Unfortunately I missed the launch of the Heenan-Anderson Commission report, but they were kind enough to contact me in advance given I had done something very similar almost exactly five years before (admittedly with the difference that the then Opposition had come to power, whereas the current Opposition now seems a million miles from it).
The authors openly admit that the story of the report is there is very little new in it. In fact, it disagrees in no way with mine five years ago, or with Paul Nolan’s monitoring reports, or with anything else. For me, however, the story it tells is of a government in Northern Ireland – and by “government” I include the civil service and bureaucracy – which is utterly lacking in direction.
In fact, fully a quarter of the recommendations relate (although these are my words) to that lack of direction. Politicians and civil servants alike are able to tell you how much they have spent on something, but they have absolutely no idea how to measure the outcomes. This is not just about “value for money”, it is about the fact that our administration has no idea whatsoever whether the interventions it busies itself with work. Is that not completely ludicrous?
Indeed, it is quite obvious that the interventions they make in terms of tackling poverty do not work, as I myself wrote five years ago. Partly, of course, this is because we cling to an over-complex and fundamentally flawed welfare system which suits the vested interests but no one else. More than that, however, it is because our interventions are not targeted; they take place at the wrong age (they are required far earlier); and they are designed with absolutely no understanding even of the basic objective. Put simply, public policy in Northern Ireland is lazily designed to compensate people for living in poverty, rather than to help them out of it.
If you do not believe me, go and look up the ten “most deprived” areas of Northern Ireland in 1994. Now look them up in 2014, a full peace-dividend generation later. If our interventions were actually working…
The fundamental, underlying problem is that government here – again, in the broadest sense – has no idea what it is working towards. The Health and Social Care Board, for example, merely seeks to “ensure improvement in health and wellbeing within available resources” – not exactly Churchilian stuff. Of course, the current administration’s first Programme for Government was meekly entitled “A Better Future”, as if any government would plan a worse one! Arguably, however, that is still better than one OFMDFM programme entitled “Delivering Social Change”, with no idea given as to why it is for government rather than civic society to do this and what the change is (even if it is good or bad). No wonder morale is rock bottom among our public servants – they go into work with no clear sense of purpose.
More than a anything else at all, we in Northern Ireland need to set ourselves clear goals – that is the route to happiness, after all.
I believe an idea I suggested was mentioned at the launch: we should set ourselves the goal, by 2040, of having a life expectancy in Northern Ireland which would rank among the top ten sovereign states in the world. That alone would set clear objectives not just for Health, but also in education (where there would be a renewed focus on healthy living), in social policy (where there would be a renewed focus on ensuring we stop sudden deaths, such as road fatalities), and in environmental policy (where we would have a health imperative to encourage urban public transport use, for example). Inevitably, it would see inequality tackled as the quickest way to raise life expectancy quickly would be to raise it where it is currently lowest (and has been for decades). It would also pass a degree of responsibility on to the individual citizen – as is normal in any high-functioning civic society – to live healthily but also to take an interest in government interventions and to demand to see, clearly, which interventions are working and which are not.
How’s that for clear direction? Now all we need are new political and civic leaders willing to take on the vested interests and be aspirational. We can do that, or have the same report again in five years – I know which I prefer.