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.
Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London