Pobal: Chairperson Designate

I remind members, staff, witnesses and those in the Visitors Gallery to turn off their mobile phones which, as they are aware, interfere with the sound system. For the information of witnesses, it is important that there is nothing lying on top of the microphones. The submissions, opening statements and any other document supplied by the witnesses to the committee in advance will be published on its website after the meeting.

By virtue of section 17(2)(l) of the Defamation Act 2009, witnesses are protected by absolute privilege in respect of their evidence to the joint committee. However, if they are directed by it to cease giving evidence on a particular matter and continue to so do, they are entitled thereafter only to qualified privilege in respect of their evidence. They are directed that only evidence connected with the subject matter of these proceedings is to be given and asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, they should not criticise or make charges against any person or entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable.

Members are reminded of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside the Houses or an official, either by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable.

First, we will engage with the chairman designate of Pobal. In accordance with the guidelines in place for the appointment of chairpersons to State boards and bodies, the joint committee welcomes the opportunity to meet the chairperson designate to hear his views on the approach he will take to his role as chairman, the future contribution of Pobal and his strategic priorities for the role. Later in the meeting we will hear from the chief executive office of Pobal.

On behalf of the committee I welcome Dr. Deiric Ó Broin and invite him to make his opening statement.

Dr. Deiric Ó Broin

Good morning Chairman. I thank the Chairman for his invitation to address the joint committee today.

Let me begin by telling the Chairman and members about myself. I was raised in the 1970s in the then small rural village of Dunboyne, County Meath. I went to local schools and like many, was among the first generation of my family to access third level education. The community I come from is part not just of who I am, as community is a large part of my life’s work professionally, as a volunteer and as an activist. For me Pobal is not simply a professional interest, though I promise to bring the highest standards to my new role.

Pobal is the continuity of community activism I believe in. I am privileged to be asked to lead it forward as Chairman, having served on the board since 2013.

For more than 25 years, I have worked professionally in local economic and community development. I have worked with local communities, with local development agencies including Leader, the Social Inclusion and Community Activation Programme, SICAP, and with local authorities. I teach at the Dublin Institute of Technology and I am an academic engaged in research. I am the chairperson of the All-Ireland branch of the Institute of Economic Development, a member of the executive committee of the Irish branch of the international Regional Studies Association, and an adviser to the Irish Social Enterprise Network. Community development is my work, it is my world and it is my passion.

Community is about inclusion. It is about enabling activism. I am chairman of the Ballymun Town Civic Alliance and secretary of the north Dublin chamber of commerce. I am a member of Dublin’s local community development committee and its social enterprise committee. I volunteer my time and for me, Pobal is a catalyst; community is its purpose.

In 26 years, Pobal has developed in response to Government priorities. It adapted its skills to respond to changes and challenges. As chairman, my approach will be to provide leadership and oversight of the future strategy and policies, in particular on implementing Government policy on social inclusion and early years. Central to this is ensuring that internal controls and implementation are effective and that the CEO and Pobal management team have the direction and support required, while ensuring Pobal is lean, fit for purpose and responsive to the future needs of communities and stakeholders.

Looking to the future contribution of Pobal, I am very conscious we are responsible for managing significant amounts of taxpayers’ money allocated by Government. A key strategic priority for me as chairman will be ensuring that Pobal continues to provide a highly effective service for managing Government grants and payments to communities. This must be underpinned by high standards in accountability, in financial management, and in the support we provide to all those with whom we work. Pobal manages a wide range of programmes and as a result it has built up specialist skills and systems to support its work. In recent years, the ranges of skills required has increased, with ICT, procurement, governance, accountability and more, becoming increasingly important. I am committed to Pobal continuing to develop and deepen its skills so that Ireland has a vehicle through which Government can confidently allocate funds to communities with the knowledge that the funds will be properly managed and the programmes delivered effectively.

Another key priority area for me is bureaucracy. I am acutely aware of changes in the regulatory environment for the organisations that Pobal supports. Personal experience of serving on many small boards means that I understand the need to ensure procedures are fair, proportionate and appropriate to the scale of funds allocated. This is not easy in a world where there is an expectation for increased governance, oversight and financial prudence. It is Pobal’s policy to identify the minimum data requirements needed for effective administration, acknowledging that issues such as European level data requirements must be reckoned with. Pobal has made real inroads in this area in the last year, increasingly using online platforms to reduce red tape. The strategic plan for 2018 to 2021, to be launched shortly, identifies reducing bureaucracy for community organisations as a clear objective and the board and I will ensure this objective is met.

The policy changes I referred to earlier have seen a growth in early years services and Government investment has been particularly important in recent years. Pobal is working hard to support this growth. Further development of these services and especially the development and implementation of the affordable childcare scheme, will be a significant challenge for Pobal over the next two years. It is change we are committed to meeting and managing effectively.

I am proud to say that every day, in towns and villages across Ireland, there are Pobal staff on the ground working with communities delivering services locally to combat social exclusion. Pobal’s commitment to social inclusion and to community development through working with local groups, agencies and childcare providers is what we do and what we are. As chairman designate, I want to acknowledge the leadership and commitment to Pobal of every member of the board and in particular our outgoing chairman, Mr. Séamus Boland who has contributed enormously over the last seven years. I want to take this opportunity to thank him for his contribution and service. I also want to commend the work of the staff of Pobal, working alongside local and national community organisations to build stronger communities, support families, assist individuals and to nurture children every day. I am deeply honoured to have been nominated by the Minister for Rural and Community Development, Deputy Michael Ring, as chairman designate for Pobal. I am conscious of the responsibility I have undertaken and I come here today to present my credentials to the committee, to begin my work and to answer any questions members may have.

I thank Dr. Ó Broin. Senator Coffey is first.

I welcome all the witnesses, especially Dr. Ó Broin, to this meeting. I have no doubt, having listened to the details of his curriculum vitae, that he has the vast experience that is required to lead Pobal over the next few years. Politicians may end up as policy makers and legislators but fundamentally, like Dr. Ó Broin, we come from our communities where we were activists. We were grounded in our communities and were working with those in most need. I acknowledge Dr. Ó Broin's attributes and look forward to him leading Pobal in the time ahead. It is not only his voluntary and community activism that I want to acknowledge but also his professional experience, his involvement at various levels with chambers of commerce, in academia and in social enterprise. I am impressed by his curriculum vitae and wish him well as he leads Pobal in the years ahead.

As chairman of Pobal, Dr. Ó Broin will have enormous responsibility. In 2017, Pobal allocated approximately €615 million to various development programmes and community projects around the country. I am delighted to hear that Dr. Ó Broin intends to have strong oversight and accountability in relation to how Pobal does its business. I have only one question for Dr. Ó Broin before wishing him well in his new role. In terms of the allocation process, as with so many governmental organisations and institutions, there is an historic way of doing business. Does Dr. Ó Broin have any plans to evaluate previous Pobal allocations to determine their impact on communities and to make any changes or reforms necessary on foot of that to maximise the impact of funding allocations across the various headings, including social inclusion, equality, assisting families and young people and so on? I look forward to Dr. Ó Broin's response and wish him well.

Dr. Deiric Ó Broin

I thank Senator Coffey. There are two distinct components to my answer. The first is that each individual programme will be evaluated on a regular basis to assess its impact. That is an ongoing process. The second element is more relevant to today's discussion. We recently carried out a feedback and engagement process with beneficiaries, communities and stakeholders on funds managed by Pobal. A number of issues were highlighted in terms of impact and we are actually working on implementing those at the moment. The board has taken a very strong role in taking on board the lessons from that feedback and engagement process. Bureaucracy is one of the issues that came up. We have to strike a balance between accountability for the allocation of public funds and the capacity of the organisations, groups and communities with which we work. We must try, to the best of our ability, to limit the bureaucratic overhead or burden. We are using technology to help in that regard and we are also redesigning some of our processes. The senior alert scheme is a useful example in this regard. That scheme is rolled out across the country and has been managed by Pobal for a number of years. It is a good example of a technical solution being delivered by Pobal and the Department to reduce administration and delays in getting personal monitored alarms to the homes of vulnerable older people across Ireland. We can turn around requests for personal monitored alarms within 24 hours or less. Previously, depending on the individual's location, such requests could have taken a number of weeks to process.

The board serves on a voluntary basis and its members all come from local organisations. We bring that very particular experience to our work. The board is very strong and very keen to make sure that our experience informs the work of Pobal.

I am glad that Pobal is looking at this because as times get busier, it gets harder and harder to find volunteers in communities who can commit the time required to stay with projects. We need a certain resilience. We get a lot of people presenting with nice ideas and nice projects but to actually deliver such projects on the ground, we need people to commit and stay with them through their development and into their achievement and delivery. I have been involved in both local and national politics for almost 20 years. Like Dr. Ó Broin, I grew up in the 1970s and have seen the ups and downs in various communities. I represent a rural constituency and know that local volunteers are finding it harder to deal with high levels of bureaucracy. Some people call it bureaucracy while others may call it accountability and there is a balance to be struck here. Of course we all want good governance but we can overdo the bureaucracy to such an extent that it becomes a barrier for local communities. They get frustrated and scared by it and do not have the time to commit to it but Dr. Ó Broin seems to recognise that, which I acknowledge and welcome. We must ensure the programmes that are available through Pobal are accessible, especially to more vulnerable, isolated and disadvantaged communities. We must support such communities in accessing supports, grants, funding and professional expertise.

I am delighted to hear Pobal is examining and evaluating ways to lessen the bureaucracy or accountability involved for community projects, and that is not to take from the need for proper governance. We all have to learn from the mistakes of the past. We must acknowledge mistakes were made. Where public funds are being expended, they must have as positive an impact as possible. We must strike the right balance, make such funds accessible and allow communities know that there is support available without scaring them away with over-burdensome bureaucracy, form filling and all the rest of it.

I thank all the witnesses, particularly Dr. Ó Broin, for attending this morning. I echo Senator Coffey's comments on the bureaucracy and difficulties community projects find in meeting the very high bar that has been set around accountability for many of them. That point is regularly raised with us. The issue seems to have become more burdensome in recent years. I have dealt with many community projects during the years and I know Paul Skinnader quite well from the past. The issue that seems to have come more into focus now is that it is all about ticking boxes and checking. Many people involved in community projects find that when they apply for a relatively small grant the level of accountability around it is not proportionate to the amount of money they receive. A person working in a community project said to me recently that all the people working in the community trying to get things done are just an excuse for other people to have good jobs, to go around checking on them, rather than delivering for them. I am not saying that is the case but that is an experience people have and they reflect that back to us.

Pobal carries out the role it has been given by the Department. I refer to the article 48 checks that are carried out around the country. The Department advises it that they must be done in a certain way. How does Dr. Ó Broin find the Department to deal with in that respect? I understand responsibility for those checks will be moved from Pobal to the local authorities soon. There are 28 local authorities covering rural areas around the country. How will they be trained to do that work which is now being done by one single body nationally, namely, Pobal? I live in Leitrim and the local authority there is under stress and pressure to do the work it does every day and now it will have the additional role of carrying out these checks. What level of training and capacity building will there be in the local authorities to carry out these checks?

Is the reason for that transfer of such responsibility that Pobal recognises the risk involved in such checks? For example, if Pobal says a project in south Kilkenny is doing very well and that everything is above board and then an inspection service of the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine does another check and finds something wrong, is Pobal concerned it will be held responsible because it passed the check on the project? Is that the reason Pobal is passing the responsibility for these checks to the local authorities, or is it considered that role is more appropriate to the local authorities? If the latter is the case, why did the local authorities not have that role from the start?

Another area is the childcare sector. I visited a childcare facility in recent weeks and the issue of the financial checks they have to go through was raised with me. It is appropriate that childcare facilities are checked to see what way they are running their businesses. However, people can call to a childcare facility without notice at 9.30 a.m. and say they want to carry out a financial check. The difficulty with such a check is that the people running the facility must also comply with the regulations on the other side and ensure they have the appropriate number of staff in place for the number of children for whom they are caring. A member of staff may have to spend a day with a officer from Pobal checking through the books when that staff member should be looking after children. If, on the same day, an official from the other side of the regulations were to arrive to check on that aspect, the childcare facility would be found to be out of kilter in terms of its responsibilities. I have checked the position north of the Border where the same regulations are in place and a childcare facility is given three to five days notice of the carrying out of such a check. That means they can organise to have staff in place to ensure they have the necessary cover.

What has been the cost to date for Pobal to carry out the article 48 checks? It has been doing those checks for three years. How will that cost be borne by the local authorities? How much training on the carrying out of those checks will local authorities get?

Another issue is the level of wages paid to people who work in community projects. I know that is not directly the responsibility of Pobal. For example, people who are highly qualified in the childcare sector have very poor wages. That same applies to workers in all the community projects around the country. The maximum they can be paid is €8.65 an hour but if they need to be paid a living wage, from where will they get the balance to make that up? I would like Dr. Ó Broin to comment on what message that sends to the voluntary sector, which I acknowledge he clearly committed to, where workers are underpaid and under-resourced to such an extent?

Dr. Deiric Ó Broin

Regarding the article 48 checks, responsibility for that is moving from Pobal to the local authorities on a phased basis, if my memory serves me right. The first four will go in January 2019 and that process will roll on again and that will continue over the year. That was a decision for the Department. To take up Deputy Kenny's point on whether the local authorities are the appropriate place for this, my understanding is the local authorities were always the appropriate place for the article 48 checks to be carried out. Pobal, historically, had an involvement through its involvement with LEADER but the article 48 checks were to go to the local authorities. The Deputy asked a related question about building capacity and training for the local authorities. That is an ongoing process and Pobal has been involved in that. I have seen that from my own involvement through local community development committees, LCDCs.

On the Deputy's query about supervision or inspection visits of childcare facilities, that issue was raised in the feedback and engagement process. We would have a number of people on the board who come from a community childcare space and it is an issue they have flagged also. It is in the process of being addressed. We will see a more flexile regime in place. I would refer to my statement. We identify what we consider the minimum requirements. We are not trying to create a burden for organisations. This feeds back to one of Senator Coffey's points. We come from the community sector and most of us have a significant involvement in it. We are not trying to create extra work or difficulties for organisations and individuals in the sector. We have a role to balance the burdens we place on organisations because of the funds that are going to them. We believe they are appropriate and proportionate but it is a constant evolution. Even during the past year, if we consider the European level data requirements, our local organisations had not even thought about that issue three years ago. I know from organisations in which I have been involved on a day-to-day basis, that two to three months was spent earlier in 2017, as well as some time spent later in that year, completely reorganising the communications system to deal with the general data protection regulation, GDPR. Many of the burdens in organisations arise on a regular basis. We, as a board and an organisation, strive to reduce to the best of our ability the burden of administration on organisations, and that is definitely one of my priorities.

The Deputy's final question was on the cost. That is a matter of administrative detail on which I would ask him to engage with the chief executive officer. If it is okay, we will go through the costs and come back with that.

On the inspections, is Dr. Ó Broin saying it has been identified that walk-in inspections are a problem and that Pobal intends to change that? Is Pobal being directed to do it that?

Dr. Deiric Ó Broin

No-----

Is that coming from the Department or from Pobal?

Dr. Deiric Ó Broin

If the Deputy does not mind, I will ask Mr. Denis Leamy to deal with that.

This is the opening session, and it is with the chairperson designate. The next session will be with the chief executive officer, CEO, of Pobal. It would probably be more appropriate for him to answer that question. We will try to conclude this session with the chairperson designate, send him off and then move on to the next session. Is that okay?

Dr. Deiric Ó Broin

That is fine.

Is Deputy Kenny happy with the response?

On behalf of the committee, I thank Dr. Ó Broin for this very positive engagement. His curriculum vitae is very impressive. He is well-grounded, coming from the community and voluntary sector, and I wish him well in the time ahead. I thank him for engaging with the members today and congratulate him on his nomination as chairperson designate of Pobal.

Dr. Deiric Ó Broin

I thank the Chairman.

I propose to send the Official Report of today's engagement to the Minister for Rural and Community Development, Deputy Ring. We will suspend briefly to allow Dr. Ó Broin to leave and the next witnesses to come in.

Sitting suspended at 11.22 a.m. and resumed at 11.23 a.m.