Programme for Government unplugged: Part 1

07 September 2016 - by Anna Mercer

With the new Programme for Government (PfG) set to be published in coming weeks along with Action Plans to support each outcome, we look at how the new outcomes-based model compares to previous versions.

The Executive formed in May 2016 is significantly different from previous mandates; we now have a two-party Executive and an Opposition, nine new departments to replace the previous 11, and a new outcomes-based draft Programme for Government (PfG).

With formal Opposition still a relatively under-developed device, and the new departments bedding down without too much disruption, the new PfG has been the focus of attention for organisations seeking to influence the shape of public policy. And we can see from the number of respondents to the PfG that this interest has never been greater, with the total number of submissions almost doubling from 2011.

The draft PfG represents a radical departure from the status quo. Indeed, as one colleague remarked, the new PfG could be seen as  the first “joint vision statement” for governance to emerge since devolution, demonstrating the progress that has been made,  particularly amongst the two governing parties, the DUP and Sinn Féin, sufficiently reconciling their mutual aspirations for Northern Ireland.

The document’s purpose is to “improve wellbeing for all”, seeking to break down the “silo” mentality of departments working to achieve their own objectives, on the basis that outcomes can only be achieved through a range of cross-cutting measures.

In this sense, it places ambition before process, which is also reflected in the fact that the PfG came before the budget, and not the other way round, as has happened in previous mandates.

This shows a deliberate move by the Executive to determine its priorities on ambition, rather than on available resource, which better aligns with the long-term thinking this type of model demands. Yes, it represents ‘Motherhood and Apple Pie’ – but is this really such a bad thing?

While many questions remain about the delivery of these ambitious outcomes, the move to place wellbeing at its heart, rather than GDP or other metrics, that fail to convey the impact of policies, is widely recognised as positive.

The next steps will undoubtedly challenge politicians, both of Government and Opposition, to understand, explain and lead a process that has been, let's face it, designed thus far, in the main, by civil servants.

With the Opposition itself partially the product of dissatisfaction with the draft PfG, one might assume the UUP and SDLP will not exactly be cheerleaders for the document; however, there will perhaps be an even greater challenge for governing parties to hold their nerve in the implementation of the new PfG with its rigorous transparency and accountability mechanisms.

And, with budgets, as far as we know, continuing to be allocated to departments rather than to outcomes, there will remain some politicking around who secures what, and on top of this, how budgets are used together across departments for delivery of the outcomes. Apply the usual political battles and inclination for Ministers to maximise their positive impact within their own hinterlands, and policies continue to ooze complexity.

Finally, the challenge to align generational change with one year budget cycles as mooted by Finance Minister Mairtín Ó Muilleoir in light of Brexit makes things all the more challenging.

Nevertheless the prize for perseverance is huge; OBA has been shown to work, and make real material differences to the lives of people in jurisdictions where it has been implemented.

Time will tell if the vision can be delivered.

Stratagem has been actively supporting a range of diverse organisations connect meaningfully with this process. Please get in touch to find out how we can help realise your objectives by completing the form below. 

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