How is NI performing? (part three)

16 Oct 2019 Ryan Miller    Last updated: 16 Oct 2019

Our third and final article looking at how our public sector is doing, by its own measure.


Last month the Executive Office published its Outcomes Delivery Plan End-Year Report for 2018/19: Improving wellbeing for all -by tackling disadvantage and driving economic growth.

Outcomes-based accountability is the NI public sector’s new way of working, based on results.

These results are measured in this year-end paper. The findings within should set the tone for public services in the coming year.

Over the past two weeks we have published our first and second pieces, each looking at four of the 12 strategic outcomes quantified by an indicative selection of statistics about NI and its people.

Of particular interest in this final piece is Outcome 11 - We connect people and opportunities through our infrastructure – because its measurements seem undermined.

These are early days for outcomes-based accountability but, simply put, it seems that particular outcome is inadequately tracked as things stand. Read on to find out more.

Outcome 9 – We are a shared, welcoming and confident society that respects diversity

This is about boosting “tolerance and resilience” to allow people of varying politics, religion, racial background, sexuality, age and more to participate fully in society.

“The  focus  is  on  increasing  respect  and  self-confidence of people and communities and to support them to live their lives free from fear of discrimination and exclusion.”

This outcome is measured by five indicators:

  • A Respect Index;
  • Percentage who think all leisure centres, parks, libraries and shopping centres in their areas are “shared and open” to both Protestants and Catholics;
  • Percentage of the population who believe their cultural identity is respected by society;
  • Average lifetime satisfaction score of people with disabilities;
  • Confidence (as measured by self-efficacy)

Two of these measures saw statistically significant improvements. Confidence is measured by self-efficacy, and the percentage of NI’s population with low self-efficacy fell from 24.3% in the baseline year to 19.9% during the latest update. The PfG’s Respect Index is measured by the Everyday Discrimination Scale (a common academic measure) and this improved from 28% in 2016 to 39% in 2017.

The other three measures saw no significant change. Both the percentage of population that believes local amenities are “shared and open” and the percentage that believes their cultural identity is respected by society rose a small amount, but these changes were not deemed statistically significant. There was a very small drop in the average life satisfaction score of people with disabilities.

The outcomes report hits a positive note about the changes overall but notes some concerns, including how “low self-efficacy is particularly prevalent in some of sections of society; including females, people living in the most deprived areas, people who are economically inactive, people with poor health, people without dependants, and people with disabilities.”

Outcome 10 – We have created a place where people want to live and work, to visit and invest

This outcome is geared towards increasing wellbeing by improving NI as a place to both live and visit, and the views of NI among people at home and abroad. Five indicators are used to track progress:

  • Percentage of the population who believe their cultural identity is respected by society;
  • Total spend by external visitors;
  • Prevalence rate (percentage of the population who were victims of any NI Crime Survey crime);
  • Better Jobs Index;
  • Nation Brands Index

One indicator saw improvement, one – the Better Jobs Index, for which data continues to be compiled – is as yet unmeasurable, and the remaining three saw no significant change.

The amount of money spent by external visitors to NI leapt from £545m in the baseline year (2015) to £669m in 2018.

The percentage of the population who were a victim of crime, the percentage who believe their cultural identity is respected by society, and NI’s score on the Nations Brand Index all saw small positive changes but these were not deemed statistically significant.

Per the report: “Progress against this outcome is mixed. The data for the Better Jobs Index indicator continues to be developed and actions relating to this are underway…

“Although the percentage of the population who believe their cultural identity is respected by society has been largely static around 64% - 66% since the 2015 baseline year, several pieces of work are underway to impact this. These include achieving a positive impact on the lives of minority ethnic people, through a review of the Minority Ethnic Development Fund, the introduction of ethnic equality monitoring and work on Roma and Traveller issues.”

Outcome 11 – We connect people and opportunities through our infrastructure

The report notes that “Connected infrastructure  directly  impacts  on  wellbeing  and  quality  of  life  for  all  our  citizens providing the building blocks to enable economic prosperity, social cohesion and an improved environment for the entire region.”

Six indicators are used to measure improvements in our infrastructure:

  • Average journey time on key economic corridors
  • Percentage of all journeys which are made by walking/cycling/public transport
  • Proportion of premises with access to broadband services at speeds at or above 30Mbps
  • Usage of online channels to access public services
  • Overall Performance Assessment (NI Water)
  • Gap between the number of houses we need, and the number of houses we have

There is some confusion in the figures, as presented.

First of all, the gap between the number of houses we have and number of houses we need is not presented as such. Instead, this is simply a statement of total housing stock.

The total stock has risen to 798,971 (from 771,133 in the baseline year of 2015) and this is presented as a success. It may well be, but this is not the indicator it is supposed to be.

Per the paper: “In housing, 1,786 social housing starts and 1,496 additional affordable homes were delivered. We have also met the average Housing Growth Indicator by providing more new houses than the number of new households created.”

There is also no appraisal offered on the Overall Performance Assessment of NI Water, so we cannot be sure if this is moving in the right direction, getting worse, or staying the same. However, the outcomes report does present a grim warning about future development of Belfast.

“Northern Ireland Water scored 236 in its Overall Performance Assessment in 2017/18. It is worth noting that whilst the OPA covers many of NI Water’s key activities and progress on this is good, it does not assess them all, and there may be areas where limited funding is causing performance to fall behind or be curtailed.

“The economic prosperity and environmental health of Northern Ireland is dependent on a fully funded and effective water and sewerage service and the system is under increasing pressures, which are beginning to manifest through increased flood risk, risk of environmental pollution and development constraints. Over 70 of our wastewater treatment works are either over-capacity or nearing capacity, which has led to development constraints in many areas.

“The capacity of Belfast Wastewater Treatment works, together with the sewerage network in Belfast is also under review and requires major investment to keep pace with economic growth. If this issue is not dealt with we may soon reach a point where the future development of Belfast could be threatened.”

Regarding the other indicators, proper data measurements are still being developed for the average journey time on key economic corridors, and the usage of online channels to access public services.

The proportion of premises with accesses to good broadband rose from 83% to 89%, which is a success, while the small improvement in the number of journeys undertaken by walking, cycling or public transport rose slightly, but without being statistically significant.

Outcome 12 – We give our children and young people the best start in life

Public policy wants to ensure children grow up “safe and happy and ready to fulfil their potential”. Six indicators measure progress:

  • Percentage of babies born at low birth weight;
  • Percentage of children at appropriate stage of development in their immediate pre-school year;
  • Percentage of schools found to be good or better;
  • Gap between the percentage of non-FSME (Free-School-Meals Eligible) school leavers and the percentage of FSME school leavers achieving at Level 2 or above including English and Maths;
  • Percentage of school leavers achieving at Level 2 or above including English and Maths;
  • Percentage of care leavers who, aged 19, were in education, training or employment

There is good news in assessing this outcome. Three of the indicators have seen statistically significant improvements, one no change, and two – the percentage of children at the appropriate stage of development in their immediate pre-school year, and the percentage of schools rated good or better – are currently not measurable because of a lack of data.

The no change was in the percentage of care leavers who, aged 19, were in education, employment or training.

The percentage of school leavers achieving level 2 or above, including English and maths, rose from 66.0% in 2014/15 to 70.6% in 2017/18.

The gap between the percentage of non-FSME school leavers and the percentage of FSME school leavers achieving this result also closed (while both groups improved results over the time period): In the baseline year, 2014/15, 41.3% of FSME children got these grades compared with 73.7% of non-FSME. These figures rose to 48.6% and 78.1% respectively, meaning the gap closed from 32.4 percentage points to 29.5pp.

Per the report: “There has been a slight improvement in the percentage of babies born at low birth weight, reducing from 6.3% in the baseline year to 5.9% for the most recent figures for 2017. The Health and Social Care system is working to improve identification and target support for pregnant women identified as being at risk of delivering low birth weight babies through increased foetal monitoring and support for reducing smoking, overweight and obesity in pregnancy. However, while there have been some reductions the indicator has been largely stable over the past 12 years, and will remain challenging to reduce in the long-term.”

Developing approach

Appraising the overall performance of the public sector is a difficult, mammoth task.

The year-end report – and Scope’s trio of articles – do lay out some advantages of an outcomes-based approach. It makes something unwieldly into something manageable, if still a big job. It also provides a basis on which individual’s can cast their own opinions (we’re doing well, or horribly, or OK).

However, for this approach to really find its feet will take some time. A lack of data currently prevents too many indicators from being of use, but this issue would all but disappear, given time.

Moreover, we have no government and the problems here are two-fold. First of all, the civil servants running the country are unable to pursue the full range of options available to elected officials, and this hamstrings the function of the public sector (which, of course, affects outcomes).

Secondly, a key part of the accountability is lost without people in positions of ultimate responsibility – an Executive, and a legislature working in parallel.

Hopefully all these shortcomings will be addressed soon.

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