Is wellbeing of citizens still a priority without a government?

03 December 2019 - by Gráinne Walsh

To paraphrase the agenda, the Northern Ireland Leadership and Governance Conference 2019 last week took place against a backdrop of unprecedented uncertainty and a lack of clarity across such a wide range of issues.

Policies including the Programme for Government, community planning, and partnerships between departments and arm’s length bodies, are part of a well-developed agenda to move towards creating more engagement across the public sector and a Northern Ireland “total delivery system”, focusing on better outcomes for citizens.

The day started with Institute for Government Director Bronwen Maddox, outlining some of the key challenges for government in Belfast and London and ending with everyone counting to the tune of “knees up mother brown” thanks to Andrew McCracken from the Community Foundation.

Civil Service Head, David Sterling’s followed with his review of Northern Ireland’s leadership challenge. Given the lack of an Executive and Assembly for the last three years, annual budgets, combined with the great distraction of Brexit, Sterling would be forgiven for being downbeat. He wasn’t.

While clear about the deterioration of public services and our collective challenges from climate change to paramilitarism, his focus was on the need for an honest dialogue with citizens about how we face these challenges, how we agree the services we want and how we pay for them.

Sterling was clear that we need more than good leadership to face the future, the public sector needs to be a trusted source of candour, taking some risks and supporting returning ministers with a compelling case for change, if we want to deliver the outcomes we see in the Draft Programme for Government.

This idea of supporting politicians resonated with Bronwen Maddox’s recommendations drawn from the recent IfG report, Governing Without Ministers, which includes the development of buttressing institutions such as the productivity commissions we see in Australia and New Zealand. 

We then looked to reforming the orientation and capabilities of the Northern Ireland Civil Service, including a ‘formal duty of stewardship.’ As well as reviewing the wider governance landscape, Maddox argued for more cross-fertilisation and, critically improving ‘NI literacy’ in Whitehall and Westminster.

Moving our focus from the global and regional, Louise Warde Hunter, Deputy Secretary, Department for Communities was joined by Jennifer Wallace, Head of Policy, Carnegie UK Trust and David Burns, Chief Executive, Lisburn and Castlereagh City Council to discuss the role of collaboration in wellbeing and community planning. With the publication of the first progress reports on community, this session was particularly timely.

It was interesting to hear Carnegie’s take on how the devolved administrations are at the global cutting edge of embedding wellbeing with Jennifer Wallace explaining “We are here because we think you are doing something interesting.” Following Louise Ward Hunter's statement “that cooperation is the only way to solve some of our intractable problems,” Wallace went on to outline the benefits of community and cooperation starting with individuals:  We flourish when we are listened to, and believed in, and given opportunity to make our contribution. As communities we are energised when people are encouraged to come together, to look out for each other, to belong and finally, as a society we thrive when individuals and communities are valued, and when we invest in both.

Drawing on the experience and learning from the work with the three participating councils, Wallace summarised the main challenges as

  •          Data gaps at local and regional level
  •          Communication that engages communities
  •          Shared resources
  •          Collaborative leadership and partnership
  •          More use in policy decisions 

Drawing on his experience in both Scotland and more recently Northern Ireland, David Byrne identified the collective opportunity to refocus and prioritise as we enter into the next phase of community planning. While admirable, the first generation of community plans may be too ambitious and therefore less likely to succeed.

These themes continued as Jennifer Wallace and Catharine McWhirter, Community Planning Manager, Lisburn and Castlereagh City Council discussed  the highs, lows and next steps in community planning. Discussing the experience of community planning in Lisburn and Castlereagh, Catharine McWhirter discussed the importance of collaboration and cooperation.

Despite the challenges, Northern Ireland’s pioneering work locally means that we can’t look elsewhere to copy; Community Planning Partnerships, who have worked so hard for well over two years now, are now leading the way and show that cooperation and collaboration may be easy to talk about in theory than in practice. In terms of the central government solutions that will help embed wellbeing at a local level, a duty to collaborate is something that a returning Executive needs to legislate for.