To create Northern Ireland’s new programme for government, everybody can join in.

After decades of practice it’s all too easy to adopt the scepticism of the opposition parties towards the “new framework for a programme for government”. John Manley in the Irish News is but one who recognises the gaps and omissions. But these refer to decisions to come. To criticise the approach for how to take them is unfair and misses the point.

Arlene Foster has promised “a new way of doing things… not working in departmental silos.” Martin McGuinness promises “working in partnership for all the people.” While the rhetoric is predictable, the context is nonetheless favourable against a background of reform.

The original departmental structure was designed to accommodate a multiparty coalition with little regard to what made administrative and policy sense. The downsizing to nine departments was a major improvement and the departure of three parties from the Executive was an unforeseen development that allows policy making to become more coherent.

To be fair, all parties had paid lip service to the orthodoxy of  more joined up government. To demonstrate a more open style they had decided some time ago to adapt the “the Scottish model” which encourages government departments to pool efforts to achieve results or “outcomes, “ rather than each government department doing its own thing and leaving incompleteness in its wake. It was particularly difficult when ministers of different parties had different objectives or couldn’t get on with each other. This was a recipe for inertia which the parties recognise has to be abandoned.. The Delivering Social Change programmes  launched in 2013 is one prototype for what may develop.

What test can be applied immediately to show the politicians mean what they say?

The main one at the moment is the extent of engagement with wider society. Although they claim they’ve been consulting already, a period of eight weeks for consultation is surely inadequate even if this is only  for the  framework for  the eventual  PfG  with “14 strategic outcomes.” Real engagement on matters such as community development or economic policy has to be continuous. Civil society too has to step up to the plate. New channels of accountability for arms-length bodies should be opened up.

All this is in the interest in building a real consensus for taking difficult decisions across the divide that leaves ministers less vulnerable to sectional pressure.  A five year plan is worth doing, even if  any number of factors can blow it off course – like a UK comprehensive spending  review or U turns every quarter.

Yet the outlook is far from unfavourable. One of the more benign characteristics of our power sharing system is often overlooked. The parties were too distracted with winning the battle in their own camps to indulge in a bidding war of impossible promises to the electorate as a whole. True, there is an ideological gap that can’t be ignored between the populist/ conservative DUP reluctant to face the payback costs of extended borrowing and the populist/left Sinn Fein which may see further borrowing as the only way out of “austerity”.

This absence of a bidding war means that political fire is not immediately directed at each other but at “Tory cuts “which to the Conservative government is water off a duck’s back. But they face other constraints.

The refusal of both parties  to contemplate raising  extra local revenue limits their scope  for developing distinctive policies and their reluctance so far to make cuts  that appear to disadvantage one side in particular  is another, like closing the Mater hospital or a teacher training establishment. The nature of our divided community means neither party has a strong enough base to take the big risks without  major trade-off. Perhaps in time this will change  but not yet.

This document sets out the direction of travel and the specific things we want to change. By the end of 2016 we will have developed detailed plans, working with others, to demonstrate how that difference will be achieved. We believe those plans will be better because they have the benefit of informed, expert and user views. We are interested in your views and we want you to participate in this process.


In the meantime the structure of programme for government is the best instrument they have for building the Executive’s unity of purpose. It deserves a fair wind. Like a regime for recovering alcoholics, it offers an antidote to falling into sectarian temptation. The 14 “outcomes” are indeed Mom and apple pie. Most of the indicators and measures lack the targets and timetables to give them meaning although the policy implications can be drawn from some, like mental health. At least they identify scope and ambition for policy making later.

The politicians will need outside help and they appear to realise it. If the public stay cynical and aloof, they will share the blame if they fail.

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  • Nimn

    “The politicians will need outside help and they appear to realise it. If the public stay cynical and aloof, they will share the blame if they fail.”

    Sharing the blame has been the cornerstone of mandatory coalition. In this round success or failure will be down to the DUP and SF. Through the PfG process this blame game can now include a ‘public’ with unrealistic aspirations. The ensuing wish list of things to include suggested by the public, lobby groups and various sectors will be wide ranging and many will be disappointed. This is a recipe for public cynicism.

    I’ve skimmed the PfG Framework document and also compared with the Scottish PfG on which it is supposed to be based. Some comparisons leap out. NI has 14 outcomes on which I doubt any person could disagree. Scotland has 5 priority areas within which there are a series of cross cutting outcomes and an underpinning legislative programme to deliver legislative change where necessary. Scotland’s construction accentuates cross cutting collaboration, our PfG so far does not. Will it I wonder?

    The NISRA indicators are where most commentators should focus their attention and crucially look at the NISRA PfG measurement annexes available on the PfG website:


    The full PfG framework document contains the 42 indicators used to provide some measure of success against the outcome. The NISRA document shows that 9 of these currently lack the data to measure or report on the outcome. That is a concern but the indicators themselves require much greater sub-categorisation and clarification before any reasonable commentary can be provided. For example Measure 39 ‘reduce reoffending’ is to be measured by “reoffending rate’ – is that a total reoffending rate, or one which is broken down by types of offence, offender type, (first offender /multiple offender); by age group, geographical spread; whether in or out of work at the time of reoffending; whether in home at time of reoffending and so on?

    Some ‘simple rules’ should have guided all of these indicators, based on evidence from data analysis across all of the Ministerial functions. These data already exist. In particular, based on such an analysis and in a world of very constrained Block Grant settlement where is the greatest beneficial economic and social impact to be gained in terms of investment in the economy,infrastructure and services and how does that translate into service delivery models?

    This is exactly Scotland’s approach. They do not see every pound spend as a Criminal Justice pound or a Health pound or an education pound, but seek to measure the full economic and social return on investment across government from investment in services. This is entirely sensible, but in our ministerial fiefdom politics of the past joined up government has been all but impossible. With DUP/SF at the helm now, (leaving aside Ms Sugden to make up the numbers) this should be possible. It remains to be seen to what degree ideology becomes the enemy of progress.

    Consequently I would have liked to see not outcome measures but impact measures for the economy and society across each of the 14 areas in the PfG, with attendant RoI and SRoI measures/ indicators attached.

    As the entire PfG is constructed it allows the greatest possible latitude to DUP/SF to hide in a fog of statistics as to whether they succeed in the next five years.

    It should be the opposition’s task and wider society in general to demand much more robust and detailed measures of success from what is a feather light framework document on which only the most churlish or disaffected could disagree with the proposed outcomes. As Colm Eastwood said – greener grass and bluer skies.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    Perhaps it would have made some sense, Brian, to have put this link up:

    I’d wondered just what you meant by “The politicians will need outside help and they appear to realise it.” Now I see that what you are commending is simply another “consultative process”, and, hey, those of us who have previously participated in such processes here may just chance to remember how effective even those suggestions that may have been accepted are in hard practice, for example, in planning policy. Until the public’s “involvement” is given some actual teeth, such as the sort of direct democracy vetos on ministerial high handedness that other polities such as Switzerland have, anyone assessing where effort expended in such consultations will probably lead may choose to remain cynical and aloof.

  • Brian Walker

    Nimm I I suggest you develop this analysis further and submit to PfG

  • Brendan Heading

    Important to highlight that this isn’t a Programme for Government – it’s a Draft Programme for Government Framework. We still need to see the document that omit both the words “Draft” and “Framework” and it sounds like we are several iterations, and many months, away from it.

    There is little in this document that is worthwhile. As someone pointed out a while back – “let’s have more good things and less bad things”. There is no detail on what policies will be implemented to give effect to any of the aspirations.

  • chrisjones2

    “Most of the indicators and measures lack the targets and timetables to give them meaning” You betcha

    And some are very odd. HOw do you determine a ‘preventable’ death? For how idoes it remain ‘preventable’ and what is the cost? For example if we keep the body on life support fro 20 years has death been prevented?

  • chrisjones2

    Its worse than that. Take sexual offences, paedophilia, cyber bullying and blackmail, modern slavery and violent crime against partners in relationships. If law enforcement is effective we want to see steep increases in the level of these crimes as we expose and detect more of this – but the proposed regime disincentivises the police to do anything about any of this

    Now forgive me but the NICS has been at this target business for 25 years so the officials know what they are about in this. I may be wrong – I hope I am – but my view is therefore that PfG is just more waffle designed to cover up the tensions and failures in Government. Until Ministers take real control and manage (as opposed to playing at it) there will be no progress

    Also, this document and its successors are a rich gift to the opposition. Where there are no targets they can set their own and publicly hold the Government to those, knowing that the public look at the big picture and are not impressed if widget production rises by 0.3%

  • Gopher

    “Preventable death” is a euphemism for legislation inventing jobs and taxation. Whether it’s 20 mph speed limits despite pedestrian crossing every 50 yards or minimum price drink, preventable death covers the lot. Preventable death is basically used as an enabling act to defy all logic.

  • Redstar

    The oldest one in the book. Ask for everyone to contribute so no matter what pre determined nonsense you decide on you can say you consulted the masses

  • murdockp

    the parties have more than enough revenue but choose to waste it.

    The first strategic decision i think the government needs to make is to accept that they don’t need anymore cash and work back from there.

    Then focus on the duplication of resources and inefficiency of government. SF Dup need to be reminded that government is not an agency for creation of employment for thier supporters and friends it is all about delivery of public services in an efficient way.

    the government needs to get realistic about what it should and should not fund.

    Why are they choosing to fund the university of ulster magee campus expansion when the university is more than capable of raising it’s own funds. it is not our fault they got the sums wrong on thier Belfast relocation

    Why should the tax payer give any sports club millions for facilities that most of the population will not have access to.also the likes of the RFU, GAA and FAI are awash with cash from commercial activities yet the NI taxpayer is expected to pay for their stadia such as casement and windsor park these organisations should pay for their own facilities.

    we have government departments that refuse to share resources and councils that refuse to do the same. instead of government departments sharing a single modern office building saving on Back of house support, energy etc each has thier own building, madness.

    we have little or no outsourcing and no alternative financing for infrastructure costing the assembly a small fortune.

    why have one world class airport when you can have two crappy ones.

    in short we need efficient joined up government based on long term strategic decision making that serves the people.

    not this verging on corrupt inefficient nonsense that literally wastes billions of our taxes annually.

  • Nimn

    Thanks Brian. If I thought it would make the slightest impact I might. This is the political equivalent of nouveaux cuisine at a critics lunch – very little of substance on the plate to be chewed over endlessly in an effort to find something useful to say.
    The brilliance of this consultation is that it leaves the Executive with huge latitude to craft the finished piece, not in their name but in ours.
    Its not what will be included in the PfG we should be concerned about, its what will be excluded that matters. Watch how the contentious issues are dealt with (or not), all in the name of the people.