Bringing wellbeing to Northern Ireland

9 Mar 2021 Ryan Miller    Last updated: 9 Mar 2021

NI needs to budget towards outcomes
NI needs to budget towards outcomes

New research from the Carnegie Trust has laid out a path for Northern Ireland to become a place that puts the genuine needs and wants of its people first.


Money isn’t a great measure of success yet, for several lifetimes, it has been the key metric by which we measure society.

Although the basic idea had been around for centuries, Gross Domestic Product (GDP) was developed, as a modern concept, in the 1930s by Nobel Prize winning economist Simon Kuznets (and has, quite naturally, been refined many times since).

Over the rest of the 20th Century it became the single most important measure of a nation’s success.

However, this was a blunder. One that is in the process of being corrected. And one that should probably never have been made in the first place.

Mr Kuznets himself wrote, in his key 1934 Congressional research paper National Income, 1929-32, that: “Economic welfare cannot be adequately measured unless the personal distribution of income is known. And no income measurement undertakes to estimate the reverse side of income, that is, the intensity and unpleasantness of effort going into the earning of income.

“The welfare of a nation can, therefore, scarcely be inferred from a measurement of national income as defined [in this paper].”

It is important to pin down Mr Kuznets’ precise point here. The economist is not merely saying that national income (or GDP) is a flawed measure for how a society is performing, his point goes further. GDP on its own is an inadequate measure of how an economy is performing.

Which is not to say GDP is not useful – it is, very much so. However, it should not be some mighty king. And, in many nations around the world, this dubious regal position is under pressure.


Wellbeing is a word with a natural meaning that is broadly understood. It is also leading the race to become the new, key measure of how a society or nation is faring.

It has found itself hand-in-hand with outcomes-based governance. High-level strategic outcomes are identified, based on their effect on wellbeing, and progress against these is measured over time.

By the general meaning of wellbeing, this makes a lot of sense. Wellbeing is a holistic term that seems to capture many of the important aspects of individual, familial and community life under one umbrella.

New research from Carnegie UK Trust aims to provide Stormont with directions to weave wellbeing into public policy in a fundamental way.

However, policy and socioeconomic thinking require precision. Wellbeing scans well, but if it is to be placed at the heart of public policy, it has to be clearly defined. And, in this paper, it is.

Embedding a Wellbeing Framework in Northern Ireland: A contribution from Carnegie UK Trust to inform discussions around the Programme for Government consultation states in its introduction that: “We define societal wellbeing as comprising Social, Economic, Environmental, and Democratic (SEED) outcomes. To us, societal wellbeing means everyone having what they need to live well now and in the future.

“More than health and wealth, it includes having friends and loved ones, the ability to contribute meaningfully to society, and the ability to set our own direction and make choices about our own lives.

“A wellbeing approach to government balances SEED outcomes and provides a mechanism for understanding interlinkages and making trade-offs between the different domains of wellbeing.”

Carnegie praises Stormont’s work in designing its last Programme for Government (PfG) in 2016 (the first such to use an outcomes-based approach).

That PfG fell flat because the Executive collapsed for three years. However, Carnegie is positive it can still help inform the new PfG (which has been delayed due to Covid-19 but is currently subject to consultation).

The organisation says it has “identified six ways of working that could help the Executive to shift from talking about a wellbeing approach, to delivering and embedding it in practice through the new Programme for Government”.

These are:

  1. Fully commit to an outcomes-based approach
  2. Collaborating for outcomes
  3. Budgeting for outcomes
  4. Strengthening local wellbeing approaches
  5. Data for outcomes
  6. Citizen engagement and open government

One, two and three

According to the Carnegie report, Northern Ireland is “unique” in that its PfG process is oriented towards outcomes without outcomes being placed on a statutory footing.

When Stormont collapsed, this caused great difficulties for civil servants and other public officials. On the one hand, they are not elected representatives and thus not fully in possession of the decision-making powers usually vested in ministers on the Executive. On the other, the outcomes framework requires a certain level of continual adjustment. And adjustments require decisions.

Per the paper: “Public organisations should have a duty to consider and make progress towards the outcomes… Enshrining an approach which improves wellbeing in law would safeguard it against further interruptions in governance and electoral cycles.”

The report says further that ministers and the Executive have to demonstrate collective leadership in order for the PfG to function.

This is true – and overlaps with the need for collaboration towards common goals. Silo working as long been a ball and chain around government in NI. Carnegie calls for legislation that would compel agencies and all tiers of government to work together towards improving public services.

The third recommendation – budgeting for outcomes – is extremely important. New Decade, New Approach promised multi-year budgeting. This has not been delivered, because of the pandemic, but while it will be useful there are other problems with resource allocation in NI.

Individual departments draw up plans, make bids and receive allocations which are then sliced off the overall spending pot. This works well if departments operate as silos. However, the high-level outcomes that governments now work towards are, by and large, cross-departmental. This creates complications – especially when outcomes themselves also overlap.

“It is an opportune moment to synchronise the funding system of government with this ambition. In acknowledgement that no department can deliver wellbeing outcomes alone, budgets should be aligned with outcomes in the new Programme for Government.

“Unlike traditional budget processes, outcome budgeting helps to make a clear link between spend and the agreed societal outcomes which the Government seeks to address. This could accompany the anticipated move to multi-year budgeting cycles.”

Four, five and six

Following the reform of local councils, collaborative bodies known as Community Planning Partnerships (CPPs) were created in each local authority area in NI.

CPPs are led by local councils and also comprise statutory bodies, agencies and the wider community (including the third sector). Their existence is an acknowledgement of the importance of localisation when it comes to improving wellbeing.

Carnegie itself has provided support to some CPPs in NI. Its report calls for “ring-fenced multi-year funding for Community Planning, to ensure the Partnerships’ ability to deliver on improving local wellbeing outcomes both over the course of the current Plans and into 2030-2035”.

The organisation also calls for councils to have responsibility for regeneration, to “[complete] the transfer of necessary powers to the local level required to address inequalities.”

Data is vital to outcomes-based working. Carnegie says the Executive should dedicate resources to CPPs allowing them to use data better, thus improving their decisions. The organisation also calls for more community input into the statistical indicators that are used to measure progress against high-level outcomes.

This would also go a small way towards what they say should be much greater citizen engagement, with their report calling for a “full public conversation on societal wellbeing in a post-COVID-19 society.”

“This should involve a conversation about the wellbeing indicators that will be used to measure progress against the outcome framework, recognising the changing context in which citizens are living their lives as a result of the pandemic.

“While the PfG consultation is to be welcomed in such difficult circumstances, it is limited in its intentions to involve the public in decision making on a continuous basis. We welcome the perspective that the PfG is a ‘live document’ as well as the inclusion of citizen engagement mechanisms in the New Decade, New Approach agreement.

“We would welcome more open discussion on how to build citizen engagement into mainstream public policy exercises so that it is core to the work of the NI Executive.”


Carnegie’s report is extremely welcome. Its recommendations would all strengthen NI’s commitment to wellbeing and its general governance.

Furthermore, the vast majority of what it recommends is easily achievable.

However, budgeting for outcomes (as opposed to departments, or any silo-based approaches) could be the most transformative measure and seems, by far, the most difficult to implement.

Nevertheless, it should be pursued with dedication.

Northern Ireland’s public services are hardly flush with cash. Successfully budgeting towards outcomes could significantly reduce inefficiencies – which is a fuzzy way of saying we can get a lot more for our cash.

As the paper says, our exit from Covid-19 provides an opportunity to change so many things. This report points the way to several better ways of working. Stormont should follow.

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