Peter Doran explains the background to the new style of Programme for Government

The draft Programme for Government framework was published at lunchtime on Friday. In his post on Saturday, Brian Walker identifies that it “offers an antidote to falling into sectarian temptation” and offers “scope and ambition” for policy making

But what is the background to the new style of working and reporting?

Draft Programme for Government Outcomes Framework badly tessellating hexagonsAt its most simple, the new framework is a set of 14 outcomes which “best describe the society we wish to have”. The draft framework explains:

The outcomes are expressed in a way that provide a clear direction of travel, enable continuous improvement over time and direct our efforts towards developing our wellbeing i.e. what our lives feel like when, for example good health, good education, good houses, good communities and good jobs are put together.

A set of 42 indicators and associated measures will be to demonstrate progress towards the outcomes, keeping an eye on both positive and negative results of the government plans.

Once the consultation on the outline framework is complete, a set of action plans will be published. These actions will be the concrete deliverables that will aim to move the indicators in the right direction and ultimately bring about the desired societal outcomes.

Since 2012, the civil service and politicians have been working with academics and external organisations to rethink how Northern Ireland’s Programme for Government operates.

Dr Peter Doran from Queen’s University’s School of Law [press release] spoke to me over the weekend about the background to these changes. Along with John Woods, Peter worked with the Carnegie UK Trust to facilitate a roundtable to help politicians and civil servants grasp how economic, social, environmental and importantly democratic outcomes could improve wellbeing and be integrated into the 2016-2021 Programme for Government.

My impression is that the reporting around previous Programmes for Government varied enormously. The targets were not all SMART (certainly not in the sense of being truly Specific, Measureable, Achievable, Relevant and Timebound), the progress updates often amounted to a couple of sentences, and the net effect of the (usually single-department) initiatives were not measured in a wider context.

The new approach should address some of those weaknesses. It’s also an opportunity for a more participatory form of government, with individuals and organisations co-designing and co-delivering programmes with the public sector.

The outcomes will set a “direction of travel” that will last beyond one Assembly term. The type of actions taken will depend upon circumstance, budget and the political philosophy of the parties in the Executive. But the overall aspirations – improving wellbeing in its widest sense – should remain relatively consistent. And the outcomes will require cross-departmental cooperation and collaboration.

“This is part of a global conversation about capturing what a government is for, what the economy is for, and involving the widest number of people in that conversation and then setting some outline objectives and allowing the citizen to be engaged very meaningfully at every stage in the policy process, not just with the launch of the Programme for Government, but in terms of engaging with the indicators, the measures, and feeding back on whether or not government is delivering in the future.”

A lot of the early media and political commentary has been around the new and unfamiliar format, which at first seems to be lacking in content. It’s unfortunate that the initial framework was published in such an abstract manner, without some worked examples that would have put “meat on the bone” and illustrated how the action – say of “building 10,000 new houses” – would be measured by some of the indicators and affect one or more outcomes. Adding some of the less contentious manifesto commitments from the DUP and Sinn Féin with target dates and measures might have aided understanding.

Some ‘opposition’ parties are also feigning unhappiness with the Programme for Government process, despite being involved in discussions around the development of the framework over the last year and voicing their support for the new approach.

The Executive needs to manage communications around the PfG framework carefully in the weeks ahead in order to protect its credibility from unfair criticism.

It would be great to see the new Executive ministers committing to spend 20-25% of their time over the next few months to go out across Northern Ireland and deliberately eavesdrop on community and organisation conversations rather than just waiting for consultation responses to arrive through into their electronic and physical inboxes.

Towards-a-wellbeing-framework p2 attendeesMegan Fearon attended the initial Wellbeing Roundtable as a delegate of the chair of the Finance and Personnel Committee. David McIlveen (no longer an MLA) attended in the place of the DFP Minister. The report of the roundtable is available to read along with its recommendations.

Will the Compact Civic Advisory Panel (originally to be established under the Stormont House Agreement by June 2015 and degraded to a six person panel with no start date in A Fresh Start) be given a role in reviewing the outcomes and measures to ensure they stay fit for purpose?

A local What Works centre – Northern Ireland is the only devolved region without one, and its creation was a DUP manifesto commitment – could help develop evidence-based policies.

Openness and transparency around the measurement and tracking of the 42 indicators will be vital. Expect to see NI Executive reporting mirrored and tracked by external portals and websites. NISRA – the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency – are a well established and trusted agency of the Department of Finance, and have a history and reputation for showing their working out along with final figures. While measures already exist for many of the indicators, some will have to be created to support the framework.

Peter sees this as “an exciting, democratic moment”.

“One of the features of the recommendations from the roundtable and one of the new developments within the context of the framework is greater participation by local government on a two-way basis.”

Local government and community partnerships will be “meaningful and fully fledged partners in delivering outcomes and also feeding into the design of future policy”.

“It’s a very exciting moment. It’s a democratic moment. It’s not just about technocratic things like measures and indicators and even outcomes … There’s a real intention to put it up to the people, to policy organisations and business … and government seems to be ready to take the risk of handing over a little bit of the control they’ve had up to now in designing the Programme for Government.

“That’s a very exciting moment and has all kinds of implications for our particular experience of democracy because one of the feature of our democracy, because of its consociational style, because so much of the energy of government goes into the post-conflict requirement of holding those tensions in place there has been a sense of needing to control the levers of power and to continue to operate at a rather elite level … The process now has to be much more participatory if it’s to be meaningful and if that sense of legitimacy is to be fully restored.”

Won’t there will be a tension between political power and those who donate ideas and policies and harbour expectations about how those policies will be adopted and enacted?

“We need to remember that when we talk about civil society making an input, we’re also talking about civil society, business and local government co-delivering and co-producing some of these outcomes as well. The point is that this is also about distributing some of the responsibility for delivery. They’ll not all be new actions and new activities. It’s about capturing much of what’s happening and getting recognition to elements of activity that are not always appreciated or not always on government’s radar.”

Alan Meban. Normally to be found blogging over at Alan in Belfast where you’ll find an irregular set of postings, weaving an intricate pattern around a diverse set of subjects. Comment on cinema, books, technology and the occasional rant about life. On Slugger, the posts will mainly be about political events and processes. Tweets as @alaninbelfast.

  • Nimn

    “The Executive needs to manage communications around the PfG framework carefully in the weeks ahead in order to protect its credibility from unfair criticism.”

    I think the Executive , as the article suggests has been cack handed about this process, especially since it has been developing since 2012.

    I would suggest that over the next number of weeks the Executive should be more concerned about establishing the credibility of this process with wider society rather than trying to protect it.

    I agree on the ‘meat on the bones’ worked examples for us lesser mortals not involved in Carnegie UK Round Tables with more than a whiff of academic and intellectual snobbery, and I sincerely hope the Carnegie UK Round Table documents are not the basis of explaining the new approach – indeed I would like to see many of our MLAs try.
    As to unfair criticism – that is in the eyes and ears of the beholder. Respect is earned.

  • Brian Walker


    There is basically quite a simple idea here.

    “Wellbeing” challenges the traditional system of sharing out budget on the basis of historic cost and the spending as much as you can in order to set next year’s baseline. It requires government to pay far more attention to how the money is spent and requires the public to be more involved in those decisions.

    For Northern Ireland It aspires to create a clearer sense the overall public interest which transcends the community divide and the my- turn- you- turn, carve up rhythm of political decision taking. It requires a more open style of government and real involvement of (what I can’t help calling) civil society. It has already seen the limited development of cross cutting experiments between government departments to make life better in particular sectors or areas. We can easily appreciate that to improve life in Sandy Row or Divis St, a single government department can’t do it alone.

    The Scottish model created one big government department which makes cross cutting easier. A multiparty Executive would have made that more difficult in NI because of the need to give scope to five parties in government but a two-party coalition now makes it a lot easier.

    But there are big questions which I haven’t yet seen addressed (correct me if I’m wrong).

    For Northern Ireland the aim of building new communities of interest is clearly relevant and is already work in progress. The question however remains: how are they to be defined and created? Take shared education. Is this to be left purely to local initiative or incentivised by active government policy? The answer makes all the difference to the outcomes.

    Peter Doran talks here about the high level of conversation going on in the public square. This is true enough but the results are surely disappointing. As you pointed out, politicians have regarded the idea of a civic forum as a threat to political control. Both sides of industry have been reluctant to challenge poor government performance because they either depend on them for public contracts or have a cosy enough relationship. Politicians also need to see a political dividend as well as the public deserving greater transparency and accountability. This is the political context into which Wellbeing ideas must fit.

  • chrisjones2

    SMART in both senses is not a word normally associated with the Executive

  • chrisjones2

    Depends on your definition of ‘unfair’ doesn’t it

  • Will McConnell

    I’m still not sure exactly what any of this means. Community engagement – what communities? Is this not just a fancy term for an open call to lobbyists to stuff earmarks into the PfG? We all know how government “consultation” works, politicians choose what constructive criticism they want to hear and what they want to ignore..

  • CB

    The 11 new Councils are all working with their statutory agency partners and others to produce Outcomes based Community Plans (as they are required to do by the Local Government Act – the first reference in NI legislation to Outcomes planning). They have all been on a steep learning curve and most are at the stage where they have agreed their draft Outcomes and Indicators and are working on actions etc to achieve their Outcomes. What is very different between their emerging Plans and the draft PfG is that they are realistic documents with measurable (and hopefully achievable) Outcomes. Not the type of “Outcomes” in the PfG which, if achieved, would leave us a society happy, healthy, prosperous etc etc and thus surely in no need of a Government! Interestingly, only two of these PfG “outcomes” are not absolutist statements – the one referring to ‘more better jobs’ and the one which refers to “more equal”. So we will in a mere 5 years time be happy, health etc etc but not equal. Perhaps it is time for the PfG civil servants to learn from Local Government staff – or are they too aloof to even contemplate such a thing?