“A clear need for fresh thinking” – Outcomes Delivery Plan 2018/19 update

11 January 2019 - by Matthew Jackson

Mid-year assessment of progress on Outcomes Delivery Plan 2018/19 notes a need for fresh impetus, against a background of continuing stasis at Stormont and economic challenges.

Published by the Northern Ireland Civil Service (NICS) in June 2018, the Outcomes Delivery Plan 2018/19 sets out the programme of work taken forward by civil servants during 2018/19. It is intended to give effect to the Northern Ireland Executive’s objectives, set out in the draft Programme for Government (PfG) framework 2016-21.

Like the Plan, the mid-year assessment is centred on 12 outcomes in key fields of economic and societal wellbeing.

High levels of uncertainty in the political landscape, not least around the UK’s exit from the EU, coupled with stubborn levels of economic inactivity and continued low levels of productivity, are identified by civil servants as barriers to growth in each outcome area.

Unsurprisingly, the two-year stasis following the 2017 collapse of the Northern Ireland Assembly and Executive is seen as significantly thwarting meaningful change, the absence of ministers limiting NICS “operational capacity and ability to respond as effectively as it would like to current issues and events.”

What impact, then, is the new outcomes-based approach contained in the PfG having on the delivery of public services and the health and wellbeing of citizens?

On the whole, it provides a new means of measuring change, as demonstrated in the mid-year assessment, and arguably this time without an Executive, gives people space to think, and hopefully act, differently. 

Despite economic activity in Northern Ireland standing at the highest on record, urgent action is required to increase innovation and employment rates, stimulate job creation in the private sector, attract greater foreign direct investment and match educational provision with skills needs.

The introduction of the Belfast Rapid Transit system has gone some way to improving our connectivity, yet other major infrastructure projects, from the Belfast Transport Hub and A5 upgrade, to the York Street interchange, are stuck in the Stormont log jam.

The rollout of Universal Credit across Northern Ireland was completed in December 2018. In addition, the percentage living in absolute poverty has decreased from 20 per cent in 2014/15 to 15 per cent in 2016/17. The numbers living in relative poverty, however, have stayed the same.

Advancements in social housing provision are on track; 1850 new social starts and over 900 affordable homes are due to be delivered before the end of the financial year, even as housing stress levels continue to rise.

In the health arena, the clear vision provided by Health and Wellbeing 2026: Delivering Together continues to drive change through the transformation agenda. It is recognised that health and wellbeing are inter-dependent, requiring significant focus over an extended period of time to deliver measurable change.

In November, Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Karen Bradley MP, introduced legislation providing civil servants with greater legal clarity around making decisions.

Yet questions persist on transparency, and indeed consistency across departments, in the decision-making process, while ministers remain absent. Last week, a Freedom of Information request by The Irish News revealed the use of a flowchart by the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs to make decisions without the need for ministerial sign-off.

We continue to wait on details following the announcement in September by Department of Health Permanent Secretary Richard Pengelly that patients in Northern Ireland would now benefit from equal access to cancer drugs.

The Outcomes Delivery Plan update is unequivocal in stating that civil servants cannot take the place of ministers when it comes to strategic policy development – a stark warning, perhaps, given the more than 160 decisions pending approval.

In a particularly insightful admission, the document notes: “… it is becoming increasingly difficult to maintain momentum and there is a clear need for fresh thinking and renewed policy impetus in almost every area.” Can civil servants provide the fresh impetus needed, or is it a case of hunkering down until ministers return?

The Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, which last month launched an inquiry into the implications of the backstop element of the Withdrawal Agreement on Northern Ireland, remains a limited vehicle of democratic accountability and oversight. The Committee has heard oral evidence from the health and education sectors in recent months.

Voters will also go to the polls in May for local government elections. With purdah kicking in at the end of March, there is now a window for engagement with councillors and other elected representatives.

The call for renewed thinking in this assessment illustrates that much work remains to be done.

Together with pre-policy development across departments, the work taking place at local government level, including the review of community action plans, presents a wealth of opportunities for change at local level to enhance PfG delivery and drive momentum in each of the 12 outcome areas.