There is a broad range of state agencies outside of the government departments. They have been established by the various stages to undertake particular functions. Their functions range from commercial functions which might otherwise be provided by the private sector to core government services such as the Revenue Commissioners and Garda Siochana.
State agencies are not part of government departments, and their employees are not civil servants. However, under the relevant legislation establishing agency, they have a status which, in many cases, equates to that of civil servants.
There has been a trend in the last 30 years to take functions from central government department and place them with independent bodies and agencies. This has been part of the attempt to divorce certain sectors from direct day to day ministerial control and put in place and independent board. In some cases, the boards may have particular expertise or be representative of certain interested sectors.
Some start bodies are at the heart of the administration and perform functions which were formerly performed by government. This includes the Health Service Executive. The Garda Siochana and Defence Forces are key state bodies, outside of government but overseen by a government department.
The degree of ministerial control and financial independence will depend on the nature of the service concerned. Some entities perform functions once performed by government departments which might as easily be performed by a department.
In this case, the degree of financial dependence and control is high. In other cases, the bodies are undertaking commercial functions or regulating a particular sector.
The proliferation of state agencies in recent decades has led to criticisms of contract out government. The legislation attempts to maintain a level of government control and accountability.
The issue of whether or not a body is a public body is relevant in a number of contexts. A significant amount of legislation originating from the European Union is directly applicable to public authorities. It binds the State and all the various organs, emanation of the State including public bodies.
Range of Functions
Non-commercial state bodies undertake a range of functions. Examples include the Court Service, The Property Registration Authority and the National Roads Authority. They specialize in providing a public service nationally.
Certain bodies act on appeals or arbitrate on complaints made by members of the public. This includes the Garda Siochana Ombudsman service, the Financial Service and Pensions Ombudsman and similar entities.
Certain bodies undertake research and public promotion roles, The Road Safety Authority, Railway Safety Commission, Office of Tobacco control and the Law Reform Commission are in this category.
Enterprise Ireland, Science Foundation Ireland and the Local Enterprise Boards support private sector employment and business development.
Certain bodies regulate particular professions. This includes the Medical Council, Legal Service Regulation Authority and many others.
Certain state boards or bodies promote certain industries. Horseracing Ireland and the Irish Greyhound Board promote their respective sectors. The bodies comprise state appointees and appointees nominated by various interest groups in the industry.
Commercial state-sponsored bodies are generally obliged to make a profit to cover to capital expenditure and possibly pay a dividend to the Minister. In practice the State has allowed considerable leeway to many such bodies.
Issues arise in relation to state participation in certain fields under European Union legislation. See the chapters on European Union state aid and competition laws.
State-sponsored bodies usually receive most if not all of their revenue from the sale of products and services. A certain number of state agencies have been privatised such as Aer Lingus and Telecom Eireann. Other substantial state sponsored bodies include ESB, Coillte, RTE, VHI Bord Gais Eireann, Aer Rianta.
Although many state agencies are formed as companies, many of their objectives set out in legislation. The establishing legislation would generally provide for the nature of the relationship with the relevant sponsoring department. The Department of Finance will usually be involved in decisions that have financial implications. In some cases, both departments’ consents may be required for various matters.
The Legislation may provide to the extent to which the Minister may make explicit directions. In other cases, the control of the Minister may be more in effect than in law.
The sponsoring department – and the Department of Finance may have a significant role in financing the body concerned. The sponsoring department may have the ability to remove members from the board. This should rarely happen because the point of most such boards is to establish a measure of independence from the state.
In practice, the departments will have enormous influence due to the practical financial as well as legal aspects of their relationship. Both this practical and financial element and the legal structure may enable the department and minister to have a role in policy and direction for the semi-state body.
State bodies may be funded by way of voted Oireachtas monies, their own funds or a combination. In the case of commercial state-sponsored bodies, the State may subscribe for capital or guarantee their borrowing. The legislation will usually set the maximum amount which they be issued in borrowing or shares.
The legislation sets out the make-up of the board members. The minister will usually appoint many of them. Their term of office is usually fixed. Legislation the Worker Participation (State Enterprises) Acts provides for worker directors in certain state bodies.
Other board members may be elected and nominated by various organisations or groupings with a interest in the matter concerned. In many cases nominations are made by interested parties and the final appointment is by the minister. In principle, the appointees should have both the qualification and experience in the areas concerned.
Criticisms have been made of state sponsored bodies in that many appointments were seen as reward for political loyalty for party members. Following reforms , there is a new process for recommendations appointments of Chairpersons and Members (Non-Executive Directors), to the boards of State Agencies
Stateboards.ie is the portal through which all vacancies are advertised, information is provided on the appointments process and quarterly reports on all appointments are published.
State Boards manages Board appointments across 207 state agencies. These Agencies include Commercial, Non-Commercial, Oversight Agencies, Regulatory Authorities and a range of other public bodies. State Boards selects and recommends for appointment expressions of interest for Members / Non-Executive Directors to the boards of State Agencies.
The State Boards process operates under the Guidelines on Appointments to State Boards 2014 (Guidelines on Appointments to State Boards). In some cases, board appointees are members of the minister’s department or public service to as assist communication and coordination with the body. Unofficial gender quotas have been observed from time to time.
The power to dismiss members of the board will be specified in the legislation. Generally, the Minister will have power where grounds of dismissal apply. Removal is generally on objective grounds such as misbehavior, failure to perform duties, ill health. In some cases, the power is more open.
Executive & Staff
The Chief Executive is generally a full-time position equivalent to Managing Director. He may be in entitled to attend board meetings. Legislation will determine his obligation.
Legislation will generally allow for the appointment of staff. The consent of the Department of Finance is required in relation to positions and the establishment of grades and salaries.
The Board will be accountable in both the legal and political sense for the public bodies. The Chief Executive may accept responsibility for political failings on behalf of the board and ultimately resign if necessary. The Chief Executive may be fired although this will rarely occur
The accounting officer will be obliged to account to Oireachtas committees for the conduct of the board although there were no direct sanctions as such. The accounting officer will often be the chairman and or other senior officers depending on the Oireachtas Committee concerned.
The body’s grant aid will be part of the monies voted annually and will be included in the Appropriation act. This may give the opportunity to the Dail to consider performance and discuss matters affecting it. However, the debates are likely to be limited in scope.
See the separate section on Oireachtas committees. There are joint committees over a range of areas. The committee may examine witnesses under oath and the hearings may be publicised or televised.
Legislation or practice denotes who is the accounting officer for the public body. This will usually be the Chief Executive. He is obliged to appear before the Committee on Public Accounts in relation to financial and quasi-audit matters affecting the Body. In addition, the Chief Executive or accounting officer may attend relevant committees.
Non-commercial bodies are generally audited by the Controller and Auditor General while commercial bodies are regulated by statutory auditor.
Non-commercial bodies must make returns to the Department dealing with financial personnel and other matters.