Stormont: Better outcomes demand better government

17 Jan 2020 Nick Garbutt    Last updated: 17 Jan 2020

Pic: Pixabay

If the revived Executive and Assembly is to be a success how it works will be just as important as what it does.

All debate so far has been about the policy commitments in New Decade New Approach and whether or not the British government has stumped up enough money.

But we also need to explore how to improve governance in what is still an immature political institution. Better outcomes requires a better government – and that’s not just about the money.

In this regard there are grounds for optimism in the report, but there are also gaps which need to be filled.

One of the most promising clauses is the commitment to switch to multi-year budgets from 2021/22. Currently budgets are fixed on an annual basis. There has never been a coherent explanation as to why this should be the case. It militates against long-term planning and has long been the bane of all those voluntary sector organisations that rely on public funding. We can look forward to budgets being set on a minimum three year cycle just like the Westminster government.  

The commitment to civic engagement is also to be welcomed. It is planned to have at least one citizen’s assembly per annum. This has the dual benefit of involving citizens in decision-making and also helping politicians to resolve seemingly intractable issues. Northern Ireland had its first taste of the potential of these bodies in 2018 which Scope analysed at the time. This may go some way to restoring peoples’ faith in the devolved institutions and the political classes.

Perhaps the biggest weakness of our current structures are inevitable.

When governments are formed in Northern Ireland the portfolios are distributed according to the d’Hondt system. Inevitably parties will choose those which are likely to give them the most electoral advantage. Difficult ministries are therefore likely to end up with smaller parties. This has happened this time with the poisoned chalice of health going to the Ulster Unionist Party.

The creation of a Party Leader’s Forum may help in this respect. It will bring leaders together and if operated in good faith will help foster a spirit of collectivism. In health especially all parties know what needs to be done and Robin Swann will need the support of the entire executive if he is going to be able to push through much needed reform. We need all parties to work together and to take collective responsibility for what will be difficult and sometimes unpopular decisions. Much will depend on the as yet untested relationship between the First and deputy First Ministers. They don’t need to cosy up. But they do need to set a collaborative tone.

This brings us to the question of our heavily siloed government departments. To this point they have tended to operate as rival fiefdoms. Yet many of the outcomes required by the Programme for Government demand collaboration. Part of the solution may be to introduce some sort of Duty to Collaborate across the Northern Ireland Civil Service backed by including the need to collaborate in a future code of conduct. If we are to make real progress this problem will need to be cracked. It will require a new kind of leadership, because this kind of deep cultural change can only be driven from the top.

We still await the RHI Inquiry report and any reforms of the civil service that might be implemented as a result. However serious reflection is demanded on one aspect of the debacle: the apparent absence of a lack of value for money culture across government. At the RHI inquiry, the NICS head David Sterling said: “executive ministers were criticised on any occasion when we didn’t draw down all the moneys available, either from Westminster or the EU.”

Our new government is deluding itself if it thinks that the Treasury is not aware of this. And it is not unreasonable for the British government to expect that monies provided are properly spent.

Little wonder that the agreement spells out that Westminster will be closely scrutinising spending. In that regard the new Fiscal Council will be a help. It will “provide independent scrutiny and expert advice to the Executive and the Assembly on fiscal and budgetary matters, with a  particular focus on sustainability.” It will also monitor the Executive’s performance in delivering the Programme for Government.

Close scrutiny of New Decade New Approach reveals that it is actually the Northern Ireland Executive rather than the British government whose feet are being held to the fire when it comes to public spending.

And when it comes to the reform of the civil service perhaps one more radical measure as proposed in the Institute for Government’s excellent Governing Without Ministers report is worth consideration.

Presently the role of the NICS is to “to support the executive and its ministers in delivering the commitments set out in the programme for government”.

But, it argues that a key problem exposed by the RHI Inquiry is that the civil service has been too eager to please ministers. It suggests that an option for reform would be to build on the role that civil servants have played during the absence of government arguing: “The NICS could be put on a statutory basis with a formal duty to serve the public interest and act as stewards of the longer term.”

In any event it is time the debate widened out from how much money we are going to get to how our new government can be best helped and supported to ensure it delivers value for money, works collaboratively and makes up for lost time.

Our Ministers are right to demand the money they need to enact the policy agenda outlined in New Decade New Approach, but they also need to demonstrate a collective will to invest wisely and a commitment to make Northern Ireland a sustainable economy in the longer term.




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