While COVID-19 may have cut Executive and local government budgets, it has clarified their purpose – to improve the wellbeing of people across Northern Ireland…

Lauren Pennycook is a Senior Policy and Development Officer at the Carnegie UK Trust. You can follow her on Twitter.

In the space of five short years, the landscape in Northern Ireland has transformed. New powers have been conferred to local government; the draft Programme for Government sought to deliver public services differently; and the Northern Ireland Assembly collapsed. New structures were formed and new sectors stepped up in an attempt to, in part, fill the political and policy vacuum left behind at the regional level. With 2020 came a New Decade, New Approach; the return of the Northern Ireland Assembly; and a global pandemic – which have meant far from a return to business as usual.

The commitment to put wellbeing at the centre of public services in the draft Programme for Government 2016-2021 and to, for the first time, work to outcomes – to nuance over numbers of inputs or outputs, to contribution of the Executive alongside that of a number of other sectors and stakeholders – set the Executive on a trajectory to designing public services which were strategic and citizen-centred. And yet while a focus on collective wellbeing is never more needed, as the Executive plans for the recovery, it cannot return to 2016 when it merely hoped that a new way of designing public services would deliver new ways of working.

Why? Because things have moved on, in Northern Ireland, across the UK, and internationally. Because we have much to learn from the COVID-19 crisis. How were the ‘barriers’ to co-operation overcome so quickly? How were resources – financial and human – discovered and redirected at such speed? Who no longer had to seek permission, or forgiveness, to collaborate effectively? How, at the onset, were politics, organisational priorities, and single budget lines, parked so efficiently for a common purpose? And, perhaps most crucial of all, how do we hold on to these ways of working, to deliver public services in a non-emergency situation?

And so we look to 2021, not just to the end of a calendar year which has been so challenging for so many. But also to the opportunities which were set pre-pandemic – to the new Programme for Government and the review of Community Planning. To opportunities to renew, refine and re-set. Because while COVID-19 may have cut Executive and local government budgets, it has clarified their purpose – to improve the wellbeing of people across Northern Ireland.

This purpose should be reflected in the content of the new Programme for Government and in the review of Northern Ireland’s 11 Community Plans. We should see issues which were confirmed during the crisis as key to our wellbeing, that, while not new, were not necessarily measured, or treasured before. Issues such as access to good quality greenspace; citizens being given permission to take control in their communities; and high quality digital public services. The purpose should be reflected in the ways of working at both tiers of government, to capture the change in culture, skill sets and mind sets we have seen during the pandemic – working in partnership across sectors and with communities.

With 2021 comes the opportunity to go beyond merely hoping we can secure this leadership, this partnership working, this way of including citizens in the design, and delivery, of services. The opportunity to use all tools at the Executive’s disposal – legislation; the Partnership Panel; data and evidence; the Joint Forum – to effectively reverse the traditional policy cycle, and put practice, from the pandemic, into policy. The opportunity for two milestones, at two different tiers of government, to coalesce around one purpose.

And so because the pandemic has touched every part of our lives – our economy; the social connections in our communities; our environment; and the relationship we hold with our governments, the Executive should double down on its 2016 commitment to improve collective wellbeing. And because the global pandemic has a local legacy, Community Planning Partnerships should reaffirm their commitment to community wellbeing in the review. Both levels of government, their statutory partners and unusual friends, should learn, embed, extend, and, ultimately, re-set for their original purpose – to improve citizens’ wellbeing.

This post is part of our #TheReset series in association with Ulster Bank

If you would like to get involved in #TheReset, either as an individual or as part of an organisation, please do get in touch by emailing us at [email protected] or [email protected] with an idea for inclusion in a range of articles or events over September and October.

Portmuck” by Philip McErlean is licensed under CC BY-ND