The task force met collectively for the fifth time last friday from 10am-6pm. I’ve previously posted on the first, second, third, fourth and consultation meetings. The members of the task force, including the civil servants, are listed here, and most of the public submissions to date are here.
The meeting as usual was chaired by Dermot McCarthy, and we had a full attendance of all the 28 members, bar two of the private sector members who were abroad, and also bar one of the HEI heads. Junior Minister Conor Lenihan also attended for the morning, along with additional staff (not strictly task force members) from both the Department of the Taoiseach and the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment. The Taoiseach himself had hoped to be present at least for a part of the meeting, and sent sincere apologies due to other more imminent priorities. The meeting was scheduled from 10.00am until 4.00pm, but ran over by almost a further two hours with almost everyone staying on.
To me, the meeting was a story of two halves. The morning session, as I’ll explain just below, in my view was a little impaired; I think the afternoon session was much better.
As I posted, the fourth meeting in December considered the first full draft, and made a number of comments on it. The meeting was just before the Christmas and New Year period and, with the consent of the Secretariat (in the Department of the Taoiseach), I offered to take the draft report and re-structure it over the holiday period in the light of the comments received. I accordingly did so, including supplying draft text for missing explanatory sections, and also explicitly referencing almost all of the various public submissions received in a long series of footnotes.
In the New Year, the Secretariat and Chair reviewed my revisions, made a number of further ones themselves before distributing the report by email to all task force members. A very extensive set of comments were then received back by email – in my view, the large number of comments arose perhaps because now the report had reasonable structure and logic, and could be read in its entirety. The Secretariat unfortunately then had insufficient time left before the fifth meeting last Friday to adopt and resolve all the various comments: instead they produced a shortened abridged version of the full report which was distributed by email shortly before last Friday’s meeting.
I deliberately did not say much in the morning session, apart from one intervention (as below) towards the end. I wanted to listen carefully and observe the pageantry around the room as various parties expressed their positions. One of the unfortunate aspects was perhaps that the current abridged version removed some emphasis which is in the full report, leading some commentators on Friday morning to assert that there was insufficient attention in our collective work on aspects such as the role of arts and humanities, foreign direct investment, sector specific issues and so on. Some of the civil servants of the task force obviously have many duties and responsibilities, and I had the impression that a few – not all! – may even be “attention challenged” – perhaps having insufficient time to devote to a full consideration of all the issues presented. Part of the morning session then became focussed on the messages and mechanics of the launch of the report. Personally I felt that this was premature, and that we might have been much better focussed on discussing and agreeing the substance of its contents, before then considering how to present it publicly: the communication of the report will of course be vital, but let us at least agree the contents of it first..
I think another issue is that to some of those present – and arguably to some in the media and public at large – the word “entrepreneur” has certain overtones and connotations in the Irish context which are not always positive. We have crafted a very careful definition of what we mean by “entrepreneur” at the start of the report: nevertheless those attention-challenged may not notice the definition, and instead use their own notion of entrepreneur. Afterwards I reflected on this problem: we need a word which captures the creation and delivery of new offerings to (primarily) the global export market, creating jobs and inspiring others to also try. Perhaps a new word is needed for us to use – perhaps a contrived word such as “innovateur”, combining “innovator” and “entrepreneur”, forcing the Irish reader and listener to reflect on what exactly we mean — even if in fact it is already a word in French.
I’m afraid I spoilt the theatre a little at this stage, and challenged the team by asking do we even agree what problem are we trying to solve ? How do we know when we are solving it (a question I asked at the first plenary meeting!) ? I then put up my DETE employment slide from my posting on thursday evening last. I tried to stress the critical importance of building a positive feedback effect, in which jobs supported by DETE in turn spin off further jobs, which in turn spin off yet further jobs and so on — I so strongly believe that a multiplicative effect, “leverage” and “viral” impact, are so so critical to build, rather than a simple “additive” strategy which may have led to the flat employment graphs to date. But I’m unsure whether I made my point sufficiently well, whether everyone understood it, and whether they agreed with me.
We broke for lunch.
Immediately afterwards, we were joined by Trevor Holmes (of the IDA) and Alan Hobbs (of Enterprise Ireland), who gave a short presentation on their planning of the launch event for the report. I think the mood changed as a result, and a more positive atmosphere resulted as enthusiasm and excitement returned. The afternoon session became much more cohesive than the morning session.
After Trevor and Alan left, the Chairman brought us through a number of topics in which there had been conflicting comments and views expressed by email on foot of both the draft full and draft abridged reports. These included topics as diverse as the role of angel funding; consistent intellectual property processes from the higher education institutes (HEIs); the role and nature of “flagship” projects; engagement with top tier international venture capitalists; mathematics and science attainment in our schools; entrepreneurial (should that be “innovateurial” ?) culture in our HEIs; and State aid rules. As I listened – and participated from time to time – to the discussions, I felt that there was reasonable agreement on each, as particular viewpoints were explained and understood – perhaps in a way that a reading, particularly a rapid reading, of the written texts would not have achieved.
There was also discussion on the role and structure of employment projections in the report, and equally on the commentary in the full report with respect to the various public submissions that had been received. There was a discussion on implementation of the report, and the process for updates on progress of the smart innovation economy.
The Secretariat have undertaken to produce a revised abridged report and full report in a reasonably short period of time. We have scheduled a further full plenary meeting next month should it be needed, but I believe there was a general view that the work could be signed off via email.
The work of the task force will then be taken to Cabinet and, with its approval, then be launched to the public. We hope that this may be sometime in March.
It was an interesting day, and I think we ultimately ended up in a reasonable place with reasonable cohesiveness. The Secretariat have a responsible and full task ahead of them, and I naturally look forward to reviewing the next iteration fairly shortly.