Northern Ireland’s youth feels looked after individually, but worries about society and climate change

15 Sep 2020 Ryan Miller    Last updated: 15 Sep 2020

Photo by Dimitry Anikin on Unsplash
Photo by Dimitry Anikin on Unsplash

The Executive needs to craft a new Programme for Government. Scope takes a look at how young people rate progress on the high-level outcomes that guide Stormont. Their biggest concern is the environment.


Stormont is back from recess and MLAs to-do list includes protecting public health in a pandemic, keeping schools open, saving and then re-energising the economy, and beginning a climate strategy in earnest before they enjoy a nice Christmas break.

The task is daunting. Northern Ireland had plenty to work on in late 2016. Since then we’ve had three years of government shutdown followed by Covid-19.

Tough calls will have to be made. We can’t do everything we’d like to do – certainly not straight away.

The Programme for Government (PfG) will be key. Aside from ongoing efforts to manage the R number and keep schools open, this should be the chief priority for the Executive in the next few months.

PfGs have changed. Starting in 2016, the Executive moved to a model of business known as (amongst other things) Outcome-Based Accountability.

For more details about that read here, but the basic approach is quite simple and, moreover, so obvious when you read the rationale that one might marvel at why things were ever different.


Policy is supposed to improve people’s lives. The best way to do this is to identify high-level aims that can make this happen. Examples might be a thriving economy; a more equal society; healthy lives with a robust sense of wellbeing.

Once outcomes are identified, identify tangible ways to measure their improvement over time using designated indicators.

Next, craft some policies. As these policies are implemented, track the chosen indicators. This provides a tangible link to the outcomes that are the starting point (and, simply, the point) of all those policies. If certain policies aren’t working, they can be amended or replaced. This process, in theory, leads to policies that work.

It is so straightforward that you could be forgiven for thinking policy was always like that. Well, no. Instead, areas of need were identified, policies that sounded plausible were crafted, implemented, and ran their course. Maybe they worked, maybe they didn’t. Appraisals were post hoc. Rinse and repeat.

As well as making policy-making more dynamic, an outcomes-based approach also provides a natural way to get feedback from the public.

Outcomes and young people

When Stormont wants to know how the public thinks it is doing, all it has to do is list its designated outcomes and ask people how much they agree or disagree that this statement is true. For the past few years, these outcomes have been:

  1. We have a strong economy
  2. We look after our environment
  3. We have an equal society
  4. We enjoy long, healthy, active lives
  5. We have opportunities for people to be innovative, creative and fulfil their potential
  6. We have more people working in better jobs
  7. We have a safe community where we respect the law and each other
  8. We care for others and we help those in need
  9. We are a shared, welcoming and confident society that respects difference
  10. We have a place where people want to live, work and visit
  11. Our communication and travel networks help people to connect with each other
  12. We give our children and young people the best start in life 

Earlier this month, The Executive Office published its findings of just such a survey, measuring the opinions of Northern Ireland’s young people.

Polling was carried out in 2019 so these views come with an asterisk. They certainly cannot be taken as a snapshot of views from today. However, in some ways this information is more useful because of that.

As was made clear in New Decade, New Approach, the Executive is now focused on the long-term development of NI. Right now, we are in the middle of the pandemic. But, in the medium-term and certainly in the long-term, the relevance of Covid-19 should (hopefully) diminish. The plan should be to build back better.

Per the report: “Outcomes 11 and 5 had the highest rates of respondents agreeing or strongly agreeing (67% and 66% respectively), while Outcomes 2 and 3 had the highest rates of disagreement (50% and 34% respectively).

“Those agreeing or strongly agreeing ranged from 67% for Outcome 11 (Our communication and travel networks help people to connect with each other) to 22% for Outcome 2 (We look after our environment).

“Meanwhile rates for those disagreeing or strongly disagreeing ranged from 50% (Outcome 2) to 7% (Outcome 11). At 44%, Outcome 1 (We have a strong economy) had the highest proportion of neutral responses.”

Priorities for young people

What stands out from our young people is that they seem to feel very well serviced as individuals but are more concerned about more collective concerns like inequality and, in particular, the environment and sustainability.

Significant majorities agree that we have a creative society that encourages potential to flourish, NI is a place where people want to work and live, we are well connected, and we give children a good start in life.

Perhaps surprisingly, more young people are positive about the economy than are negative.

Only three of the outcomes saw more people disagree than agree and, for two of these, this was only just the case.

While 33% of young people think we have a more equal society, 35% think we do not. At the same time, 32% think we have a safe community with respect for the law and each other, but 34% disagree.

By far the biggest differential comes with Outcome 2. Only 22% of young people think we live and work sustainably, protecting the environment. 50% disagree.

Surveys of this type provide an easy way to directly measure public opinion with regards to policy making. The flipside of the simplicity of the method is that it can be hard to drill down very far into the data and dig out subtle conclusions.

However, one thing is clear: our young people are much less concerned about their own futures individually than they are about the longer-term future of the collective and, specifically, the environment.

Climate change is a slow process but, despite that, the reality of the threat is moving much faster than the policy to take it on.

Health reform, a massive recession, the pandemic – ultimately, all of these issues vanish into insignificance compared with the need to protect the environment from a looming threat. So far, Northern Ireland has done very little indeed.

This needs to change, and our youth recognises that. Hopefully our politicians respond.

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