Openness and Stormont's new government

17 Jun 2016 Ryan Miller    Last updated: 6 Jul 2016

Illustration by Patrick Sanders
Illustration by Patrick Sanders

Scope has already examined the potential positives from Stormont’s new outcomes-based approach. However, some are sceptical.

Does any government really yearn to be open and accountable?

The ability to see the rationale behind decisions and also continually assess data – allowing for comparisons with the past, an assessment with the present, and setting effective future targets – is clearly in the interests of everyone else.

No politicians want to be seen as obstructive, or secretive, but nor do they want all their mistakes, shortcomings or failures available to the public in evidence-based form.

Here Scope looks at fears over the construction of our new Programme for Government.

Outcomes-based accountability, the new model behind our PfG, has shown itself to be a more effective structure for public policy (as well as in business and the third sector) if it is done correctly.

And, done correctly, it is also necessarily open and transparent. But “one correctly” is a broad caveat.

The NI Open Government Network held their annual general meeting this week, before chairing a discussion on the new Programme for Government from an open government perspective.

Alex Kane, a man well versed in the under-the-hood machinations of Northern Irish politics, was the guest speaker and he personified a strain of scepticism Scope has encountered in several discussions about our new government, with its entirely new opposition and entirely new way of working.

Political context

Mr Kane outlined some points about the dynamics of politics and government, first in general and secondly specific to Northern Ireland. The results were hard to deny, depressing, and important to keep in mind.

Governments “don’t like transparency, accountability, or being monitored” and will tend to provide facts through some “prism, kaleidoscope or refractor” because “they don’t want to be told when they get it wrong, the only want to hear they are getting things right”.

“Politicians don’t care [about these things, or the lobbying of interest groups], the only people that matter are voters, it’s about whether they can hold on to enough of them at the next election.”

In that sense, evidence-based measurements whereby politicians can be seen to have failed is an inconvenience for them, at best. Controlled disclosure of information allows cherrypicking of facts that suit their own best interests.

Concerning Northern Ireland, he said the chief measurement of politics here in modern times is whether things are better than they used to be, pre-1998. It sounds desperately backward and unambitious, but up until this moment it has been true.

However, the longer time goes on the less effective this measurement will be.

Our political dynamics are strange. We have a coalition of two parties that don’t like each other – with independent Claire Sugden the buckle on the belt, keeping government together by holding the one position each of the two big parties cannot allow the other to possess. But while the DUP and Sinn Fein will spend their time in government trying to further their own agenda and stymy that of their partner, seen through the filter of attracting voters it becomes clear their true political opponents lie elsewhere.

At the next election, the DUP will want to hold the votes they have and further marginalise the UUP, TUV and any other unionist options. The main opponent of Sinn Fein is SDLP, while they will also have their eye on People Before Profit. The Alliance Party will be of some concern to both, though mainly the DUP.

So our governmental party are perhaps not real partners but they are not real opponents either. And neither – like all parties of power – stands to benefit from increased openness and transparency.

OBA and the PfG

Which brings us to “done correctly”.

We do not have a Programme for Government yet. And nor should we.

What was published and put out for consultation recently was a PfG framework, a high-level abstraction that is the starting point for OBA. Read Scope’s previous piece on this issue to explore the matter; suffice to say what is out for consultation is some combination of stage one and two.

However OBA, done correctly, is not possible without real openness and transparency. This is where the scepticism of Mr Kane – and of many others who have spoken with Scope – comes into play.

Many people have expressed incredulity at the nature of the PfG framework, including some opposition politicians – Mike Nesbitt called work so far “motherhood and apple pie” while Colum Eastwood warned against a “smokescreen” and this week during Tuesday’s budget debate newcomer Eamonn McCann said he thought OBA is “dodgy”.

This reflects wider distrust – perhaps just a healthy scepticism about any new process held up as transformative. Nevertheless, there are many who are unimpressed with the PfG Framework as it stands.

It would be foolish not to be wary about the final destination of a fully-formed PfG; some bulletproof, and therefore meaningless, document that defies all measurement and is designed so it cannot fail, even if it does not succeed in anything real. Something that, rather than embracing accountability, smothers it at source.

This is not a question of DUP or of Sinn Fein, it is the natural temptation of all governments.

Accountability is not something that is provided, it is something that civic society needs to both demand and help construct.

It is in the coming months, as the Framework is being tested and the true PfG created, that we will discover just how open and accountable our new government wants to be.

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