Programme for Government: the next steps

1 Jul 2016 Nick Garbutt    Last updated: 1 Jul 2016

Celine McStravick

Everyone in the voluntary sector would like to have a role in shaping public policy. With the Programme for Government out for consultation now is the time to act. 

Traditionally organisations produce their own “manifesto” and lobby MLAs, civil servants and Ministers to try to get at least some of the ideas within it to be implemented.

Many produced such documents pre-election with precisely that in mind.

But the outcomes based approach adopted by the Executive means that traditional ways of influencing policy will no longer work. Producing a wish list of actions is no longer the way to go.

Scope has spoken with Celine McStravick, chief executive of the National Childrens Bureau who has advised government on OBA to ask her how the new system will work.

 The PfG has been lambasted by both the SDLP and the Ulster Unionists who say that it is too vague and banal. Ulster Unionist leader Mike Nesbitt characterised it as “motherhood and apple pie”

It would have been possible to produce a complete PfG with a detailed action plan, but any such programme would have been the work of the previous administration.

For that reason McStravick believes that the approach adopted is correct, even if it means that a coherent, detailed document will not be produced until the end of the year.

So what happens next, how will what currently exists be transformed into a credible programme with widespread support and how do voluntary sector bodies get involved?

The government will first need to consult with a wide range of stakeholders on each of the 14 Outcomes to establish a plan, agree the “indicators” by which progress will be measured and work out how to achieve progress or “turn the curve” to use the jargon we are all going to become very familiar with over the next few months.

McStravick said: “This phase is critical. If they don’t do this openly they risk losing the confidence of citizens. It is also a very different way of working for civil servants. They will need to work across departments and externally to pull this together and they have the additional challenge of completing the task by Christmas.”

To achieve this 14 senior civil servants titled Senior Responsible Officers (SROs) have been appointed to oversee each outcome. They are empowered to work across departments and can allocate budgets for their task from different departments. Anyone with any insight into how the Civil Service works will immediately understand how much of a challenge that is going to be.  

The new approach will be a challenge to voluntary sector organisations as well.

McStravick explains: “They are not being asked about what should happen. They are being asked have we got the right outcomes and have we got the right indicators, and if not what should we be using, that’s all. They are not being asked what should happen. “

Currently the Executive is holding a series of consultation workshops. Celine McStravick has inputted at several of them, most recently one at NICVA which was attended by around 100 people.

So does she think that the sector is getting up to speed?

She believes so but said that there was a lot of feedback at the workshop from delegates wanting the government to set targets rather than indicators.

She says that that would be a mistake. “The difference is that indicators talk about direction of travel but are not actual targets. Traditionally governments fall into a trap when they set themselves targets, often abandoning them when they are not achieved. To take one example. If you are wanting to increase life expectancy what target would you set? It’s very arbitrary.

“What is more important is the direction of travel, seeing improvements, “turning the curve”. And remember this is where the process is revolutionary because it is not about the lifetime of this Assembly, these are long term   outcomes.”

For McStravick it is imperative that the sector engages with government about the indicators, for the simple and obvious reason that if we don’t get indicators right at this stage it will be difficult to call government to account later on if there is no progress on addressing outcomes.

This all seems obvious but where confusion is likely to emerge is when it comes to shaping the actions.

To take one example: if we want to decrease the number of young people not in education employment or training an obvious action that might be proposed is to increase the number of apprenticeships.

The new approach will look at the issue more forensically, examining for example, where Neets tend to live, their experience of the schools system, their family situation etc, thereby taking a holistic, cross departmental look at what needs to be done to “turn the curve”. More apprenticeships may well turn out to be a part of the solution, but it will be only a part. Everyone in the sector and in government knows that a so called multi-agency approach is required to address complex needs and problems but our siloed department system of government mitigates against this. A key element of the PfG is an attempt to break some of these silos down enabling a more sophisticated response to complex problems.

In parallel with the consultation three “pathway” projects have been set up which are intended to trial the new process as it will apply to specific issues. . One of these, for example, addresses poverty. These workstreams will be complete by September and will then be used to help the SROs complete their work

 Ironically one important challenge that needs to be addressed if the process is going to work will be to educate and train Opposition parties on how PfG is being assembled and the thinking that lies behind it. Such an understanding will be critical to ensuring that we have an effective opposition, holding the government to account.

In any event the new system will pose real difficulties for all parties. Many manifestos contain specific commitments which may still be adopted, but will have to be subjected to the rigours of the process and the entire thinking behind the document is long-term: the work of a generation rather than an Assembly term.

That’s an even bigger challenge: after all, as we all know too well after the recent political turbulence, a week is a long time in politics.

Celine McStravick is hosting a global summit on Outcomes Based Accountability, the process at the heart of the PfG later this year.

 Outcomes & Impact takes place at the Waterfront Hall in October and its speakers include Mark Friedman, Director of the Fiscal Policy Studies Institute in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and author of Trying Hard Is Not Good Enough, perhaps the key text in OBA.

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