Challenges for delivering a new Programme for Government

13 September 2016 - by Anna Mercer

Having compared the new Programme for Government (PfG) with previous versions, we take a look at the challenges of implementing the new outcomes-based approach, and consider some of the unanswered questions about how it might work in practice.

The new PfG represents a radical overhaul of how government plans to govern. In moving from the “bean-counting” approach, whereby success and failure can be judged on outputs; for example, the numbers of houses built or jobs created.

Put simply, the newly-formed Executive has replaced measuring outputs with outcomes, placing “wellbeing for all” at the core of what they want to achieve.

The theory underpinning this approach comes from Mark Friedman, and has been used in a number of countries in their approaches to public governance and accountability.

In Northern Ireland, it has generally been met with a cautious welcome; cautious because of the lack of detail in the initial vision documents, but welcomed in the sense that it transforms the purpose of government, and challenges its public sector to embrace radical change in pursuit of the higher goal of wellbeing.

But what of the practice? Many countries have shown the effectiveness of this approach, but as we work to make the necessary change, what are the challenges the Executive need to address to ensure the framework enables delivery agents to deliver, and legislators to scrutinise effectively?

  1.      Statutory duties versus outcomes

The public sector is duty-bound by legislation to deliver specific duties through allocated powers, and is accordingly held to account. Different bodies within the public sector have governing legislation to which they must adhere; for example, the Northern Ireland Housing Executive delivers a range of functions through various Housing Orders from 1981-2003. However, with the focus shifting to delivering outcomes, rather than outputs, do public sector organisations have the legislative underpinning they require to enable them to deliver on this new approach?

  1.      Accountability and scrutiny

The outcomes promised in the new PfG do not correspond to any single department, and are deliberately cross-departmental in their very nature. How will Assembly Committees hold government to account on delivery of outcomes, given that they are limited to shadowing and scrutinising single departments?

  1.     Internal budgets

The public sector has faced huge pressures in the past few years and has been stripped back in many cases to the point where some have struggled to deliver on their most basic core duties and powers. Faced with the challenge of having to focus resource on areas potentially not within their current statutory remit, how can they ensure they continue to deliver their core functions whilst also delivering other services to achieve the new outcomes? What are the new reporting mechanisms for this, and where do Senior Responsible Officers (charged with responsibility for achieving the outcomes) fit?

  1.     Allocation of budgets

Long term visions and outcomes often demand a long term approach to funding, but with the Finance Minister announcing last week that he may need to move to a one-year budgeting cycle in light of the uncertainties around Brexit, how can delivery organisations, both public sector and community sector, plan beyond their own survival? Uncertainty breeds uncertainty, and so will the consequence of one-year budget cycles have a negative impact on organisations delivering long term outcomes, when their ambition is curbed to deliver within limited resources?

Back to Legislative underpinning

The example of Transforming Your Care should serve to remind us that good ideas need underpinned with resource, and, sometimes, legislation. An idea that few could disagree with, TYC sought to bring about a “shift left” and move health care from acute settings to the community.

However, problems emerged when it became clear there was insufficient funding and resource to support the vision, coupled by a lack of legislative underpinning. With statutory duties determining what Trusts had to deliver, those which were not safeguarded in legislation, for example, “meals on wheels” for older people - which would be a key enabling factor in keeping older people in their homes for longer -  could be legitimately cut from the services the Trusts provide. Trusts are not duty-bound in legislation to deliver the service, and so this, as an example, would be an area vulnerable to being axed.

So, in reality, the vision was compromised by the lack of legislation to support it, and the necessary funding to enable it to be fully delivered; after all, funding is much more likely to follow legislation, as this determines what has to be done, rather than what might be considered optional. If we look to Scotland, they reinforced their outcomes-focused approach with legislation last year, and so if we are to learn from the mistakes/oversights of others, and apply the consideration above to the NI context, surely underpinning the new approach with legislation is the most prudent thing to do?

Time will tell as to how our Executive responds to the challenge of implementing cultural change across a sprawling public sector, but it will require courage and a long-term outlook to ensure that the end goal of improved wellbeing for all can be realised.