the PPN structure was discussed, a number of attendees had to leave the meeting for other commitments etc. However, the general consensus of the remaining members was in favour of the Department’s proposal to wind up those PPNs operating as limited companies and issue a direction that no further PPNs be established as limited companies.
The Department now proposes to move ahead with a circular advising all PPNs and LAs (Local Authorities) in relation to the above.
For the benefit of those National Advisory Group members who were not in a position to express their views on this matter at the meeting on 7 November, and for other NAG members who may wish to provide further observations, I would be grateful if you could let me know, by Wednesday 12 December at the latest, if you have any objections to this proposal or any other views you may have on this matter.
The following is an excerpt from the document attached to and referred to in the email:
“The Department now proposes to issue a circular to all LAs (Local Authorities) and PPNs, having regard to the conclusions of this Auditor’s Report, directing that no further PPNs be established as limited companies and that where PPNs are currently operating as companies, these companies should be wound up by voluntary liquidation by 30 June/31 December 2019. The Department would welcome any advice from the National Advisory Group on this proposal, particularly regarding issues around the treatment of potential outstanding liabilities following the liquidation of a company.
PPN Resource Workers
The majority of PPN Resource Workes are seconded from their relevant local authority. However, in the case of PPNs established under the company structure, the Resource Workers are employed by the company. Furthermore, one PPN Resource Worker is hosted by a local development company, one by the local Volunteer Centre and one by a Traveller group (company).
The Department proposes that all PPN Resource Workers be seconded from the relevant local authorrity by 1 January 2020. As a first step in this process, the Department proposes to liaise with the CCMA (County & City Management Association) to secure their support of this initiative.
In the case of those Resource Workers hosted by other companies, Clare PPN (Resource Worker hosted by Clare Local Development Company) Cork City PPN (Resource Worker hosted by Volunteer Centre) and Wicklow PPN (Resource Worker hosted by Wicklow Traveller Group), it is proposed that the existing arrangements will continue while the person in situ remains in place. However, in the event of the exisiting Resource Worker vacating their post, it is proposed that the new Resource Worker would then be seconded from the local authority.”
As it happened I opened the email at our county plenary meeting so I was ideally placed to discuss it with some of my colleagues on Clare PPNs Secretariat. We were almost finished establishing Clare PPN as a company. As a new appointment I hadn’t been at the November NAG meeting. None of us had heard about this national discussion to stop PPNs operating as a company or the intention towards local authorities employing resource workers directly so we were quite alarmed. Having worked extremely hard to ensure that Clare PPN was an independent entity there was no way we were becoming part of Clare County Council based on one case study funded by the department. I sent the following email to our coordinator – resource worker the following day:
I got this email yesterday and as I represent the secretariats on the National Advisory Group I need to get their feedback on this ahead of Dec 12th deadline. Would you please share it with our secretariat and also with all other secretariats via their resource workers asap requesting that they send their observations to me by Dec 10th so that I may compile feedback?
My attitude to being a representative is two way communication at the very least. If it is my responsibility to represent somebody then I must communicate with them. I let them know the issues being discussed that may affect them so that I may participate informed by their input. Represent them.
I asked that people contact me before December 10th so that I could compile my response to the department based on feedback from all secretariats that wished to participate. I received many phone calls and emails on the matter in those 4 days.
On December 11th the following email was sent from the department to members of the NAG alerting me to the fact that there may have been an issue with my circulating the information.
I would like to advise that my message to you of 6 December, and the accompanying discussion document, was inadvertently circulated by a member of the National Advisory Group to all PPNs.
I would like to remind you that all discussions at the National Advisory Group and documentation circulated are confidential until agreed by the entire Group for further action. The release of documents or discussions outside of the National Advisory Group in advance of that group’s recommendations to the Department seriously undermines the purpose and operation of the group which is to advise and support this Department in the development and operation of the PPNs.”
This says to me that the government believe it is acceptable that a closed group of 11 people is qualified to make recommendations to the department without consultation with the people they supposedly represent. This group being chaired by a senior official from the department. This group discuss and circulate ideas and proposals confidentially until they decide what’s best.
This email also states that I inadvertently circulated the information. That is not true. I knew exactly what I was doing. I was including the people the decisions would affect in the considerations – the volunteer managers of the PPNs. I was representing. I was practising participatory democracy – the whole ethos of the PPNs.
The proposed circular of December 12th never issued and I attended my first National Advisory Group meeting in Dublin on February 13th 2019. I sent the following email to assess how to best participate:
Do you use Skype, zoom, google hangout or something else for remote participation at NAG meetings? If I travel to Dublin I will have to stay over and pay for childcare. Does DRCD cover those expenses?
and I received the following reply:
Hitherto we have not used skype or any electronic means of participation in NAG meetings, inability to attend is usually due to prior engagements.
Anyone attending meetings can avail of travel and subsistence reimbursement according to the Civil Service Rates, please see the link.
My house is 248km away from the meeting and the fastest route by public transport is 5 hours – assuming the time suits. I could not get to and from the meeting in one day never mind one school day. I had 3 children to arrange care for. I could not bring the kids to school and then get to the meeting before 11am so they had to stay overnight with someone who would get them to school. I could not leave the meeting and get home to collect them from school so I had to get someone to mind them after school too. If I got public transport home they would be better staying with someone for 2 nights. To lessen the impact this meant driving was my only option to minimise time away from home and childcare needs. I had to stay in Dublin as I could not drive up and back in one day. As civil service rates do not cover childcare I worked out that travel and accommodation expenses would cover a cheap Bed & Breakfast, travel costs and very cheap overnight childcare.
I attended the meeting. I knew that the proposed circular to prevent PPNs establishing as companies was on the agenda. While I had requested that secretariat members I represent “send their observations to me by Dec 10th so that I may compile feedback” in my email of December 7th I was aware that some people had chosen other routes to enquire about and oppose the proposal. They had approached other members of the NAG. They had contacted the department directly. Effectively my circulating the proposed attempt to subvert independent PPN structures had brought a lot of feedback directly to the people proposing it. Anyone passive to the proposal was in no doubt that it was not popular.
When the issue was raised at the meeting I said that I had not circulated the information inadvertently. I explained that I believed it was my responsibility to act as a conduit to represent the environmental secretariat reps and all secretariat members on the NAG. I would never assume that I knew best for all secretariats in the country. People needed to be aware of what was being discussed in order to participate, through me. It was indicative of the system that they weren’t sure who to speak to about the proposal. The fact that so many people were moved to prevent the circular being sent indicated how out of touch the people on the NAG were to even consider it.
Some members of the NAG were very irritated due to the correspondence they received following my email to all PPNs in the country. They suggested that I had over reacted and was premature in my communications. I stated that the email was pretty clear that this was the intention and that my colleagues had agreed. Those who contacted them also agreed. The email stated “The Department now proposes to move ahead with a circular advising all PPNs and LAs (Local Authorities)” giving 4 working days for feedback. It was phrased as a done deal which always makes people reconsider questioning. Members of the NAG may well have let it pass uncontested.
It appeared to me as though someone who wants all PPNs streamlined and part of the local authorities saw an opportunity in the pre Christmas period to slip in a directive that once distributed would not be withdrawn for fear of looking foolish. I have since been told that this was undoubtedly an attempt by one official to subvert the independent PPNs while someone else within the department was absent.
The chairpersons response to my commitment to those I represent was to suggest to me that if I did not understand that it wasn’t my place to discuss anything outside of the group then maybe I wasn’t the right person for the NAG. She cut me right down, so much so that there was a long pause and people appeared uncomfortable as I sat in disbelief at how she spoke to me. I felt completely disrespected, belittled and unsupported. It was quite obvious that my participation to date had not gone down well.
I did not consider my role on the NAG to be one of superiority. While I know that my experience of and passion for public participation is strong I am always open to learning and others enlightening me. I would not flatter myself to a point where believe that I know best. Is it possible that there’s a reason advisory groups exist? Is it civil service policy to flatter a few people into believing that their opinion, the “expert” opinion, is best? Put them on advisory groups, feed them a consistent diet of flattery and get them to agree with what you want. It’s like putting lots of economists on a climate change advisory council – flatter the economists to believe that they should be the advisors on climate action to a point that they don’t even question it themselves.
As I expected my expenses were questioned. Anyone who lives rurally and is expected to attend an 11am meeting in Dublin city centre will understand the limitations. Throw in single parenting and heavy medication for epilepsy to challenge the one size fits all approach of government.
“Please note that the meeting was arranged to allow for those members travelling from the country to be in situ for 11.00. The commute from Lisdoonvarna, takes approximately 3 hours and therefore would not necessitate an overnight stay if you were driving and claiming the mileage (as you did). If you were availing of public transport and the times of travel available were so restricted that travel on the same day as the meeting would not allow you to travel to attend on time or return home post meeting, then an overnight would be paid in addition to public transport costs. Lunch was provided at the meeting and therefore, subsistence cannot be claimed for this. Also, there is no provision for the payment of childcare. I hope this clarifies the matter.”
There are no childcare costs reimbursed. Continuous calls for greater female participation are farcical while we continue to expect women to participate without childcare expenses. How much simpler it would have been to pay someone to come to my home overnight and stay until I returned for bedtime the following evening.
I offered to participate electronically for the next meeting which I was told was not possible again. Given the lack of facilitation of online participation and financial support for childcare I eventually had to step away from the PPN National Advisory Group. During 2019 a new secretariats network was created and secretariats around the country vote for their representatives on the NAG. I hope they have a good communications system in place that does not prevent representatives communicating with those they represent. I know that what happened this time last year definitely alerted people to the need for more open and transparent communications.
December 29th 2018