Better together: the case for government reform

24 Jan 2020 Nick Garbutt    Last updated: 24 Jan 2020

The Northern Ireland government is divided into nine departments, each with clear responsibilities, separate budgets and ministerial leadership.

This is all nice and orderly. Unfortunately the most important of the challenges we face do not fit neatly into any one of those boxes -many of them cut across all of them.

This tends to mean not just a lack of joined-up thinking in resolving problems, it can even result in one department unwittingly undermining efforts made by another.

Let’s take one very obvious example: improving both our mental and physical health. Most people (including many politicians) seem to think that that is solely the responsibility of the Department of Health, whose budgets are consequently ring-fenced.

However only 20% of health indicators relate to the work of medical professionals. Poverty, poor housing, inadequate education, environmental pollution and limited access to affordable healthy foods are just some of the other factors that can impact negatively on health.

Little wonder that government can struggle to improve our lot when the very structures it operates under militate against departments working together.

This was recognised by the Northern Ireland government – hence the Programme for Government which sets out long term strategic goals all organised around improving wellbeing. Implicit to this is the notion that civil servants, and the voluntary and private sectors, should be working together to make progress, which would be measured by outcomes. That’s the theory.

Last week Shifting Gear:  Accelerating Public Service Transformation: Opportunities for Northern Ireland was published.  

It could not be more timely. It analyses what is required to truly transform public services here, drawing on case studies across the world. The report was drafted by the Social Change Initiative (SCI) and Deloitte. Perhaps even more significant its advisory board included three of our most senior civil servants: Mark Browne, the accounting officer at the Executive Office,  Katrina Godfrey,  Permanent Secretary at the Department for Infrastructure  and Sue Gray, Permanent Secretary at the Department of Finance. We can therefore expect it to get a fair hearing.

The report is organised around three major challenges:

  • how to make collaboration the norm across government;
  • what can be done to ensure outcomes-based working in Northern Ireland;
  • what new structures might be needed to ensure transformation.

Getting the best outcomes demands high levels of collaboration, not just between civil servants in different departments but also with civic society and the general public. The report finds “limited vehicles for sustained interdepartmental working and cross-sectoral working, and a tendency to default to traditional silos.”

This is exacerbated by the structure of the civil service: “Departments and their Permanent Secretaries are individually accountable to their Minister for each policy area, with limited formal expression of responsibility to work together or with other sectors on achieving better outcomes.”

Even further is a cultural challenge of encouraging “collaboration, co-production, curiosity and a positive attitude to change” amongst civil servants.

These sorts of problems are not confined to Northern Ireland – governments everywhere have similar challenges. The report points to two measures taken by neighbouring governments that could be replicated here.  In Scotland, the Head of the Civil Service fulfils the role of Senior Accounting Officer for all parts of the service. This has apparently led to a greater sense of collective responsibility. In Wales, the Wellbeing of Future Generations Act (2015) places a duty on all public bodies to collaborate on long-term wellbeing aims.

IN terms of how collaboration might work in practice the report takes inspiration from South Africa.

Its government has set up Operation ‘Phakisa’ which speeds up finding solutions to critical issues in its  National Development Plan.

It works through setting up intensive “labs” bringing together government with business, academics, trade unions and communities to work out cost-effective ways of cracking problems. An example is the Ocean Economy Lab, which examined the sustainable development of the oceans surrounding the country. It created 1,806 jobs.

Finally changes to Northern Ireland’s funding regime could make a huge difference. Currently monies are allocated to individual departments. However if the funds were allocated to specific outcomes and pooled between departments the report argues that this would encourage collaboration. It would certainly be a logical way of supporting a Programme for Government which is designed around outcomes!

A pioneer of this approach is the government in New South Wales which has developed a financial management system that enables cross-government, end-to-end management of the budget – from programme planning to allocation of funding, to tracking expenditure and benchmarking results.

Certainly more will need to be done to foster a genuine outcomes-based approach in Northern Ireland. The report states: “While there has been a general endorsement of an outcomes approach, it is yet to permeate fully across sectors or enter public consciousness. Awareness in the private sector is limited with even less engagement. Some senior officials and leaders have described a ‘hard middle’ within the civil service where buy-in and understanding of what is required under an outcomes approach is limited.”

The return of ministers gives an opportunity to promote this more rigorously. The report makes an interesting point in this regard: “In a coalition government, the use of an outcomes framework allows Ministers and political parties to align themselves within a manageable framework of aspirations, and to foster a feeling of joint accountability.” Therefore adoption of one would be evidence of a determination to work across parties for the common good.

Whenever we consider best practice in public policy development we find Scotland leading the way. The Scottish government supports a forum of leaders from all sectors who come together to discuss issues which affect society.

According to those involved the forum has been invaluable in fostering collaboration and focusing minds on outcomes.

The extent to which government needs to be fundamentally restructured is much less straightforward. An obvious point is that you can restructure to your hearts content but nothing will change unless it leads to different ways of working and lasting cultural change.

Per the report: “A consistent message from local and international contributors to this study was that it is better to incentivise and reward the behaviours required to deliver transformation than to rely on structural change to do the job. In Scotland, the principle of supporting the ‘good people operating in a bad system’ allowed them to move beyond structural limitations and maximise the value of the people within organisations.”

That said there is plenty of scope for replicating a recent Whitehall initiative in Northern Ireland.

Around 22% of British civil servants work in specialisms required in every department (finance, HR and the like). In response the civil service has appointed central, cross-government heads for each of these specialisms. They are responsible for developing talent, improving performance and setting professional standards.

The hope is to simultaneously make departments more effective and to help erode the siloed thinking that works against collaboration.

The report of the RHI inquiry is now imminent. Reform of the civil service is inevitable. There is therefore an opportunity to include in any changes measures to promote collaboration and a clearer focus on outcomes.


Join the Conversation...

We'd love to know your thoughts on this article.
Join us on Twitter and join the conversation today.

Join Our Newsletter

Get the latest edition of ScopeNI delivered to your inbox.