Driving along the Coast Road in Sandymount, I was listening to the ‘1 o clock Interrogation’ (News) on RTE and almost crashed the car. Brendan Kenny was retiring as CEO of the Limerick Regeneration Project. Brendan had been in Limerick for 5 years. During that time they managed to spend €116 million. What they didn’t manage to do was to build a single new house. The interviewer kept asking: “So, what exactly has been achieved? Give me a tangible example?” It was a solid interview from a questions perspective. Unfortunately, the answers were a little less comforting.
Enter the Dragon: Jan O Sullivan, the Minister of State, Department of Environment, Community and Local Government with special responsibility for Housing and Planning came on the programme (Jan must place 2 business cards side by side to accommodate that title). When asked what had been delivered for the €116 million, she entered into a blame game dialogue about the ‘previous administration’. Up to a point that’s OK – she was not in situ as a Minister for most of that time. Looking forward, she was asked: “What are you going to do now to get traction on the project?” The Solution: “Develop a new strategic plan”. Oh holy mother of Jesus! There are more plans for the regeneration of Limerick than in an overworked Architectural practice! That’s the last thing that’s needed. What’s really needed is to find out exactly what went wrong with the last plan.
Limerick Problem: Key parts of Limerick are a monument to a failed social experiment. Limerick has the largest population of settled travelers in the country. This group were placed side by side with a huge local authority social housing project. It was a disaster. I have visited the 5 key estates that regularly make the news concerning gangland crime and murders and which have blighted that great city. When I worked in the National College of Ireland we tried to secure a contract on Limerick’s social regeneration agenda (urban regeneration without social regeneration, simply ends up creating upmarket ghettos). Other 3rd level institutions were also interested in this space (including UL) and NCI lost out. So we never got to work directly on the project and my understanding of what actually happened on the ground is light.
Organisation Learning: But here’s the central issue. The country has just spent €116 million on a project which, to date, has not delivered on it’s original promise. So, what have we learned from this? Perhaps Brendan Kenny, who was deemed to be a success in his job in Dublin, morphed into a poor manager (An Idiot Abroad) when he went to work in Limerick? I very much doubt it. While it’s always a neat solution to blame a single individual, I suspect that the real issues are both deeper and messier. Perhaps the local authority wanted the action? Having a ‘Regeneration Project’ catapulted into the middle of their ‘territory’ would not sit well with any Local Authority. It’s both a direct invasion and a constant reminder that they had not dealt with the original problem. Interestingly, under the new regime, the regeneration project will be managed directly by the Local Authority – with the implication that ‘they will do it better’. Just 120 miles up the road, what lessons could be taken from key regeneration projects in Ballymun, Fatima Mansions and Dublin Docklands? With brutal honesty the successes and failures of these multi-million euro projects could be unraveled and applied before we spend the next €116 million of taxpayers money in Limerick. Or come up with another strategic plan.
Solutions Exist: From a distance, I don’t know what the solutions to the Limerick problems are. But, if we look at international experience in some of the most deprived and drug-ridden communities across the world, workable solutions are available. But they are only available if you are ‘up for it’. Swimming away from failure is a malaise that’s not just common in the public sector. All organizations seek to ‘bury the bodies’ and cover up past sins. When something bad happens, managers are pre-programmed to keep their head down, distancing themselves from failure faster than Dracula running from sunlight.
Post Mortems: The Spanish philosopher George Santayana informed us: “Those who forget the past are condemmed to repeat it”. Perhaps we should all just sing the Rubber Bandits hit: ‘There’s a Horse Outside’ and ignore the elephant in the room. The real question is: ‘We screwed up in Limerick. Now, why did it happen’? Managerial post-mortems should be a key part of your toolkit. Understanding past failures (beyond a search for the guilty) is the route to future success. The acid test: How many post-mortems have you led on issues that you personally screwed up? Not many of us would clock up a big score on that one.
PS Two guys talking. One says: ”What sort of a week did you have?” The other guys mumbles: “Awful. I’ve had a gum problem for a couple of years and ended up having to get all of my teeth removed”. “What was that like?” “Ah, never again”.
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