Irish Water is now in deep trouble. Worse, the problem will quickly become a political one if it is not contained. Sadly, governments have a tendency to realise this too late and act too slowly to prevent it happening. This should have been a turning point in the government’s fortunes. They had no major difficulties in the budget. Everyone stayed on message and they could hope that they would see better days. However, in almost the blink of an eye the government is getting swamped with a new difficulty. This one may very well become the litmus test of how it is judged.
Charging for water was never going to be easy. When it was first proposed many years ago during the Celtic Tiger the idea had one ambition. To reduce water waste. That is simple and something that everyone can buy into. As people came around to the idea gradually they expected that in an ideal system we would only be charged for what was wasted, the usage over and above what was the norm. Things change though. The recession changed the whole idea of water charges. No longer were they something to help reduce waste, now they were there to raise revenue. Successive governments failed to invest in our water systems. Those problems now haunt us. This government moved to introduce the charges but did so with much too great a haste. Firstly, they were not honest about the charges. From the outset people have been confused about what they could end up having to pay. The discussion around allowances was a mess. It became quickly apparent that the system was not up to scratch and rather than water charges fixing it they were not going to help at all. Further charges would be applied for leaks, further investment needed. Further call out fees. People had no confidence in the system and yet we proceeded to go ahead. Everyone knew we were taking the engine of a banged up Lada and sticking it under the bonnet of a Mercedes and then telling the customer if it breaks down you will bear the cost.
Caesar Augustus, a man who was himself a brilliant administrator adopted the motto ‘make haste, slowly’. The government would have done well to listen. Decisions should be taken with speed but their implementation should be careful and considered. Unfortunately the government had two men on point duty that were not suited to this task. Despite all the criticism of Phil Hogan I respect his willingness to take decisions, however once he took any decision; it has been his hallmark to leave the management and implementation to someone else. Time and time again he took decisions but paid little heed to what happened after. Pat Rabbitte was a man who made his career on the back of media performances. As minister he showed himself happy to be led by whatever he was told. This was not a man interested in rolling up the sleeves and getting to work, he was a figure head minister, the guy you send out to bat.
This meant that Irish Water was set up with a distinct lack of political leadership. The company has created a culture that is borne out of groupthink. Far too many are drawn from the same background. Far too much acceptance was given as to how the business could run. There was no thought of efficiency or competitiveness, why should there be? It had no competition and seemed devoid of any voice with experience of competition. This in turn has resulted in a lack of empathy with customers. Irish Water views itself as an organisation in isolation. The customers are not part of it. The rewards or its spending are no concern of customers. It seems there was not one voice that stood up and asked how this would look to customer who had no jobs? People who struggled and had no perks and yet had to pay the charge? If you want to communicate your organisation then you must understand your customers. You must empathise with them. You must base you case for charges on an understanding with them. Instead, Irish Water has been convinced that what it does is nobody’s business.
Its set up is now in a mess and it is on the ropes. The last anti water charge march had one difficulty. It called for all charges to be stopped and it was impossible to see that succeeding. The next march is in a different environment. The call might remain but there is a clear achievable objective. A halting of charges until the system is sorted and set up properly in a manner people trust. Some will demand it be scrapped altogether but the government cannot concede that. Scrapping the idea totally would destroy the budget and leave them seeking borrowing of almost a billion for water works. By having it under the guise of a semi state the government has removed this from our balance sheet. A neat accounting trick to save a billion that shifts the requirement onto the shoulder of the semi state and out of our national budget. However, the Charges themselves will only bring in 300-400 million. The government could certainly afford to drop this while leaving the semi state in place. It would seem wise now for the Government to be decisive. Halt the charges and pull back. Review Irish Water and its set up and the charging scheme. Then a new government can focus on looking at the matter after an election.
This will not get better. Trust has been lost. People who do not normally protest are starting to feel conned and objecting to paying. It will turn very bad very quickly and the public smells blood. Either government TD’s act to defuse this now or they continue to try and push on, if they do that, they will drown together or separately in the murky Irish Water.