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, seem to be 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. Some might suggest 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 (a problem, when the whole thing is meant to be “outcomes-based”).

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.

2 thoughts on “Promise of PfG will be lost without NI Civil Service reform

  1. David Young says:

    Think big: do we really need a separate Northern Ireland Civil Service for so small a region?

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