Promise of PfG will be lost without NI Civil Service reform

A number of third sector lobbyists in Northern Ireland are getting very excited about the Programme for Government Framework document, which was generally agreed by all the parties before the Assembly Election and upon which consultation closed on 22 July. Unfortunately, this excitement is unlikely to be matched by the practice, because Northern Ireland’s bureaucracy remains fundamentally and culturally incapable of managing reform – not least reform of itself.

The Framework consists of outcomes and indicators (with measurements) and theory behind it is an “outcomes-based approach” (as opposed, in effect, to a “functions-based approach”). To try to give an obvious example of what this may mean: in future, legislation may set out “statutory outcomes” for public bodies to achieve, rather than “statutory functions”, in theory thus devolving considerably more power to the public body to determine how those outcomes are best delivered in practice. Notably, that body would be free to use any resource to deliver the outcome, because it no longer holds functions as such – for example, hearing tests could be devolved to Boots or Specsavers, rather than GP surgeries or Health Centres. Fundamentally, as long as the outcome is achieved, the means of achieving it are irrelevant. It would also have an impact on budgeting – budgets may be devolved outwards, enabling greater control over small sums of money to be handed to more junior public servants or even to local community groups or social enterprises.

This approach was first adopted in the US State (“Commonwealth”) of Virginia in 2000, and was introduced in Scotland in 2007.

So far, so good. However, there are two significant problems with it – politicians and civil servants.

Politicians continue to believe that merely because they have a “mandate”, they somehow know best. Actually, last month’s referendum and the general electoral chaos ongoing across Europe and the United States should show us that politicians have failed fundamentally to relate to people’s lives and grasp the social challenges which lie ahead in a post-economic collapse world. Parked in a bubble, few really have any practical sense of what is required, and thus the outcomes and indicators are bland and often miss the point.

Civil servants too, particularly in Northern Ireland, are culturally incapable of moving beyond process. Even basic, easy projects – for example in services for ethnic minority children or to prevent diabetes – are held up catastrophically by endless meetings, paperwork and, frankly, holidays. Even now, with the chaos of “Brexit” looming and the severe potential impact on Northern Ireland, the notion of restricting leave or any such thing will not have entered anyone’s head. For some reason, Northern Ireland’s bureaucracy seems to allow itself ten months of process, two months of no process, and no months of actual delivery every year. Is that how Singapore got so successful?

Hence, the Framework falls at the first hurdle – the outcomes themselves. A staggering fourteen of these have been identified, and it does not seem to have occurred to anyone that some of them overlap and others are not actually outcomes at all.

For example, only a politician or civil servant could seriously believe “high quality public services” are an outcome. Indeed, the fact it appears under “outcomes” shows that the whole point of an “outcomes-based approach” has been missed. The issue is not “service” or function, it is delivery and outcome.

Many more are essentially the same outcome – a “strong, competitive economy” will inevitably also be an “innovative, creative society” and create “better jobs” for “more people”; a society where we “respect diversity” will surely be one in which we “respect each other”; and it will surely be impossible to create a “place where people want to live, work and visit” without being an “welcoming, outward-looking society”. There is no need for these to be separate. Indeed, it is essential for any “outcomes-based approach” to identify which of those phrases are “drivers” and which are actual “outcomes”.

The truth is the whole Framework has been developed by politicians and civil servants with the only attempt at engagement (and even then not a particularly meaningful one) occurring after development. In fact, experts from the real world (not the one politicians or civil servants inhabit, as noted above) should have been involved from the outset. They would immediately have spotted the overlaps and ill-definitions in the so-called “outcomes”, and thus enabled a far better Framework to be established from the beginning.

Now that we know there is a two-party Executive, there would be no harm in starting again with the outcomes. Let us see around five meaningful outcomes, and then link some meaningful indicators to them. And let us accompany that with a root-and-branch reform of the NI Civil Service (and Health and Education administration), including outside expertise, to make it fit for delivering meaningful outcomes not process-based functions. The principle of the “outcomes-based approach” is fine. The practice will require a fundamental re-think.

Executive needs to realise it is single unit

I joked shortly after the referendum that no one would have believed, in mid-2016, that Northern Ireland would have a stable government and opposition and England would have neither.

Northern Ireland’s problem remains, however, that neither the government nor the opposition has worked out it has to function as a single unit. That is how democratic legislatures work. This means not only that the opposition must function as a coherent unit in order to deny the DUP/SF coalition a majority at the next Assembly election (and thus force a change of Executive), but also that the Executive must so function.

What we now have in Northern Ireland is close to normality. As the First Minister kept reminding us, her party won the election alongside Sinn Fein (admittedly she omits that last bit, but she would do well to remember she cannot govern without her coalition partners!) and thus it has a mandate to govern alongside Sinn Fein (whose seats provide it with the majority in the legislature). That means the Executive must function as a single unit, as it has an Assembly majority on that basis. Just as Scotland’s minority government and Wales’ Lib-Lab coalition provide a single government position on every issue, so must Northern Ireland’s.

Quite obviously, that includes the European Union. The Executive’s job now, taking account of the referendum result both across the UK and within Northern Ireland, is to take a collective position on what Northern Ireland wants from the UK-EU negotiations about to take place. It has failed to do this.

Thus far, we have seen a Finance Minister join the Scottish and Welsh Finance Ministers to suggest some form of united front (no one is quite sure for what, however); and we have had the somewhat embarrassing farce of Northern Ireland’s Agriculture Minister going to the EU with a begging bowl saying how vital EU funding is for farmers here despite having advocated a vote to leave. It is an incoherent mess (and there is, at last, some hint of the SDLP and Alliance working together at least to point that out).

The First Minister and deputy First Minister may lead different Assembly teams but they share the same office – an office which has responsibility for European Union affairs as they impact on Northern Ireland. So what is the settled view of that office? It has no entitlement to present more than one view. Its role is to reach consensus on what precisely Northern Ireland wants from the forthcoming negotiations, and then to argue for it using all the channels available. There is no reason, for example, that my own proposals should cause either party any significant problem (after all, even a Sinn Fein Minister has muttered about Corporation Tax now having to go lower than in the rest of the island for it to be worthwhile).

Whatever, a single coherent Executive position is necessary. Now.

UK should negotiate new relationship, not “Brexit”

I am increasingly perturbed by the number of people coming up with all kinds of technical ways to try to stop “Brexit”, up to and including a weird and wonderful (and utterly ludicrous) plan by one academic for Scotland and Northern Ireland to remain in while England and Wales left.

I am perturbed because we should not waste time with technical (and actually ludicrous) ways to try to stay in the EU, when there are perfectly reasonable cases to be made for doing so. (And it is perfectly democratic to make them – just as it was for Leavers to continue to argue their case after a resounding referendum defeat in 1975.)

A month ago there was a referendum and, albeit by a narrow majority, the UK electorate backed the motion “the UK should leave the EU”.

That means those who want to leave the EU get first try, and the new Prime Minister has wisely accepted this. Some big beasts of the Leave campaign now occupy all the relevant “Brexit” ministries, giving them the chance to come up with a coherent plan whereby leaving the EU is better than remaining in it.

However, the fact is they wil almost certainly fail. After all, what were the main reasons for leaving the EU?

  • We now know there will not be £350 million a week extra for Health, or anything like it, so that key argument for “Leave” no longer applies;
  • We now know that Turkey will not be joining the EU, or anything close to it given what happened last week, so that key argument for “Leave” no longer applies;
  • We now know that, far from “being able to do our own trade deals”, the UK will in fact have no trade deals at all even in formal negotiation (far less complete) on the day it leaves the EU, so that key argument for “Leave” no longer applies either.

Of all the key arguments for leaving the EU, that leaves just one intact – immigration. Objectively, that key argument for leaving the EU may still apply, even if it is worth emphasising that it also means leaving the Single Market altogether (which wasn’t actually on the ballot paper).

So it is obvious what should happen now. The UK should start discussions with the EU, as a member state whose population wishes currently to leave, around immigration. The UK could indeed argue that it has a unique status – given additional favourable status for people coming from the Commonwealth; the generosity it showed to citizens of new member states immediately upon the 10-member expansion in 2004; and the fact that it is geographically isolated. But it could also argue more broadly that absolute free movement of the scale currently in place across the EU (actually, the EEA) does not work and is in fact leading to hostility to the whole Single Market project across the continent, not just in England and Wales.

The underlying point is obvious. If the EU refuses to heed the warning from the UK electorate on immigration, the UK will have to find its own way somehow but it probably will not be the last to go. On the other hand, if the EU is willing to listen (and every national election which takes place across the continent will only make it more willing to) and to rethink just how absolute “free movement” has to be, then all options including maintenance of the UK’s membership remain on the table. If, after all, the EU proved willing to meet the concerns of those who voted to leave it last month, why actually leave?

The case for leaving the EU is just as poor now as it was a month ago. However, that does not mean that many of the concerns of those voting to leave were not legitimate. If we really wish to remain in the EU from this inauspicious political position, we have to address those very real concerns, not just bleat about academic technicalities.

Nationalists caught out by “Brexit”

In the short term, the DUP has been caught out by “Brexit”. The UK leaving the EU would cost Northern Ireland tens of millions of pounds over and above the Barnett formula – money which, therefore, will simply not be replaced. The DUP campaigned for a course of action which will come at a direct and particular cost to the people it purports to serve (in addition to making break-up of the Union likelier). Total lunacy does not begin to describe it.

Nevertheless, Nationalists have been caught out too. The sudden reality of having to work out, in reality, a scheme for withdrawal from the EU has caught Brexiteers without a plan. It was all good in theory, but Johnson, Hannan, Farage et al have absolutely no plan and no idea in practice.

And so it is with a “United Ireland”. Again, the idea was that a border polls would deliver a theoretical majority for the concept of Irish unity, but it is now obvious that Irish Nationalists have no plan either. Messrs Adams, Eastwood, Kenny et al are as clueless about delivering a “United Ireland” in actuality as Messrs Johnson, Hannan and Farage are about leaving the EU. There are even the ridiculous notions both express – notions about the EU allowing the UK inclusion within the Single Market without also insisting on free movement of labour are as daft as notions about British subvention continuing in the event of Irish unity.

Put simply, there is no plan for Irish unity. And the lesson of June’s referendum is that pursuing a theoretical option without a practical plan results inevitably in total chaos.

So Nationalists too have been caught out. They want a “United Ireland” but have shown not the slightest inkling to do the hard work and plan for one.

We are already paying the price for “identity politics” after Britain’s ridiculous “Independence Day” last month left us all 8%+ worse off. It is time to consign it to history in Ireland. Those who want constitutional change have never had a better chance – but they had better come up with a plan right now.

Heads must roll over Boiler shambles

We have rightly been wary of reducing Corporation Tax to 12.5% in Northern Ireland under the relevant Act because the annual cost of doing so to the Northern Ireland budget may be around £200 million.

Yet, shockingly, a bungled Renewable Heat Initiative has already cost us almost that much. A simple failure to match the maximum payment system used in Great Britain has led to the ultimate omnishambles, with farmers being paid six-figure sums to heat empty sheds.

Ultimately, responsibility for this rests with Jonathan Bell, the then Minister, and the DUP. But it also rests with the Civil Servants, who administered the scheme and on whose advice he acted.

I know of a teacher who was forced into retirement because a door she held open bounced back, through no fault of her own, and hit a pupil who was not paying attention. A professional was lost to public service because so mad has child protection become that teachers are now afraid to enforce any discipline at all and cannot even hold a door open without risking a meritless, career-ending accusation. It’s a disgrace.

Yet civil servants who administered and bungled a scheme at a cost potentially of hundreds of millions will, at worst, be allowed to retire on full pension or, in an extreme case, be demoted one grade.

It’s pathetic.

Post-Brexit, Northern Ireland is going to face real austerity (when the gap between what is raised in tax and spent on services and welfare actually decreases). It will need a public service which is up to the job. There are seven times as many bureaucrats working on Northern Ireland government as there are in the European Commission. Yet we allow them to burn millions of pounds of money we contribute in taxes and rates without hint of penalty.

It is time for performance pay. And it is time front-line public servants like teachers were protected, while bungling bureaucrats were dismissed.

Brexit and the border

One of the issues which was deliberately confused by the Leave side during the referendum campaign was the border; and specifically the issue of “movement”.

There are three distinct things here, about which the Leave side on occasions overly lied.

There is movement of people; movement of labour; and movement of goods and services.

Movement of people is handled by the Schengen Agreement, which applies to 22 EU member states plus Switzerland, Norway, Iceland and some microstates (Andorra, San Marino, Monaco and Liechtenstein). This means that a single entry visa qualifies a person for entry into any of the territories covered, and there are ordinarily no passport checks on people travelling between them (although these may be instituted in emergencies). Notably the UK and Ireland are outside this Agreement; they have their own arrangement, known as the Common Travel Area, whereby each country treats the other’s citizens as their own (with some very minor exceptions concerning voting rights of UK citizens in Ireland).

Movement of labour is covered by the European Economic Area (EEA), which is the entire EU plus Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein (strictly speaking the most recent EU member state, Croatia, is not yet a full member of the EEA). This means that any citizen of any of those states may seek work in another, and may not be discriminated against on the basis of nationality.

Movement of goods and services is covered by the European Union Customs Union, which is the entire EU plus Turkey, three microstates (Andorra, San Marino and Monaco) and all other UK territory in Europe (including the Isle of Man and the Channel Islands).

All EU member states are members of the European Economic Area (EEA) guaranteeing free movement of labour, and of the European Union Customs Union guaranteeing free movement of goods and services; but no non-EU state is a member of both.

If the UK were to leave the EU, it would need to decide if it wished to remain within the EEA and/or the Customs Union. If it remained within the EEA, there would be no restriction for UK or EU nationals working on either side of the Irish border and probably no passport checks, but there would be customs checks (that is the case, for example, between Norway and Sweden). If it remained within the Customs Union but not the EEA, there would be no customs checks but working rights would be restricted on either side of the border and, notwithstanding the Common Travel Area, there may need to be passport checks (that is the case between Turkey and Greece). The exact outcome depends on how strict the UK (or EU) wished to be on immigration; and on whether Northern Ireland attained any special status.

Legally, therefore, there is much to concern those of us who wish the Irish border to remain relatively open to a free flow of people, labour and trade. In practice, I do not doubt something will be worked out to enable, at the very least, free flow of people and access to employment for Irish citizens in the UK.

Brexit Op-Ed

Full text of an Op-Ed for the Belfast Newsletter.

The Newsletter has right led the way on demanding devolved institutions in Northern Ireland prepare themselves for a changed future in the light of last month’s referendum on the UK’s withdrawal from the European Union.

It is absolutely correct to say that this is no time for our Executive Ministers and public servants to be treating themselves to a two-month holiday. Having evidently failed, disgracefully, to come up with any contingency for a Leave victory, despite the fact one of the Executive parties was advocating one, sacrifices will have to be made so that the business of government can proceed smoothly from September.

Firstly, as the Newsletter has rightly suggested, Committees should be continuing to meet – even if by allowing deputation of members by party colleagues in some cases. These meetings should have the specific initial objective of assessing exactly what the exposure is of each Department to the European Union. Are there funds, information streams, knowledge exchanges which are endangered by leaving?

Once this work is done (and there is no reason it should not be by early August), the Executive should then assess which aspects of our relationship with the EU are essential, and which can be replaced. This will then determine the position the Executive takes in advocating for Northern Ireland when the UK/EU negotiations take place. How important is it to our young people’s futures that our further education institutions (and students) are treated as if they were in the EU; to our small businesses trading across the border that we remain within the Customs Union; to our exporters that we remain within the Single Market? What exactly do we need to do to maintain access to European Clinical Trials, pan-European medical research and interventions for rare conditions? What do we propose to do about the European Arrest Warrant, access to shared intelligence and hot pursuit protocols which will keep us safe from international crime and terrorism? Is there even a case for Northern Ireland-only work visas, EU customs access or reciprocal health care arrangements?

Having established what aspects of EU membership are vital to Northern Ireland’s future, we can then pursue our case. We may be able to make common cause with Scotland, or even Gibraltar or London, on many of these issues. We should almost certainly be arguing for a UK Constitutional Convention and an all-island Civic Forum to help this work and ensure compromise in key areas. The Executive Office in Brussels should long ago have been building bridges with other European regions in similar positions to add to pressure across the EU for a “Special Access Arrangement” for Northern Ireland, given its unique constitutional status and geographical location. We also need to consider implications for corporation tax, infrastructure investment and skills development – but this must be done as part of an overall strategy, not in isolation.

The issues, for households, businesses and service deliverers across Northern Ireland, are far too important to be ignored for two months. Contingency plans must be put in place now, and delivered upon immediately in September.

Post-factual politics afflicts Left as much as Right

Make no mistake, in this era of post-factual politics, it is quite possible for someone who embellished their CV, claimed to establish groups she did not establish, and denied saying things she clearly said could become Prime Minister on the basis of offering to deliver something she cannot deliver. I am wary of even naming her for fear of giving the post-truthers something else to latch on to.

Yet this is not by any means confined to the Conservative Party or the Right. Indeed, for nearly a decade now, the Left has been moaning about “austerity” when in fact none has been applied (“austerity” requires the gap between taxes raised and public spending including welfare to decline, something which has simply not happened).

This may have slipped by too:


The Chilcot report runs to literally millions of words – it would take nine days to read it. However, it says absolutely none of those three things, something about which Chilcot himself could not have been clearer.

The Greens often like to talk about “evidence-based politics” but here is a clear-cut case of someone wanting a report to say something, then assuming that it will, and then reporting that it has – when in fact it hasn’t. Thousands of people retweet it unthinkingly, not stopping to question it.

One LBC correspondent described it as “anti-analysis”. Perfect for a “post-factual” age which afflicts all sides. Should we not all be rather better than this?

UUP/SDLP fail first opposition test

Two weeks ago, amid the referendum frenzy, the Assembly held a debate on proposals to close Northern Ireland’s regional electoral offices. Since these are a reserved matter, the decision falls to the UK Government, but this did not stop the NI Assembly passing a motion condemning the closures, backed not only by the Executive parties but also by both Official Opposition parties.

Yet the fundamental objective of government is to deliver services efficiently. To be inefficient is to take money away from vital services and spend it instead on offices no one needs. That is inexcusable.

The truth is, we do not need regional electoral offices in a place as small as Northern Ireland. It would make far more sense to merge their limited functions (which are limited to electoral registration for the next three years) with local councils. Indeed there is no reason the same local council offices could not deal with driving licences, vehicle registration and electoral registration all at once, with almost no additional bureaucratic burden (as all the services would now be delivered from the same location). The SDLP even hinted at this, and yet still supported a motion condemning the closures.

This has happened before, of course. The same parties made a fuss of moving vehicle registration to a UK-wide system based in Wales (somewhat odd, particularly, for Unionist parties). Still, ludicrously, Northern Ireland is the only place in the UK which requires paper driving licences (as well as the only place which does not allow online electoral registration).

Most worrying of all is that, if parties cannot even recognise the obvious need to merge electoral registration services and thus save on the cost of excess bureaucracy and unnecessary office buildings, what chance is there of them engaging properly in real Health Reform or such like?

There is also the question of what on earth an Opposition is for. If, fundamentally, the role of government is to deliver services efficiently, and the DUP/SF proposed a motion not doing this, what exactly is the point of an “Opposition” if it just meekly goes along with it?

First test failed.

Brexit and EU disintegration?

Today people parade in Northern Ireland to commemorate the coming to power in the British Isles of a Continental King who did not speak English. It is peculiar, like so many things in Northern Ireland, that most of those parading probably voted for the British to opt out of a role at the centre of European affairs last month. It is even more peculiar because that very vote so obviously threatens the Union they claim to want to protect at all costs.

However, the very reason I advocated a Remain vote was that we cannot afford to be parochial. It is not just the British Union which stands to be destabilised further by “Brexit”. It is also the European Union.

The leaders of the EU institutions seem to believe that they can simply lose their second biggest member and then go on with “more Europe” as before. Ridiculously Martin Schulz, President of the European Parliament, responded by suggesting full federation. It is exactly this kind of madness which tipped some people in the UK, quite possibly a decisive number, into the “Leave” camp. Indeed, Messrs Schulz, Juncker and Tusk should be resigning en masse given their comprehensive failure to keep the UK people on board, not lecturing about greater integration. Did they miss Greece? Are they missing Italy now? Have they not noticed recent opinion polls and election results in Sweden and Austria?

The response of national governments has been much more sensible. However, for how long can we guarantee sensible national governments across the EU? Already UKIP-like parties are or have been effectively in control of several Eastern European countries and are or soon will be holding governments hostage from Denmark to Austria.

If anything it is the EU, not the UK, which is endangered most by Brexit (well, not by Brexit itself, but by the same forces which drove the Leave vote). It is larger; the member states have less in common; and its purpose is less obvious. What works for Germany, its largest member, may for all kinds of historical and economic reasons not work for anyone else (for example, German austerity derives from historical imperative, not economic). Even Austria and the Netherlands, the two member states most like Germany socially and economically, have Eurosceptic movements accounting quite possibly for a majority of the population; France, the EU’s other core driver, almost certainly now has.

Whatever you say about the decision to call the referendum in the UK, at least the UK recognises there is a problem. That is more than can be said for the European Commission. The EU will now have to take a very different course. The real shame is, if it does leave, the UK will not play a more significant role in steering it.


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