In a recent blog, we saw how economist Mariana Mazzucato demonstrated that it was not the hugely profitable and tax-avoiding tech firms which were the key innovators of some key technologies. The innovation sprung from investment in the US and European publicsectors, such as DARPA and CERN.
It was the tech firms which took the public innovations including the internet, touchscreen, GPS, SIRI etc and improved, monetised and marketised them. It was public sector innovation and funding in the US (and Europe) which led to Tesla’s battery technology and solar panels, to microprocessors, to RAM memory, hard disc drives, lithium batteries and to Google’s search engine algorithms (funded by the National Science Foundation).
An Irish Entrepreneurial Success Story
Is there any example of a good Irish entrepreneurial state in action? The idea for the Wild Atlantic Way was an inspired Irish public sector entrepreneurial initiative to generate revenue for tourism in the West, one of Ireland’s poorer regions.
It was Public servants in Failte Ireland, the state tourism body, who conceived, developed and executed a super, innovative, and enduring service industry product.
Failte Ireland, set out to generate increased and sustainable incomes for those private sector business people who operate hotels, tourist centres, B&Bs, cafes, bike hire and shops along the way.
Failte Ireland’s management had an away-day in a hotel in north Dublin where a facilitator gave them certain props to stimulate ideas. One was a long line with fishing hooks and some got the idea that they needed something to catch and entice the tourists to come to each hook or attraction. Thus the idea of the string being the most westerly coastal road from Donegal to Cork was the ingenious link, with the hooks being “discovery points” to attract tourists to local places of interest and not just to the big attractions (Wonders of the WAW) like the Cliffs of Moher (above).
The Wild Atlantic Way is an excellent example of a public innovation to boost incomes in the private sector and generate public gains for all. It has been a real success and demonstrates how the public sector can be truly innovative.
The Wild Atlantic Way’s success is being followed up with other initiatives such as the recent similar initiative the “Hidden Heartlands” for the Midlands, the last of Failte Ireland’s branding of Ireland into four distinct tourist offerings.
Idea that Public Sector Bad, Private Good appears to be over.
In Ireland, we used to believe in the “mixed economy” of private and public sector interdependence. Then our elite wanted to privatise everything that could be sold off, including top indigenous state firms (despite feigning that they were committed to building a strong indigenous sector of such companies), to outsource everything that could not be sold off to the supposedly superior private sector and bring in (often more inefficient) private contractors to what remained of the public sector.
The new Irish state had to be entrepreneurial, establishing all kind of initiatives including major commercial companies, banks etc. because the private sector here was so weak after Independence until about 1970/80s.
The pendulum then swung much too far with Thatcher. Many of our politicians, previously adopting a role for the mixed economy of private and state, then followed the international downgrading of the public sector (partly driven by rising costs in sunset sectors), by outsourcing and privatising even top class pubic enterprises for no reason other than pseudo-competition and fashion. In reality, it was that the Thatcherite ideology infused many politicians and senior civil servants, ultimately to our great cost.
The government is now actively fostering Public Service Innovation as a priority. After a decade of austerity and cuts, the DEPER is preparing Our Public Service 2020 – Development and Innovation Framework to deliver better, responsive and agile public services. The Framework includes innovation as well as developing both people and state organisations. This is needed, as some areas, particularly the Gardai and HSE which need deep reform of their management. Public submissions are welcome.
The mixed economy never went away. It was neglected or overlooked by policymakers. The state was still promoting/supporting the private sector, even though it was being proportionately reduced.
The privatisation of indigenous public enterprises, the downgrading of valuable public services simply because they are not private, the continuing disaster of Eircom, bin collections, PPPs etc. has dawned on most people as being the wrong and costly road.
The announcement on 13 April that 40 new schools will be built directly and owned by the state, and not by slicing off a sliver of the huge capital cost to benefit private interests in the form of PPPs, is one indicator of change.
Wild Atlantic Way: A Public Entrepreneurial Innovation
Failte Ireland, a state funded body, had an Operational Plan for the WAW which set out a strategy and an implementation framework and programme for the sustainable implementation of the Wild Atlantic Way over the period 2015-2019. It is a series of strategies which set out a vision for the continued evolution of the Wild Atlantic Way over the decades to come.
The Wild Atlantic Way encompasses the coastline and hinterland of the nine coastal counties of the West of Ireland – Donegal, Leitrim, Sligo, Mayo, Galway, Clare, Limerick, Kerry and Cork. The route itself stretches for almost 2,500km from the village of Muff on the Inishowen Peninsula in County Donegal to Kinsale in West Cork.
In addition, a number of urban centres have been identified as gateways to the Wild Atlantic Way, namely; Cork, Killarney, Limerick, Ennis, Galway, Westport, Sligo, Donegal and Letterkenny, as accommodation hubs etc.
Failte Ireland developed Greenways, road signage, 159 Discovery points, 15 Wonders of the WAW and it marketed the WAW here and internationally. €10m was invested in it. It also had to drag reluctant local authorities into accepting, adopting and pursuing it.
Failte Ireland, broadly foresaw, correctly, that the route itself would be a magnet to gain the attention of the international visitor, and act as a device to entice people to the poorer west of Ireland.
The area was so big that they decided that six geographic zones were identified to amplify different sections of the Wild Atlantic Way and to make it easy for consumers to orientate themselves based on their motivations.
In mid-2012, Fáilte Ireland initiated a collaborative and consultative process to identify the route of the Wild Atlantic Way. In May 2013, the Route Identification Report was published, which documents the process followed in identifying the route
The plan was that the WAW would mature over time to become synonymous with great experiences of our Atlantic heritage, culture, landscapes and seascapes in a high quality environment. Today the route is a main spine but a series of looped itineraries will be created to further develop the experience for visitors.
WAW: an international brand of quality and an innovative Irish State
The plan was that the Wild Atlantic Way would become an international brand of quality and;
- provide our visitors with unforgettable experiences;
- deliver real benefits for local communities and businesses in the west of Ireland
- provide a focus for the protection of the environment.
Most enterprises are very small but are embedded in local communities and in the West opportunities were limited especially in rural areas.
The great idea, in my view, was to tie up the very edge of all the West Coast of Ireland and link each offering in the private sector – shops, cafes, restaurants, B&Bs, hotels, bike hires and so on together with local attractions. The WAW demonstrates that Irish public servants can be truly innovative and monetise creative ideas for private business and the public good.
Paul Sweeney is former Chief Economist of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions. He is a member of the Economic Committee of the ETUC and chair of TASC’s Economists’ Network. He was a President of the Statistical and Social Enquiry Society of Ireland, a member of the National Competitiveness Council of Ireland, the National Statistics Board, the ESB, TUAC, (advisor to OECD) and several other bodies. He has written three books on the Irish economy and two on public enterprise, including The Celtic Tiger; Ireland’s Economic Miracle Explained and Selling Out: Privatisation in Ireland, chapters in other books and many articles on economics.