Irish water looks fair set to be a damper, smaller, and hopefully not quite an omnishambles as the HSE.
It truly is the quango that seems to contain all that is bad about Irish governance. From its inception, through the installation of water meters, and to the issues around billing, and without doubt as we will see when it actually operates, it is an unedifying tale of a lack of joined up thinking writ large. We are as a polity incapable of planning, as is evident time and again. Despite its name the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform has done scant reforming, leaving processes and mindesets immutable as the rocks. A great deal of the blame must be laid at the foot of government – they had the opportunity to force through rational, customer centered approaches, but instead displayed a hamfisted approach which has generated needless resentment and suspicion.
Water costs money. Although it falls upon our heads were distressing regularity, in general you can’t drink the rainwater. It needs to be treated, stored, distributed, and in general there is a capital investment involved. This can be as minimal as a rain barrel, up to a well, and on to a full-fledged municipality water system. So, it has to be paid for in some wa. To now this has been done, to the aggregate tune of just over €1bm, from general tax revenue. The collapse of the tax base post 2008 resulted in the state, spurred on by the Troika, to see a variety of ways to increase revenue. Partially as a result of this, and partially to inculcate a sense of water discipline, water charges were agreed. Nobody likes paying additional charges, but there we are…
To charge people effectively for produce you need to be able to monitor how much they use. Here’s the first part of omnishambles. It is by now well known that Siemens offered, way back, to install at no cost to the state a set of water meters. It’s not clear why this offer was turned down. It’s not like the state, or those that live in it, have an abundance of money to pay for these things. We have had offers before from consortia to pay for large-scale infrastructure, which got turned down. If somebody is offering to build something for free, in return for a licence to operate it, you would want a good reason, publicly explained, why you would not want to do this. No such reasons have ever been forthcoming. We have a really good habit of looking gift horses in the mouth. That may be the right thing to do but we shoul be told why.
The circus rolled on with the installation, where one size fits nobody package was provided. Rather than stimulating local enterprise by requiring people to install a meter, subject to certain minimum standards, a monopoly on meter installation was provided to a particular company. We like monopolies. The fact that monopolies are generally a very inefficient way of doing business never deters the Irish public servant from selecting a monopoly when the alternative is a messy market solution.A monopoly supplier is tidy. A monopoly supplier is often a very wealthy organization.
Installation involves digging up outside your house, installing something, and then restoring the pavement. Each and every house, each and every apartment, every dwellinghouse, has a meter, or will have. That would have been a good opportunity to have provided to the house outside which one was digging a simple package outlining how you would pay the bill for the service. Instead, for some reason, this was separated. Social media and the radio phonein shows are alight with requests from people as to where their packages. In some ways its quite heartening to see the number of people who want to get a package so that they can pay for utility. By the end of September Irish Water say they expect 450,000 meters installed with over 2m expected to have bill packages delivered. Note that this means that over 1.5m persons will have no meter and thus will be assessed in a averaging manner. Even at bulk postage rates this is still a spend of at least €1.5m. It cannot be more efficient to have postage of bulky documents than it is to have these delivered at the time of meter installation.
The billing itself is a mess. A utility has two cost flows, a capital cost and a running cost. A standing charge is almost always used to pay the first, a per usage charge the second. The gvernment bottled it, fudged it, stood against all precedent and advice for momentary political advantage and decided to not have a standing charge. Of course, this being Ireland, even that is not clear. Persons with a second home will be charged a minimum amount (aka a standing charge) even if they use not a drop. The incoherence is worrying.
Then have the actual bill pay package itself. It’s not an application package, you’ve already been supplied with the service. I can declare, without any check whatsoever, that I suffer from particular diseases, thereby making it possible for me to simply not pay my bill and not because off. Children are to be provided with a particular amount of water are free, but proof that I have a child requires each child’s PPS number. We may as well give up the pretence that we do not have a national ID card, we certainly have a national ID number. No guarantees are being given by Irish water that in the event of a full or partial sale the PPS numbers will not be sold and is part of a database. It’s a lazy trawl, or worse yet a cynical asset grab with a eye to a future sale. Irish water , correctly state that there is legislation to prevent it being sold. However, legislation can be overturned, and the existence of this asset makes Irish Water more valuable. You cannot apply online, you MUST use the dead trees stuffed in your letterbox at great expense,
Finally we have the structure. In the same way as the HSE replicated AND absorbed the health boards, resulting in what most people would agree is a bloated mess, the decision was taken to taper out the involvement of county councils over a 12 year period. No rationale has been given for this
Irish water is an exemplar of how not to do things, and of how we do them.
This is a version of a column in the Irish Examiner, 26 September