‘I’m talking about a culture change in government in Northern Ireland: I mean the civil service and politicians’

Evidence-based policy-making is largely absent from government in Northern Ireland, but the new Pivotal think-tank has been established to correct that, says its director Ann Watt. She was speaking in the last of the second series of Holywell Trust Forward Together podcasts.   

The aim of Pivotal “is to help improve public policy in Northern Ireland,” says Ann. “It’s got a strong emphasis on research and evidence and on using evidence better in public policy.” The very first Pivotal report, published in November last year, made a big splash through its focus on waiting lists and waiting times in the NHS locally, stressing that numerically the Northern Ireland waiting list is more than a hundred times longer than that in England, despite England being almost 30 times’ larger in terms of population. 

Pivotal is the first think-tank established specifically to consider governance in Northern Ireland, despite these being a normal feature of Great Britain, Ireland and most developed nations. Pivotal is backed by the north’s two universities and Ann herself is a former Cabinet Office and Treasury civil servant. “So I’ve got lots of experience in policymaking and policy delivery” as well as “a background in economics”, she explains. “Evidence-based policymaking was very much central to what I did in my civil service days.” 

By contrast, in Northern Ireland, “there’s been a reluctance to take the tough choices”, specifically in the NHS, “which might not be popular, but actually would deliver a better health service in the longer run,” says Ann. She explains that “reform in health and social care… might mean reconfiguring services so that particular aspects of healthcare happen in specialist centres, rather than in a wider set of hospitals across the country.” 

Coalitions always make decision-making more difficult, and Ann concedes that “having a five party coalition makes government work more difficult”. She adds: “I think it’s particularly difficult for the Northern Ireland Executive because you’ve got departments headed by different ministers from different parties and without a clear common purpose.” This makes the natural ‘silo’ division between government departments even worse. 

Ann does not understate the challenge facing Northern Ireland, which was clearly evident from the RHI debacle. “I think that the big, big thing in our good government report [published in March] was the need for a real change in the culture at Stormont.” This requires the parties and departments to work together, with more long-term policymaking. 

While the process for agreeing a Programme for Government in Northern Ireland has been flawed, Ann argues that in itself “it is a good step in the right direction.” But she continues: “I think it needs to be developed and refined and, really importantly, it needs to the genuine set of objectives that government are jointly bought into and committed to.” 

Northern Ireland’s weaknesses in government go beyond the political parties and into the heart of the Northern Ireland Civil Service, as was evident from Sir Patrick Coghlin’s report into RHI. “One clear recommendation from the report is recognising the civil service doesn’t have the skills that it needs in either training its own people up so that they have those skills, or getting external people in…. At the very end of Sir Patrick’s introductory remarks, he talked about RHI being a project too far for Stormont. It was just too complex, too technical. You got the sense that there wasn’t a full understanding of it.” 

Part of the required culture change for the NICS might be achieved through greater diversity in the workforce, bringing people in from other jurisdictions and with different experience. “Any organisation that thinks it hasn’t got things to learn from other people is probably really falling short, because we’ve always got things to learn,” observes Ann. “Every organisation, every individual, every team should be thinking, how can I continue to get better? How can I improve? One of the ways I’ve seen individuals and teams and organisations improve is, over time, being much more open and willing to learn from others and having those interchanges with others… There needs to be much more openness to ideas from outside”, including from Pivotal and other think-tanks, academics and business groups. 

“When I talk about a culture change in government, yes I mean the civil service and politicians as well. I think we have to have a situation where there is not a monopoly on policymaking amongst civil servants or politicians… they are not the only ones with good ideas… There is so much value in listening to and understanding the perspectives of people outside who may actually have far more expertise and far more insights about how policy works in practice.” 

Pivotal has more reports being prepared and is considering what Northern Ireland should look like in 20 years’ time and what type of place its citizens want to live in. Meanwhile, the Holywell Trust’s Forward Together programme is also moving to the next stage, with a book to be published in the coming weeks featuring ideas for making progress in Northern Ireland suggested by interviewees in the first series of podcast interviews. A streamed panel event will take place on the 15th September to reflect on the observations in this second series of interviews, which will itself form a new podcast to be released soon after. 

The latest podcast in the second Forward Together series, featuring Ann, is available here on the website of peace and reconciliation charity Holywell Trust. It is funded by the Community Relations Council’s Media Grant Scheme. 


Disclaimer: This project has received support from the Northern Ireland Community Relations Council which aims to promote a pluralist society characterised by equity, respect for diversity, and recognition of interdependence. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of the Community Relations Council.