The education system is in gridlock. Welfare Reform is stalled. The Health Service is dysfunctional. The devolved institutions themselves fundamentally do not work.
Northern Ireland simply doesn’t do reform.
This may be an inevitable consequence of a bloated public sector arising out of the Troubles, a time when nothing could really be planned in the long term. If this is so, it need to change – fast.
Reform is a particular skill. It requires an ability to bring people along, firstly with the need for reform, then with the destination of the reform process, and then with what it is going to take to get to that destination. It is hard work, entirely unsuited to most career public servants and to the type of politician we elect.
This is the fundamental problem with our political “debate”. We never ask, at the most basic level, what our education system is for (it is not to churn out another generation of non-reforming public servants). We never ask what the basic objective of welfare provision is (it is not a lifestyle choice). We never ask what it is we must do to ensure our Health Service works (it is not about state-delivered care only once people are ill). We never ask, really, what our devolved institutions are for (they are not, now, merely to administer pots of money handed over from London).
A real debate would be about whether education is all about results, or whether it is about preparing people for work (perhaps, therefore, separating primarily vocational and academic streams), or whether it is more broadly about preparing people for life in general (with more emphasis on civics, team building, etc).
A real debate about welfare would establish that it is designed as a safety net; it might add that it is also for those who fall on hard times and to provide a helping hand to those left behind by other systems (in education and health) which are not working; and it might also add a particular connection to health and well-being.
A real debate about the Health Service would ask, firstly, if it is viable to have a Service free at the point of access (since we have already given up on that for optical and dental treatment) and then, if so, how this can best be managed. It would think about the structure of the Health Service; it would consider the appropriate development of the Health Estate; and it would also consider issues such as personal responsibility for health and promoting general well-being.
Indeed, a real debate about the institutions would reflect on the need for good government; on the need for democratic choice; and on the need to do all this while reflecting the diverse national affiliations, identities and religious backgrounds of all of the people.
All of these are interconnected, of course. One reason we do not do reform, after all, is that there is no collective responsibility in the Executive, enabling any Minister trying to pursue reform to be cornered by “colleagues” from other parties behaving like a populist opposition!
In other words, one of the main things we have to consider when reforming the devolved institutions is precisely how we make them able to deliver reform elsewhere! It is time we got good at reform…