Northern Ireland is more concerned with the policy-making of another American

11 November 2016 - by Gráinne Walsh

While the rest of the world is starting to focus on president-elect Trump’s plans for government, Northern Ireland is more concerned with the policy-making of another American.

Mark Friedman’s outcome-based accountability approach has been adopted by the Executive to deliver a Programme for Government (PfG) that is different from any before.

The Executive is currently consulting for a second time. The responses to the initial consultation were almost double that of the previous PfG, suggesting this new approach has aroused an unprecedented rate of interest and engagement. Most agree that this spirit of 'co-design' and 'co-production' is a good thing.

Government is in listening mode and, whether as the result of necessity through lack of resources or desire to harness the talents and expertise of those in other sectors, there seems a genuine appetite to drive positive change.

The PfG consultation document released at the end of October saw the introduction of six new indicators covering energy security of supply margin; water; biodiversity; usage of online channels to access public services; and, finally, the gap between the number of houses we need and the number of houses we have.

Many of the measures in the original framework have now become indicators in a bid to strengthen the link between the outcomes and indicators. The document states that performance will be measured on the basis of three questions: How much did we do? How well did we do it?  Is anyone better off?

Elsewhere in the UK, Scotland led the way. The Scotland Performs website was launched in 2008 to chart how the government was performing against its indicators. It legislated to enshrine and protect this outcomes-based thinking in 2015. Wales, too, has followed suit, producing legislation labelled by some as a “bureaucratic monster”. Leeds City Council, Dorset County Council and North East Lincolnshire council are also advocates.

Ten years on from the Scots embarking on their journey towards outcomes-based accountability, that approach is now firmly embedded, even if the objectives haven’t yet been achieved. These are exciting times in terms of governance, with possibly more questions than answers at this stage – will the ambitious outlook set by the Executive in Belfast become bogged down in the short-term demands of politics? And how does one fund a long-term, multi-generational programme on one-year budgets?

Northern Ireland has the advantage of learning from the other devolved nations' experience. While you can’t fault them for ambition, would it have been safer to start smaller? Are they attempting to change too much, too soon? Will legislation to enshrine this new philosophy follow? Finally, are the devolved nations setting a governance agenda that Westminster should follow? We definitely think so. 

This article is also available on Public Affairs Networking.