Hospital cost may hit €2bn - Project an example of toxic culture

The kind of disdain for the idea of public service, the deep cynicism fuelled by what can only be described as the slapdash, make-it-up-as-we-go-along mismanagement of the National Children’s Hospital project has become a toxic force undermining any remaining public faith in how these vital projects are delivered.

Apart from our terribly poor response to the housing crisis, the children’s hospital fiasco has stretched the relationship between citizen and government more than nearly any other project undertaken by this State.

It is hard to think of another noble objective so tarnished by inadequate planning and management. It is, however, essential that we find a way to change the culture, administrative, business, and political, that dragged us to this sorry moment.

Self-serving political figures and medical professionals’ ambitions are significant factors in this embarrassment. Last week’s refusal by two senior civil servants to attend the Oireachtas Public Accounts Committee to answer all-too-valid questions on the fiasco, just as we marked the centenary of the Dáil, suggested a contempt for our parliament and its democratic mandate.

That those men are still senior civil servants reaffirms that our affairs are in the grip of a culture where accountability is optional, where our parliament’s ability to do its work depends on the whims of all-too-powerful bureaucrats.

In a more confident, better-ordered society, they would have been thanked for their service as they were shown to the door.

Yesterday’s sitting of the PAC, which also dealt with the children’s hospital, unfortunately justified those disappointments. Indeed, rather than allaying fears, it exacerbated them.

The hearing heard that the runaway costs may still have some considerable running to do.

The project, which was costed at €983m just two years ago but stands at €1.733bn today, is, the PAC heard, “highly unlikely” to, at the end of the end, cost less than €2bn at the end of the end.

Labour TD Alan Kelly asked the secretary general of the Department of Health, Jim Breslin — thankfully, he was available this week — if he could now guarantee that the cost would not breach the €2bn mark.

Answering with a non-answer, Mr Breslin said a study is under way to examine extra costs.

He offered:

“The only variations on the guaranteed maximum price are the exclusions from the contract and we have been asked by Government to do a scenario sensitivity analysis on the impact of those... That is not complete but it does include inflation above 4% from July of 2019.

I don’t think it takes us into that into that type of space but we will complete that and bring it to Government.

He continued, saying that the Department of Health would be “fully open” about potential extra costs once it has estimated them. It seems at least bizarre that any aspect of the project remains, at this advanced stage, to be finalised but then it is surprising that we’re still surprised.

The far bigger questions are how we restore faith in our politics, our pubic administration. How do we balance expectations with possibilities? We must because the consequences of not doing so are all too obvious just across the Irish Sea.

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