Rebuild, rebalance, reform… reshape.


The Northern Ireland Executive announced a Programme for Government 2012-2015, eventually, towards the end of 2011. Plenty to do. In fact, it reads as a massive ‘to do’ list.

Headline measurement will no doubt be against the more practical elements. All Housing Executive homes will be doubled glazed over three years, or they won’t; either brucellosis will be eradicated by March 2014, or it won’t; either there will be no additional water charges, or or there won’t.

Elsewhere, the Executive has committed to spending money with broad outcomes. Once again money will be spent, or it will not.

Then there are the more open points added to the list about producing strategies and plans: developing; implementing; monitoring; evaluating.

There are lots of words used by way of framing the announcement of the Programme for Government – rebuild, rebalance, reform; lots of ‘promote’, ‘develop’, ‘improve’.

Much of the ‘to do’ list reflects the mundane nature of administering against a fixed income – the block grant – with a bit extra from the rates. What the Programme for Government tells us it that Stormont has not risen much above basic administration: the equivalent of an English County Council under ‘no overall control’; no Party able to take on the mantle of leadership alone. A deal here, a compromise there, lack of major decision making, and very often a significant (if unobtrusive) role for the public servants in the absence of clear coherent direction.

Frankly, why it took so long to produce this Programme for Government (PfG) is a bit of a curiosity. There is nothing that is startlingly innovative. Mostly off the Departmental shelf. Nothing in the PfG that could not be achieved, and most could be done to at least some extent if not in the entirety within the timeframe – unlike last term?

Of course there are one or two items, perhaps more, that would hardly cause a crisis if they were not to be completed on time or at all.  Is a plastic bag tax really necessary; what will be the impact on small retailers? £7.2 million on an Obesity Prevention Framework seems a bit of budget largesse, when the finance belt should be capable of being tightened down a notch.

The success of the construction of this PfG is that to pick on one aspect seems churlish, and to challenge it as a whole would be to demand the baby is thrown out with the bath water. The choreography of the announcement made it a big positive occasion of the hard-working united Executive, all in it together.

And yet? thedissenter finds it hard to be enthusiastic. For all the words, it is not clear how, overall, this is a PfG that will rebuild, rebalance or reform Northern Ireland to become an open competitive  economy that is driven by the innovation and enterprise of a wealth creating private sector: not that that was a stated purpose of the PfG. To do that the public sector would need to be smaller, more efficient, and more effective. Yes that will mean fewer jobs among those employed directly and those employed indirectly through the voluntary and community sector which with few exceptions isn’t.

Reducing the public sector is not even an agenda point within the Programme for Government: that would require far more than the sort of rearranging our public sector is so adept at managing.

Reforming the public sector in Northern Ireland to make it smaller, leaner and more effective is a huge topic. It starts with thinking that the unthinkable is possible, and that the debate would be better starting sooner rather than later.

So let’s start with health.

While PfG talks about transforming Health & Social Care, even though the budget essentially ringfences the Health part (accounting for a full 30% of the entire public spend).  This hardly provides an indication of the intention to transform. The Compton Report which was released following the announcement of the PfG was very worthy. It recommended a reduction in major hospitals to between 5 and 7. Probably 4 major hospitals are enough, supplemented by local “cottage” hospitals, services provided via GPs and truly preventative social care. To ensure hospital services are strategically managed, abolish the five Health Boards and place Hospital Services into one Authority, allowing hospitals to become independent as ‘Trust’ or even ‘private sector’, to include all major and ‘local/cottage” delivery. Integrate this with a distinct Community Health Services commissioning body within that Authority, to cover home care and GP services.

There is no reason why Health resources and Social Services (non-health/benefits) could be managed directly, Departmentally. Make the Health & Social Care Minister directly accountable for the two main services that matter to the public – effectively Chairman of the Boards – and charge the Assembly Committee with an enhanced oversight role.  This increases accountability, hugely reduces management infrastructure, and opens the possibility to build effective partnerships with private sector providers and make optimum use of social finance.

It can cost around £500 per week for an elderly person to stay in a nursing home when good quality home care would allow a proportion of them to stay at home for longer for £100 week. On average a week in hospital costs £2,000: if demand could be cut by 10% though better home care and support for chronic conditions by GPs and their practice nurses, the saving is huge. Better for the patient, and better use of scarce resources.  There are private investors who are interested in this sort of change.

The fact that £ millions may have been magically found for the Education budget over the next so many years distracts from the fact that we have too many schools and too many teachers because there are too many empty desks.  Perhaps the new ESA will start to look at this, though the educationalists who lurk around the idea of a single authority are obsessed with selection, which again distracts that there are too many young people arriving at second level education unable to read or write.

There needs to be a much more coherent approach to commissioning at all levels of education provision – and this must include a significant role for the private sector. Schools should be allowed to make a profit to be reinvested in the school –  as is permitted in Sweden.  This is not an ideological point. If there is a belief in the need to move away from over-reliance on public sector jobs we need the private sector engaged and informing curricula at all levels – primary through to post-grad.  That might be particularly relevant to vocational courses at Further Education Colleges, which again need only have a single oversight board: do we really need the separate institutions, with their own administrative infrastructures?

Eleven or fifteen Councils’ is not even a question.  Increased powers to Council would logically mean decreased powers and purpose for Ministries at Stormont. So there are two realistic options: 1) let Stormont do it all; 2) elect no more than five Councils to provide a consultative and representative role in planning, tourism and delivery of local services commissioned by the centre, and to provide members for the now regional bodies for health, education, and central services.

It would be easy enough to create five Councils from existing council boundaries or by using the parliamentary constituencies as building blocks (3 contituencies per Council). Apart from the obvious economies of scale this much smaller number of Councils rebalances the ‘Belfast and then everyone else’ nature of a larger number of Councils. All support services could be pooled, such as finance, ICT, human resources. A single waste management authority could be tasked with assuring competitive services in waste management, while taking a wider view of collection through to disposal – where services are contracted by Councils entirely to the private sector.

The Northern Ireland Housing Executive has had its day. Retain commissioning responsibility by the Minister, with the close involvement of the Councils. Open the management of the existing NIHE housing stock to the big Housing Associations from the mainland: for one to take the entire stock would be to create a cosy monopoly, so the stock should be split into three, and not necessarily within specific geographical areas.  This opens the possibility of better management of public finance, and introducing private developers as part of a consortium approach to new development.

We are well and truly quangoed. Look at the list. Ask, seriously, what does such or such a body do for the money it spends? All ‘rights’ Commissions could be put into one. With a minimum wage, why do we have an Agricultural Wages Board? Why is there a River Agencies Board in DARD and not with Environment?  Why do we need a Strategic Waste Board?  Why do we need a Strategic Waste Board and a Waste Management Board within the one department, neither of which have the capacity to provide the services of the Waste Programme Steering Group?  Why have a separate ESA and Library authority? We only need one Health/Social Care commissioning body. Let the hospitals become Foundation Trusts or similar, with private sector partners if they wish, and let them run some community services if that is a natural extension of their role and successfully compete for those commissions from the Community Health budget. Make the GPs take more responsibility and move them away from the prescription and “sign-off” culture.

To move forward on economic development there needs to be a close audit of Invest NI and the NITB.  A smaller ‘commissioning’ body could take responsibility for developing the overall strategy and then contracting with others to provide development services in sectors. NITB should be a subset of a new INI – tourism development is a driver for economic growth not just a nice way to run expensive marketing campaigns.  Step forward the Chamber of Commerce, Federation of Small Businesses, NI Retail Trade Association for growth strategy partnerships. Fewer local Councils could play a much more effective role in delivering services at a local level, particularly on local business engagement and support. Perhaps the big consultancies such as PWC, Deloitte, or more specialist investment consultancies could be commissioned to support and grow specific talent pools or business clusters. Less public sector bureaucracy and more private sector engagement, and so say all of us.

Finally, for now, and presuming that the rebuilding, rebalancing and reforming energy translates in to a reshaped and reimagined Stomont, reduce the Departments at Stormont down to six at most. There will still be a need for bodies like a Health Commissioning Agency, ESA, INI but these allocated to specific departments for accountability and review by Assembly Committees. The six could be:

  • OFMDFM, but fewer people and including Regional Development as this includes strategic thinking on planning and infrastructure.
  • Health, Social Care and Public Safety
  • Education & Skills: including DCAL
  • Finance & Economy
  • Justice & Community Engagement
  • Environment & Rural Affairs

Yes, of course, the points above are broad and there are gaps and presumptions that someone will contest as being ‘too simplistic’ or ‘not serious’: fine, so what other ideas are out there? So far all we have heard are statements of intent in respect of reform and restructuring of an administration for Northern Ireland towards something that is fit for purpose.  We are told we must rebuild, rebalance and seek fundamental reform for a better future. Where is the PfG vision that will get us there? Reshaping and re-imagining is a fundamental to rebuilding, rebalancing and reforming.

If this article is talked about at all, if it engenders any debate at all, it has at least made a start where others have covered their heads under the public sector comfort blanket that is the present Northern Ireland administration.

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