Review of Public Administration falls short

In the end it came down to “7, 11 or 15?” Not a choice between rugby ‘7’s, association football or the full union code, rather “how many councils?” At least the new Minister at the Department of the Environment Northern Ireland (DENI) has been spared a Review of Public Administration (RPA) every bit as tedious and uninspiring as its precursors.

When the most recent RPA was first mooted it was sold as the chance of a lifetime to correct the horrendous mess that constitutes the ‘public sector’ in Northern Ireland. With 11 government departments, over 100 quangos, how ever many Commissioners for this and that, and 26 local councils we would have a right to feel a tad over-administered – though poorly governed for all that.

And yet the ‘Executive’ review of public administration seems to have concentrated on the area that covers the least in terms of public expenditure – the councils. Still, it is to be guessed that civil servants hidden away in the depths of Education, Health, Planning and Roads will be breathing a collective sigh of relief. Not for them the trials of exposure to local accountability – the Assembly committees I hear you say? Try a yet another cold, dark, wet Monday night in front of 20 or so angry, though rather well informed, local Councillors.

Sadly for all the posturing, twisting and obfuscation of groups such as the NI Local Government Association, local government in this part of the world remains incredibly weak. The review announces that the 11 new councils will have ‘some parts of planning’; in the rest of the UK local councils are the ‘place shapers’. Here they will be given ‘local economic development and tourism’; activities they have been engaged in for over 20 years already. There is still talk of the mythical ‘power of wellbeing’; what power, whose wellbeing? Still, it will be a little more that the ‘3Bs’ – bins, bogs and burials?

Even after review, what passes for local government in Northern Ireland will hardly be unrecognisable to a Mancunian, a Londoner, a Glaswegian, or a New Yorker and, yes, even to a Dubliner.

So, why is it likely that this latest review is, ultimately, likely to deliver so little? Is it that the 50 or so Councillors/former Councillors who are now MLAs recognise the dangers in their erstwhile colleagues having increased powers? Or is it that the civil service want to keep things cosy in Belfast? Perhaps there is a bit of both involved. Mostly however, it is hard to find substantial gains for effectiveness or efficiency in public administration from this review. Gains, perhaps, but none amount to effective or efficient local government.

From a Unionist perspective, the configuration is the best possible available; there is a Unionist council west of the Bann (Limavady/Coleraine/Ballymoney/Moyle) and a Unionist council on the border (Armagh/Craigavon/Banbridge). It means the first election is the European challenge of 2009, which marginalises smaller parties and maximises the significant voting blocs, which suits both the DUP and Sinn Fein. For all Parties it maximises the number of councillors: a little something for everyone.

There’s the rub. If it really was about effective, efficient, value for money local services we wouldn’t have over 100 quangos, multiple education systems and enforced coalition government with a Ministry for all. We wouldn’t be focusing on how there is a little something for everyone – all gain and no pain means little deviation from the status quo.

The UK economy is currently hovering on the edge of significant slow-down and perhaps even recession. Public spending is forecast to rise to almost 40% of GDP – over 40% is the UK Treasury’s definition of failure and the trigger for corrective action. In Northern Ireland public spending accounts for over two-thirds of our GDP – what does that say about the economy of Northern Ireland? Public Sector funding in the Republic is below 40%. If Northern Ireland is to be competitive in a global world, Corporation Tax should not be slashed without a similar slash made to the ‘public service’.

Arlene Foster reviewed local councils within her Ministerial remit. If there had been a substantive and serious review of public administration in Northern Ireland, it would not have stopped at local councils.

Submitted by Ardmachian

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