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Making a
difference:

preparing the Programme
for Government

 

Robin Wilson, Democratic Dialogue
May 2000

 

Contents

Preface 3

Executive summary 4

1. Introduction: the lack of prior debate 6

2. Unifying the Executive Committee 8

3. Public understanding and involvement 10

4. ‘Joined-up’ government 12

5. Focusing on outcomes, not outputs 14

6. Setting clear policy goals 16

7. Establishing performance indicators 19

8. Evaluation and innovation 21

9. Reallocating budgets 24

10. The role of ‘civil society’ 27

11. Relating to the wider world 29

12. Conclusion 32

Preface

 

This is a discussion paper from the think tank Democratic Dialogue. Further copies of the paper are available, as hard copy (2 plus p&p) or e-mail attachment, from DD. Details are on the back cover, as is our web site address.

This paper was prepared as a background paper for the first round-table in a series on the Programme for Government of the Northern Ireland devolved administration, generously supported by the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust and a private donor. It benefited considerably from the results of focus groups carried out by Ulster Marketing Surveys last year (supported by the Make it Work fund) and from discussions with key officials in the Office of the First and Deputy First Minister. Comments from the secretary to the Scottish Executive were also welcome. Responsibility for its final contents is, however, my own.

The Programme for Government is clearly of great public interest and DD is publishing this paper with a view to stimulating wider debate. Any comments or criticisms are very welcome.

 

Robin Wilson
director

 

 

Executive summary

 

 

1. The stipulation in the Belfast agreement that the parties involved in an Executive Committee governing a devolved Northern Ireland elaborate a Programme for Government has been subject to remarkably little public debate. Getting the institutions agreed, getting them up and running, and now getting them back up and running has dominated exchanges. This reflects the lack of prior policy debate during the decades of direct rule, when every party was in opposition and the hard choices of government were left to others to face.

2. Yet the programme is not only crucial to the credibility of devolution to ordinary citizens. It is also critical to cementing a potentially fractious executive, with four parties thrown together in involuntary coalition. It provides the only means, in the absence of conventional arrangements for collective responsibility, for parties to subordinate their partisan concerns to the wider ‘common good’.

3. Focus-group evidence indicates that citizens in Northern Ireland feel alienated from a political discourse which is adversarial rather than collaborative. There is meanwhile insufficient public understanding of the political and financial constraints upon a devolved administration in the region. It is therefore crucial that key actors in civil society are engaged in the debate about the programme.

4. A growing concern in government everywhere is how it can be made more ‘joined up’. The ‘wicked issues’ that cut across departments present a particular challenge. Northern Ireland is especially scarred by two of them: sectarianism and social exclusion. Developing the cross-departmental Programme for Government is a key requirement if such apparently intractable problems are to be addressed.

5. Governments, again internationally, are increasingly concerned to demonstrate that they do not just have outputs (services), but outcomes–real change that makes a difference on the ground. Focusing on outcomes also favours better evaluation of what government does. But this should not just be internal: a standing ‘citizens’ panel’ should be established to monitor the work of a devolved administration.

6. For all these reasons, the Programme for Government should be structured around the outcomes a ‘joined-up’ administration would seek to achieve–the key policy goals for the region. These chapter headings might be:

fostering intercommunal integration and supporting all the victims of violence,

promoting equality of life-chances and securing social inclusion,

pursuing sustainable economic development and reducing unemployment,

reducing mortality and morbidity and improving public health,

raising educational achievement and skills attainment,

enhancing physical mobility and the environmental fabric, and

maximising Northern Ireland’s links to the rest of the world.

This would make clear to the wider public exactly what difference devolution would be intended to make, and would in turn provide a focus for debate around the draft programme when published. The alternative would be to dump on the population an impenetrable volume consisting of detailed trade-offs agreed behind closed doors, or a collection of departmental wish-lists.

7. Outcomes tend to be measurable. So the programme should publish a series of indicators by which performance of the administration can be assessed over time. This offers a powerful tool for accountability to the assembly and the public. It also requires, however, a liberal régime vis-à-vis freedom of information.

8. The first full year of a devolved administration should in part be devoted to a review of all existing government projects. Those inimical to the agreed policy goals should be discontinued or scaled back. Those at variance with the programme should be refined so that they dovetail better with it, and so with each other. The space should thereby be created for new projects to be introduced. A small Economic Policy Unit has been established in the Office of the First and Deputy First Minister; it should be enlarged and its remit broadened to embrace review and renewal in all policy domains.

9. The financial constraints on devolved government need to be eased, ultimately by Westminster legislation for tax-varying powers, as in Scotland. Meantime, hypothecated charges should be considered. In the context of UK-wide devolution, the Northern Ireland executive should support a new needs assessment to stabilise its public-expenditure allocation from the Exchequer.

10. Much of ‘government’ is these days delivered by non-governmental organisations, or in partnership with them. NGOs may often be more appropriate vehicles to pursue policy goals straddling government departments. The Civic Forum envisaged by the agreement can thus play a key role, not only in the debate around the programme but also in exploring how best it can be delivered.

11. Northern Ireland inhabits a globalised environment, and must relate to the rest of Ireland, the rest of the UK and the rest of Europe. The republic’s government should be taken into confidence at an early stage of the drafting of the programme, so that potential synergies can be maximised. The Policy Unit will be critical to keeping abreast of policy developments in Cardiff and Edinburgh, as well as London. And establishing effective official representation of the administration in Brussels is a priority.

 

 

1. Introduction: the lack of prior debate

 

 

  • Focus on the institutions
  • An unfortunate effect of the process of elaboration of the Belfast agreement was a narrowly institutional focus. In the absence of constitutional consensus, all attention was displaced on to the construction of an institutional matrix which spatchcocked together otherwise competing constitutional propositions. Some incoherence inevitably resulted–arguably, the idea of forming the Executive Committee using the d’Hondt rule, for example. But for the purposes of this paper, the major difficulty was the near absence of any pre-agreement debate on policy objectives; rather than form following function, the institutional architecture was worked out quite in abstraction from what the new institutions would be for. The only significant exception was the equality provisions, which essentially carried forward the direct-rule administration’s proposals in Partnership for Equality. This process continued after the agreement, notably in the way the departmental configuration was governed by the politically-driven requirement of 10 ministries, despite the fragmentation effect on government.

    This problem was not confined to Northern Ireland. Even in Scotland, where a consensus around the idea of Scottish autonomy–if not its extent–was relatively settled, ‘the debate around the Parliament centred primarily on institutional concerns’. As a result, ‘The establishment of a Scottish Parliament in May 1999 has yet to show much in the way of energy and vision and has certainly failed to capture the political imagination’ (Hassan and Warhurst, 1999: 6, 8). There is a warning here for Northern Ireland, where a ‘second honeymoon’ is not likely to obtain. A recent poll found that 91 per cent of people in Scotland believed the Scottish Executive had achieved little or nothing since devolution last July, leading to headlines like ‘Voters rate devolution a failure, says survey’ (Guardian, February 23rd 2000).

     

  • Lack of policy debate under direct rule
  • Direct rule has not survived for all but a few months of the last 28 years out of any appetite at Westminster for direct involvement in the government of Northern Ireland over that period–quite the contrary. But within the region itself the effect of the unbending of the springs of political action from 1972 onwards only gradually became apparent as direct rule became prolonged. The Opsahl report, two decades on, diagnosed its ‘debilitating’ impact: ‘political parties are poorly organised in terms of political development and policy-making’. As one witness to the commission put it, ‘We are keeping our politicians in kindergarten’ (Pollak, 1993: 15, 14).

    There were three major disincentives to policy elaboration by the parties under direct rule. The first was a lack of interest: a worthy document on (say) health policy would hardly secure a mention in regional media obsessed with the narrow agenda of constitutional politics and security. The second was a lack of consequences: the chances of a policy proposal being accepted by the direct-rule administration depended on its prior consonance with the ideological stance of the party in power at Westminster. And the third was a lack of necessity: the electoral success or failure of the parties bore no correlation to the thinness or otherwise of their policy portfolios, and Northern Ireland could be governed on an auto-pilot basis where central-government policies were adopted wholesale with minor tweaking by Stormont officials.

     

  • Absence of ‘hard choices’
  • Perhaps most serious was the way direct rule separated the articulation of policy preferences by regionally elected representatives from responsibility for their execution. For the politicians, this was experienced as an immensely frustrating lack of accountability. But it also stimulated an oppositionalist culture, where the opportunity costs of particular preferences did not have to be addressed. Hence, for example, the tendency of regional politicians to defend the retention of all services at any acute hospitals in their constituency, whatever the consequences for the rationalisation of the acute-hospital matrix necessary to ensure adequate standards of care for patients as a whole (Wilford and Wilson, 2000).

    This problem was thus particularly acute in the absence of any serious debate until very recently about priority-setting in public expenditure (Wilson, 1999a). Northern Ireland has enjoyed relatively favourable public-expenditure treatment under direct rule, through a combination of the operation of the Barnett formula, special programmes and a general flexibility owing to the security situation and the small size of the numbers from a Treasury perspective. This soft-budget environment favoured demands to throw money at any problem that emerged, rather than eliciting an innovative policy response. It represents a major cultural shift for regional politicians to face up to the ‘hard choices’ control of most of the Northern Ireland block implies. The decision by the Executive Committee essentially to allow the previously planned 2000-01 budget to go through on the nod postponed this challenge, but it has the potential to cause major tensions around the executive table.

     

    2. Unifying the Executive Committee

     

     

  • The originality of the executive
  • If the nature of direct rule was to leave everyone in opposition, the nature of the Belfast agreement was to put everyone (all significant parties, at least) into government–a remarkable transition. It is worth stressing that nowhere in the world is government formed by the d’Hondt rule, whose more normal role is the allocation of top-up seats under additional-member systems of proportional representation. The Swiss ‘magic formula’ for allocation of the seven seats in the Federal Council is the nearest any other jurisdiction comes to such a mechanistic process of government formation. Even there, there are two crucial contrasts.

    First, the decentralisation of power in Switzerland–lying largely with the 26 cantons and more than 3,000 communes–and the option of referenda to contest government decisions provide checks and balances against the danger that an executive with no real opposition will become unaccountable. Secondly, in Switzerland the whole parliament gets to vote for the seven council members–they are not simply party appointees. Thus elected representatives on the left have a say in who represents the right, and vice versa, which obviously favours a spirit of reciprocity. In that sense, Switzerland is not simply an instance of the ‘consociational’ model of separate ‘pillars’, dominated by political élites, on which Northern Ireland’s arrangements are premised. It is, rather, a grassroots, consensus democracy–if one not without its problems (ECMI, nd).

    Belgium does have a formula also at the federal level, where government is formed equally by representatives of the Flemings and Walloons (Fitzmaurice, 1998)–a simple enough matter since the parties are each divided into separate wings by language-group. But, unlike in Northern Ireland, the principle of equality has been distinguished from that of inclusiveness: there is no requirement that all parties be in government and, indeed, the current centre-left administration leaves out the large Christian Democrat group, which had been in a succession of previous cabinets.

    The implication of these comparisons is clear and explains the two biggest difficulties besetting the Northern Ireland devolved administration. First, looked at vertically, it is very élite-dominated–a continuation of the political style of the ‘peace process’ but likely to lead to real stresses. One has only to look at the bad feeling created by the health minister’s overriding of her committee’s majority view of the future of maternity services in the region–and the failure to explain her decision to the committee in the first instance–to see the pitfalls that the exercise of executive authority in this context can engender. Secondly, looked at horizontally, it contains none of the ideological ‘cement’ which ensures the cohesion of coalitions between like-minded parties.

  • The tendencies towards fragmentation
  • As has been frequently remarked, devolution signalled in Northern Ireland a four-party, involuntary coalition. To hold that together would be difficult enough in any circumstances, with the obvious temptations–particularly approaching elections–for parties to trumpet the achievements of their ministries and to trash the achievements of the others. But there is more than that.

    It is often said that the Belfast agreement ‘resolved’ the conflict over the constitutional status of Northern Ireland, but in fact it essentially reiterated the long-adopted formula for constitutional change. It did not hold out any new conceptualisation of Northern Ireland as a sui generis entity to which all its citizens could give allegiance. In the absence of any such regional alignment–an absence symbolised by the continued presence of Carson, rather than, say, Hewitt at Stormont–parties have no overarching way of identifying a larger ‘common good’. Yet this is crucial if they are to feel any obligation to subordinate partisan agendas to the public interest, and if they are to be able to legitimise compromise to their supporters without fearing ethnic outbidding from rival parties.

  • The programme as ‘glue’
  • It is in this context that the huge significance of the Programme for Government–an aspect of the agreement largely ignored in the public domain–can be fully appreciated. First, it represents a critical opportunity to assuage not only the ‘democratic deficit’ associated with direct rule but also the policy deficit identified by a former director of public health at the Eastern Health and Social Services Board (Pollak, 1993: 319-320). It is the chance to reconnect elected representatives and the policy community, to make plans with real consequences, to make choices within a finite budget.

    Secondly, the programme would represent, more symbolically but no less importantly, the critical ‘glue’ to hold the Executive Committee together. It would provide the touchstone of the common good to which all could point, the wider context in which departmental agendas, in tandem, had to be pursued. In more disciplinary mode, it would offer the first and deputy first minister the ‘whip’ to ensure other ministers stayed on a common path. And its preparation, and subsequent annual review, would provide a crucial focus for wider democratic involvement, in the Northern Ireland Assembly and beyond, in the debate about the future shape of the region.

     

    3. Public understanding and involvement

     

     

  • Frustration at ‘hassle’ of polarised argument
  • In April 1999, as part of its work on the Programme for Government, Democratic Dialogue ran focus groups across Northern Ireland on the priorities of a devolved administration. Discussion inevitably spilled over, however, into commentary on the failure, at that time, to set devolution in train, and it is likely that similar findings would emerge were the work to be replicated post-suspension. The organisers of the focus groups reported (UMS, 1999: 2):

    Throughout the research, it was evident that the intense political and partisan contention is emotionally draining and distressing. This stressful emotional atmosphere is generated by the verbal and visual animosity and invective which are projected through the media, mainly televised news and current affairs programmes. (Indeed, it is intriguing the extent to which many cannot differentiate clearly between the actual violence and the verbal invective and machinations of political and other figures, as manifestations of ‘the troubles’).

    As the most significant contributors to this process, there is now widespread desire to see politicians take a lead in defusing this oppressive atmosphere of partisan belligerence, by adopting more open, constructive, and less emotional terminology and debate.

    For example, there was a desire to see practical co-operation on ‘non-constitutional’ matters and increasing focus on economic and social issues. This aspiration stood out as the most consistently identified first priority for the Assembly.

    The focus groups strongly suggest–and the positive popular reaction to the 10 weeks of devolution would underscore it–that the adoption by elected politicians of a language of the public interest and the common good would be well received, as would practical work on the elaboration of the Programme for Government.

     

  • Danger of unrealistic expectations
  • One former minister described the political culture of Northern Ireland as ‘protest and demand’ (though for not a few it is ‘put up and despair’). Unrealistic expectations of what devolution can deliver are therefore a risk, with the danger of disillusionment if these are not realised. There are two sources of such unrealistic expectations. First, it is not widely appreciated that Northern Ireland ministers will not under devolution have plenipotentiary powers–in particular, that key areas of macroeconomic policy and welfare provision will be reserved. If, for example, industry in the region suffers from high interest and exchange rates, as a result of the failure for ideological reasons of the UK government to join economic and monetary union, there is not a lot that ministers at Stormont can directly do about it.

    Secondly, the financial constraints under which a devolved administration will work (Heald, 1999) are tight and will only get tighter. This is because of:

    1. the legacy of problems inherited from the direct-rule administration (such as under-investment in the infrastructure);
    2. the inherent tendency of the Barnett formula towards convergence (in Northern Ireland’s case downwards) towards UK average expenditure per capita;
    3. the prospect of an end to support from EU structural funds in 2006; and
    4. the absence of independent revenue-raising powers outside of the regional rate.

    The implications of these two difficulties are clear. First, it will be crucial for ministers to maximise the degree of de facto policy autonomy they enjoy. In this they will be assisted by the desire of London mentally to disengage from Northern Ireland, and in so doing they will be able also to maximise the synergies available through north-south co-ordination. Secondly, they will need to find ways to loosen the financial straitjacket.

     

  • Importance of public involvement
  • Rather than seeking to ‘damp down’ public expectations, a more sophisticated approach by government would be to ensure widespread public understanding of the environment in which a devolved administration operates, through enhanced public involvement in decision-making. The élite domination of Northern Ireland politics has unfortunately been associated hitherto with a suspicion of ‘non-elected’ figures in civil society intruding on the political domain. Devolution offers the opportunity to establish a new policy style.

    As material changes visible to the public at large will not be substantial in the short term, tangible improvements in the conduct of politics will nevertheless sustain confidence in the project. In particular, the electorate will be watchful for evidence of collaborative behaviour between the parties to the Executive Committee, and especially between the first and deputy first minister. Moreover, changes in style can in themselves improve performance–rendering the whole Executive Committee greater than the sum of its parts through the accumulation of trust and mutual confidence. If key actors in civil society feel they are engaged by the new politics, they can be expected in turn to help deliver policy initiatives in which the agencies of government may only have a brokering or enabling role.

     

    4. ‘Joined-up’ government

     

  • The devil of departmentalism
  • In one sense people are already disillusioned about government in Northern Ireland–they are disillusioned about government pretty much everywhere. This is at least in part because the economic and social issues of most immediate concern to ‘ordinary’ citizens–unemployment, their family’s educational achievement, their and their family’s state of health, and so on–are actually not amenable to solution by a single government department delivering a service. In these less deferential times, this is no longer acceptable (Perri 6, 1997: 9-10):

    The core problem for government is that it has inherited from the nineteenth century a model of organisation that is structured around functions and services rather than around solving problems. Budgets are divided into separate silos for health, education, law and order and so on ... To solve complex problems that cut across these boundaries, new approaches are needed. Government needs to become more holistic, achieving greater integration across the public sector. It also needs to become more preventative, shifting the balance of effort away from curing problems ... towards preventing them.

    Health, for instance, is not just a matter of medical intervention under the auspices of a Department of Health (that is treatment of illness), but is principally governed by living standards, diet, lifestyle, housing, road safety and so on–as the chief medical officer for Northern Ireland keeps pointing out in her annual reports. In this effort, all departments, and the wider civil society, are implicated (Campbell, 2000: 21):

    The causes and solutions to many of the major health problems in Northern Ireland lie outside the areas traditionally dealt with by the health services. Individuals have a responsibility to care for their health through lifestyle choices. However society has a responsibility to provide the infrastructure that presents the opportunity for good health. The most significant gains in public health lie in tackling social and economic factors such as poverty, unemployment, education, the environment and social exclusion.

    There has been an inordinate emphasis in the debate about health policy in Northern Ireland on the acute-hospitals system. Where that emphasis needs to lie is with the stubbornly high–and stubbornly unequal–morbidity and mortality rates, and what can be done to reduce them (Wilford and Wilson, 2000). ‘The concept of joined-up thinking and holistic government is ideally suited to addressing health inequalities’ (Ilett and Laughlin, 1999: 190).

     

  • ‘Wicked’ issues
  • Such problems as public health in Northern Ireland have come to be called ‘wicked’ issues–the fact that they require cross-departmental responses being related to their apparent intractability. Whether a devolved administration can tackle the wicked problems of Northern Ireland will be a touchstone of its success and its credibility.

    Two issues which are particularly wicked in the region are sectarianism and social exclusion. In many ways what defines–and scars–Northern Ireland to an observer are:

    1. its vertical division at all levels along strict sectarian lines, with the evacuation of any sense of a civic society or of a wider cosmopolitan world; and
    2. the ghettoisation of its unskilled working class and lumpenproletariat (celebrated in a compensatory but wholly imaginary way by paramilitary figures in such ‘communities’).

    Clearly, neither of these problems could be resolved overnight. But, while recognising the constraints on its power and resources, a devolved administration would surely want to make an impact in these crucial areas, if it was to be able credibly to claim that it was making a difference.

     

  • Co-ordination challenge
  • The quest for holistic government is in its infancy, as in the 80s and 90s the focus of public-management reform tended to be on rendering service delivery more ‘efficient’–through agentisation, privatisation, purchaser-provider division and so on. The fundamental problem of departmentalism was not affected–indeed co-ordination problems were reinforced as government fragmented. The UK government has now appreciated the need for more ‘joined-up’ government, and the prime minister recently commissioned a report from the performance and innovation unit in the Cabinet Office on how it could be fostered. The report said: ‘Ministers and senior civil servants should act as "champions" for cross-cutting policies and services and so help create a culture conducive to cross-cutting working’ (PIU, 2000: 7).

    The Programme for Government provides an ideal opportunity to secure this ‘educative’ effect in Northern Ireland. With four parties in government, 10 departments to run and no framework of collective responsibility, the risks of co-ordination failure are otherwise severe. One has only to think, however, of how sectarianism straddles schooling, housing and work, or how social inclusion encompasses education, social care and employment, to appreciate the imperative nature of the effort. For unless Northern Ireland develops into a normal civic society, then peace will mean no more than the absence of violence–if even that. And in the long term it is difficult to see how any political arrangements based on power-sharing could endure sustained constitutional attrition and simmering grievance on the ground.

    5. Focusing on outcomes, not outputs

     

     

  • Service delivery not key consideration
  • One of the problems highlighted in the Cabinet Office report on joined-up government is that the conventional approach to government tends to take a ‘producer’ rather than a ‘consumer’ view (PIU, 2000: 7). That is to say, the focus tends to be on the delivery of services–outputs–rather than the results of the activity of government: outcomes. This is another way of understanding the obsession in Northern Ireland with hospitals, rather than health, in that policy domain.

    Yet clearly the perspective of the individual in society is that government is only a means to an end: its outputs are irrelevant (or, worse, are seen to legitimise tax-aversion); only concrete outcomes are seen as making a real difference in terms of solving problems on the ground. This also explains the depth of popular support for a policy in Northern Ireland which (apart from the Alliance Party and the Women’s Coalition) has no major political sponsor: integrated education. Citizens can see a tangible connection between the policy and the desired outcome–improved intercommunal relations–and hence continue to support it strongly in polls and focus groups.

     

  • Refocusing on performance
  • An outcome-based approach to government also encourages a performance-based assessment of government. Continuous monitoring is a feature of all modern organisations, and government should not be immune. This is particularly so since the main means of external assessment–periodic democratic elections–is both infrequent and a rather crude measure. And in Northern Ireland, crucially, it would be an heroic assumption to anticipate elections being fought on policy-performance issues any time soon.

    Yet there are various reasons for fearing that adequate internal monitoring might not eventuate. The pressures of immediate political crises, plus the accessibility of the devolved administration to regional and local pressures, could lead to a loss of policy direction in favour of short-term crisis management. Devolution creates the possibility for introducing regionally-sensitive policies and seeking regionally-specific solutions to problems, but it carries the risk of becoming involution. With UK-wide devolution on the one hand, and the special relationship in the Northern Ireland case with the republic on the other, it will be tremendously difficult for the smallest region in these islands to keep abreast of this complex policy environment. The north-south and British-Irish aspects of the new architecture will not necessarily prevent a growing information deficit, in which Northern Ireland continues to lag and devolved policies are not subject to the rigorous benchmarking against external comparators required.

  • Citizen-centred government
  • With its ‘consumer’ orientation, the Cabinet Office report urges (PIU, 2000: 7) that ‘better use should be made of the knowledge and experience of outside experts and practitioners who are not constrained by departmental boundaries. They should be brought more fully into the policy development process.’ There are now a whole raft of robust mechanisms for citizen reflection on policy matters.

    Northern Ireland has hitherto relied on the two most unsophisticated means, the consultation paper and the public meeting, which both have their drawbacks. The former always has the air of a fait accompli and non-governmental organisations are suffering from ‘consultation fatigue’ as the blizzard of consultation papers swirls around them. The latter is vulnerable to obvious difficulties of differential citizen access and ease of articulation, which are only compounded by the specific regional factor of paramilitary ‘packing’ and intimidation. A menu of alternative approaches is available, the choice of which can be tailored to specific circumstances, and which includes citizens’ juries, focus groups, citizens’ panels and local forums. In particular, in terms of the programme, the funding of a standing citizens’ panel (which differs from recurrent polling in that the respondents are identical) would allow a range of departments to ask particular questions about policy initiatives as and when appropriate, as well as allowing general ‘tracking’ surveys of how performance is viewed over time.

     

    6. Setting clear policy goals

     

  • Making devolution different
  • Given the limited powers of the Executive Committee and the severe fiscal constraints upon it, ensuring a devolved government is perceived as making a difference is quite a challenge. Crucial to meeting that challenge will be the designation of a limited number of desired outcomes–policy goals–of the administration. This would turn the ‘wicked problems’ into their obverse: a set of solutions for government to pursue across departments. Thus, the UK government’s Modernising Government prospectus (Cabinet Office, 1999: 16) says a key principle of policy-making should be: ‘Designing policy around shared goals and carefully defined results, not around organisational structures or existing functions … [A] focus on outcomes will encourage Departments to work together where that is necessary to secure a desired result.’

    In the past, government in Northern Ireland has only had spending priorities, rather than policy goals–an example of the consistent tendency to reduce policy questions to matters of public expenditure. (Critics of government have tended to make the same mistake, placing more weight on the expenditure-skewing initiative, ‘targeting social need’, than it is by any standard capable of bearing; hence the inevitable dissatisfaction with departmental TSN action plans.)

    The policy goals appropriate to fulfilling the spirit of the agreement might be as follows. These have not just been plucked from the air but are a product of discussions of earlier drafts in focus groups (UMS, 1999) and with policy advisers to the first and deputy first minister:

    fostering intercommunal integration and supporting all the victims of violence,

    promoting equality of life-chances and securing social inclusion,

    pursuing sustainable economic development and reducing unemployment,

    reducing mortality and morbidity and improving public health,

    raising educational achievement and skills attainment,

    enhancing physical mobility and the environmental fabric, and

    maximising Northern Ireland’s links to the rest of the world.

    It is hard to imagine many issues likely to fall outside these seven goals, though they of course raise themselves big issues to discuss. What we are talking about is a collective developmental effort, which can address the under-performance of Northern Ireland in a range of key areas during its 30 years of conflict. The first minister’s speeches to the Vital Voices conference on May 13th 1999 and in Omagh on August 23rd indeed signalled this kind of direction, with his talk of under-achievement, standards and ‘regeneration’. Government by policy goals lends itself to the ‘brigading’ of ministers and officials around each objective (Leicester and Mackay, 1998: 21), under the co-ordination of the first and deputy first minister.

  • Assisting public engagement
  • By focusing on a discrete number of policy goals, it will be possible for the Executive Committee to make clear to a sceptical public just what it intends to do, in a manner which is widely understood and which inspires public engagement. It can then initiate a broad public debate about priorities, and learn from that debate, revising the policy goals in the process. The alternative approach would be for the parties to negotiate a programme behind closed doors–with all the attendant obscure fudges–and dump a huge, impenetrable volume into the public domain. This would be to invite opposition and cynicism. And bearing in mind the programme is to be subject to annual amendment, a successful initial consultation around the programme would be crucial to the success of debate around its subsequent iterations.

    It is clear from the focus groups, however, that such shorthand objectives would need to be turned into instances of concrete projects to be readily appreciated. Just thinking of education, how would integrated education (by far the clearest policy desire of the focus groups) be best enhanced under the first suggested policy goal, and how would the issue of selection at 11+ be best dealt with under the fifth? The focus groups also indicated that it would be important for the new administration to deploy a political language of individual responsibility (as well as of rights) to chime with popular expectations. Again, a public debate around the programme might throw up a host of innovative project ideas (as well, no doubt, as a few off-the-wall ones).

     

  • Chapter headings for the programme
  • A further advantage of policy goals would be in the actual writing of the programme itself. The goals could provide chapter headings, preceded by an overview on the nature of modern government and the challenges facing Northern Ireland. Each thematic chapter could be filled out with illustrative projects, and they could be followed by a chapter on delivery of the programme, one on finance and one on public involvement. This could be an inspiring and accessible document, which the average mature school student, not to mention the average citizen, could absorb. It could be made widely available on the internet, via post offices and libraries and in schools. It could provide an excellent basis for ‘comparing notes’ with the other administrations on these islands and for promoting abroad the idea that Northern Ireland politicians were now finally ‘getting down to business’.

    The danger otherwise would be that the programme would effectively be drafted by individual departments. These policies might or might not hang together; they might even work against each other. An innovative idea that like developed by the Institute of Welsh Affairs (Jones and Reynolds, 1998), to replace A-levels by a Welsh Baccalaureate–addressing thereby both educational and economic under-performance–would never see the light of day. Each chapter would merely represent a departmental wish-list, in some cases looking uncannily similar to the UK-wide policies of the outgoing direct-rule administration. It would convey a sense of ‘business as usual’, rather than generating a feeling that devolution was making any difference at all. The over-emphasis on detail and the lack of big-picture themes would render it neither interesting nor accessible.

     

    7. Establishing performance indicators

     

     

  • Outcomes are measurable
  • As has been argued by advocates of this approach in a Scottish context (Leicester and Mackay, 1998: 22), ‘Holistic government is judged by the results it achieves and what it looks like to those on the receiving end.’ Not only does government by policy goals make what government does more comprehensible to sceptical citizens; the fact that outcomes can usually be measured allows independent assessment of its achievements. For each of the above suggested policy goals (though equally for others), statistical measures and/or social-survey data are available or would be straightforward to collect. This simple process begins to move government away from focusing on measuring the services it delivers to what results it secures, from the palliative to the preventative.

    Thus it has been argued that, for the Welsh National Assembly (Jones, Owen, Williams, Ponton and Hawker, 1998: 264), ‘The basic aim of health care and health services should be to produce health … No health service in the world systematically evaluates the "outcomes" of health interventions and whether the monies spent were effective in bringing about genuine "health gain". The Assembly should adopt a "health gain", targeted approach to this difficult problem.’

     

  • Role in monitoring performance
  • The Consultative Steering Group set up to anticipate the working of a Scottish Parliament saw the potential of an annual programmatic statement by the Scottish Executive. Not only should this go beyond the mere itemising of legislation to a broader statement of policy priorities, the group said, but this annual report would also allow ‘performance review’, with the associated setting of appropriate performance indicators (CSG, 1999: 56). Performance indicators provide a means for evaluation of policy success, or failure, and so keep policy-makers constantly on their toes. In the process, they give the wider policy community opportunities for critical engagement with government.

    The very setting of performance indicators can be helpful in clarifying just what change a particular policy goal or project is trying to achieve; indeed, conversely, the indicators chosen may betray clarity or its absence in this regard. Thus, for instance, the Scottish economist Brian Ashcroft, a member of the Northern Ireland Economic Council, convincingly argued at a seminar in Belfast in 1999 that productivity was a key indicator of economic performance. Yet it is absent from the measures suggested in the economic strategy document Strategy 2010 , which was essentially accepted as a template by the former minister for enterprise, trade and investment, despite considerable disquiet among professional economists (NIEC, 1999).

  • Securing public accountability
  • Fleshing out the policy goals into particular projects, and establishing performance indicators, allow a system of public accountability to be established. Thus, schematically and in simplified form, one could imagine the concrete operation of the programme being presented as in the following table. In the executive’s ‘annual report’ it could thus make clear how it was implementing its policy goals, how it was abolishing old or incorporating new projects, precisely which organisations were responsible for their delivery, what the costs involved were, and, critically, how performance was being measured. This would create a powerful system of rendering the work of the executive open to public account.

    Policy goal

    Projects

    Responsible agent(s)

    Financial implications

    Performance indicator(s)

             
             
             
             
             
             
             
             

    This, however, relates to the wider question of the freedom-of-information régime which the devolved administration will operate. Should such a régime, like that proposed for the UK as a whole by the home secretary, Jack Straw, exclude policy advice, then public accountability would be severely hampered. This would be an ironic reprise of the ‘democratic deficit’, even under devolution. And it would create severe anomalies vis-à-vis north-south policy co-ordination and the implementation bodies, where information about the same arrangements would be available in the republic but not in Northern Ireland. The logical answer to this conundrum would be for the Executive Committee to include liberal FoI arrangements as an early programmatic commitment.

     

    8. Evaluation and innovation

     

  • Shedding inappropriate projects
  • A project manager could understand what is being proposed here as follows. The meta-project is the renewal of Northern Ireland as a society at ease with itself and its various neighbours, a dynamic and inclusive region forging its place in the world. This has several sub-projects, the level of the policy goals, which individually and severally will advance the overall project. In turn, each policy goal has a host of sub-projects (which would normally be called programmes were it not for the confusion with the Programme for Government); these latter comprise the concrete activity of government, in conjunction with non-governmental actors.

    Now clearly devolution does not start with a tabula rasa, but rather from the direct-rule status quo ante. In that context, two pitfalls present themselves. On the one hand, a cautious conservatism would assume all existing projects should continue, in which case devolution could only make a difference at the margin and over a longish run, leading to disillusionment. On the other hand, a cavalier, ‘year-zero’ approach would be to discount all existing projects and start afresh, which would only bring chaos to government and cause civil-service morale to plummet. Between this Scylla and Charybdis, however, lies a progressive alternative. This would be to spend the first year of devolution, among other things, reviewing all existing projects with a view to deciding whether they fit with the policy goals. Where they do not, and there are no other compelling reasons for their continuance, a decision could be taken to discontinue them, or at least to scale them back. This would be an important mechanism to streamline the work of government and eliminate dead wood and inertia.

     

  • Refining existing projects
  • Of course, it may well be that there is a rational kernel behind a particular project, but in its current form it does not dovetail with the administration’s policy goals. For many more projects than one might wish to discontinue, refinement would be the preferable option. Thus, for example, ‘pursuing sustainable economic development and reducing unemployment’ would hardly lead to a bonfire of the agencies in Northern Ireland. But it might well lead to scrutiny of the option, which has now become the international norm (Wilson, 1998), of having a single regional development agency to spearhead the developmental effort (as indeed Strategy 2010 suggests).

    The advantage of this approach would be that it would ensure existing projects had more synergistic effects than hitherto. In particular, the danger of projects actually working against each other, or duplicating others’ efforts, would be considerably reduced. The ‘externalities’ of particular projects, and their opportunity costs–those associated with the proposed west Belfast flyover, for example–would have to be considered. This would actually, in the vast majority of cases, be a much broader and more relevant form of policy assessment than the §75 arrangements under the Northern Ireland Act 1998, as well as being considerably more straightforward.

     

  • Developing new projects
  • The hope would be that even within tight budgets this process of pruning of existing projects would allow space for new projects to flourish, thereby changing over time the appearance of government in Northern Ireland in a way which both did make a genuine difference and in which those differences were seen as improving upon the system of governance that is direct rule. Thus, for example, there is an evident policy problem in Northern Ireland which is the failure of the labour market to clear. It is suggested as a policy goal that the reduction of unemployment should figure. This is a much more difficult task than is evident as official unemployment conceals very high levels of economic inactivity in Northern Ireland. Improving prosperity, as well as fostering social inclusion (another suggested goal), will require substantially increased participation rates. Recent research on Edinburgh’s relative economic success as against that of Glasgow (for which one could read Belfast) indicates that it is not that people work more productively in Edinburgh (important though productivity is) but simply that more of them work (Turok, 1999).

    The reasons for ‘market failure’ in Northern Ireland in this area are various. On the demand side, unlike in the republic, insufficient enterprises of sufficient quality have been attracted to the region to enhance the quantity and quality of labour demand. On the supply side, large numbers of the economically inactive are not job-ready (not the same as the moralistic ‘workshy’), and will not be able to make the leap into the commercial labour market in one go. Intermediate labour-market schemes will therefore be needed. The Action for Community Employment scheme has not been a success in this regard, having little transitional effect, and in that sense its discontinuance was not itself mistaken. But what is needed is a better resourced project, or matrix of projects, which offer an effective stepping-stone into the mainstream labour market, like the WISE project (‘Workers into Skilled Employment’) in Glasgow, which has employed trainees on socially-useful projects while ensuring they acquire genuine skills.

    It should be stressed that new projects are not inherently more expensive. On the contrary, they should actually render government more cost-effective. Thus, for example, the Welsh Bac idea would entail one-off reorganisation costs, but would otherwise cost little more or less than the much less effective A-level system it would replace.

    This work, of developing new projects, is particularly suited to decentralisation of initiative within the civil service, to consultation with non-governmental practitioners and to the elaboration of pilots before major resources are committed. In turn, monitoring and evaluation of such projects adds further potential insight to the critical scrutiny of more conventional projects described above. The Economic Policy Unit in the heart of government, the Office of the First and Deputy First Minister, has a critical role here, but there is no logical reason why its remit should be confined to the economic. As a general Policy Unit, it should be enlarged accordingly.

    One tendency favouring the collapse of government into departmental silos is the pressure of day-to-day ‘firefighting’. Given the severity and suddenness of crises in Northern Ireland, that is not a tendency from which the new administration is likely to be immune. What is thus required, as has been argued for Scotland, is the protection of ‘thinking capacity’ in government against such daily pressures (Leicester and Mackay, 1998: 6). This is also essential if government is continuously to monitor performance, evaluate successes and failures, and promptly suggest policy adjustments to correct mistakes or meet new demands.

     

    9. Reallocating budgets

     

  • Impossibility of status-quo-plus
  • As the above discussion indicates, one luxury the Executive Committee cannot entertain is that it can have its budgetary cake and eat it–that it can keep doing everything government has done before, so as not to offend any special interests, and yet accrue more and more functions, so that people on the ground see tangible benefits. The tightening fiscal envelope within which it will be required to operate simply will not allow it, even if ‘big government’ did not carry its own tendencies to popular passivity and alienation.

    If, however, the constraints faced by the Executive Committee are to be loosened, that will not only be through shedding ineffective projects on the spending side. It will also be through adding revenue on the income side. It is unfortunate in that regard that no serious discussion took place in the run-up to the Belfast agreement, unlike in Scotland, on the desirability of tax-varying powers. The assembly also got off to a bad start, like its Scottish counterpart, by deciding greatly to increase its own budget, with the vague suggestion that unspecified savings would be found elsewhere in government in Northern Ireland.

    Having said that, the review of public administration to which the first minister was committed was and is a sensible proposal. Northern Ireland is clearly ‘over-governed’ below the regional level–with the plethora of non-departmental public bodies on the one hand and the profusion of close-to-powerless district councillors on the other. A hoovering-up of many government functions, into a single-tier local-government system, based on the county boundaries plus Belfast and Derry, would enhance democracy and ‘joined-upness’, at considerably lower cost. Such authorities should themselves be empowered, such as through a power of general competence, to use the enhanced rateable income they would receive (or any, fairer, local income tax) to good effect in their areas, and to provide a springboard to the assembly for local politicians.

     

  • Charges and taxes
  • Northern Ireland, of course, does have a variable tax–the regional rate. Already, however, the danger is of very substantial increases in the rate because it is the sole such mechanism and due to the specific need to modernise the creaking sewage system. What is required is a bundle of means for enhancing the income side of the public-expenditure equation.

    It is, of course, possible to enhance income through privatisation and the private-finance initiative. It is important to recognise, however, that privatisation changes the balance sheet, not the income-expenditure account, and represents an asset foregone. It is also important to recognise that PFI offers short-term easement at the expense of long-term commitments; while these may lie well beyond the electoral cycle, our children and grandchildren may not thank us for them.

    In reality, any responsible attempt to increase income must face the need for new or raised taxes or charges. While the sums involved will never be huge, they are important in two crucial senses. First, the fact that so much of public expenditure is always already committed means ‘marginal’ additions to income may be far from marginal as a proportion of uncommitted spending and may be crucial to fund innovative projects. Secondly, the historic detachment between public expenditure and income generated in Northern Ireland has fostered, as suggested earlier, a culture of irresponsibility which even a ‘marginal’ reconnection of the two would go some way to redress (Heald, 1998).

    Moreover, revision of taxes, up or down, may well be necessary to avoid major north-south disequilibria, such as have appeared in the petrol retail sector. But no one should assume that this is a free lunch either: if tax A goes down, tax B must go up or expenditure C be reduced.

    The fact of the matter is that tax-varying powers now depend on a review of the agreement. In the meantime, however, it would be within the powers of departments in Northern Ireland to introduce charges which could be hypothecated to projects. The Department of Regional Development was considering, during the period of devolution, just such a link between congestion charges in Belfast and additional expenditure on public transport.

     

  • Comprehensive Spending Review
  • It is likely that the next Comprehensive Spending Review will again favour health and education, large elements of the Northern Ireland block. Of continuing concern, however, will be the issue of how budgets are allocated within the block.

    The consultation in Northern Ireland on the last CSR presented those interested with a wholly unsatisfactory situation where, with quite insufficient accompanying information, they were urged to make comments on spending priorities in a manner hardly more sophisticated than the ‘higher’ and ‘lower’ calls from the audience on a well-known British TV game show. The advantage of having clear policy goals is that budgetary priorities can follow clearly identified political priorities, or can be changed if the latter change. Thus, the presentation of the Programme for Government to the assembly should provide the context for the presentation of the annual budget–not vice versa. And it is the former which should be the primary focus of public consultation.

     

  • Barnett and needs assessment
  • The process of UK-wide devolution, including the election of the mayor of London, has rendered much more politically transparent the fiscal transfers from the affluent south-east of England to Scotland and Northern Ireland. These are, of course, only as they should be for egalitarian reasons, but redistribution is much easier within an ‘imagined community’ than between it and another. As the UK becomes a quasi-federal structure, this is likely to become more rather than less problematic.

    Moreover, the favourable treatment Northern Ireland receives under the Barnett formula can be expected to suffer long-term erosion through the formula’s inherent tendency towards convergence between the different parts of the UK. Even more problematic perhaps is the fact that it assumes comparability of programmes; increasing policy divergence under devolution is likely to render it more and more unstable.

    While Northern Ireland could engage in a straightforward defence of the Barnett formula, this would only serve to antagonise Wales and northern English regions (which do not benefit from the formula) and in the long run might well be counter-productive. A more sophisticated strategy would be to plan from the outset for a UK-wide needs assessment which, unlike the Barnett formula (only dealing with changes in expenditure), would put the distribution of UK public expenditure on a firm, objective footing (Heald, 1999: 80). While there might be short-term costs–Northern Ireland’s share might be marginally reduced–in the long term its financial position would be insulated from populist political pressures in England.

     

    10. The role of ‘civil society’

     

  • Government as broker
  • It has been said of the Welsh National Assembly, in its crucial economic-development role (Morgan and Morgan, 1998: 178): ‘What the Assembly does is important but, even more important, is what the Assembly enables others to do for themselves.’ This chimes with the wider debate about so-called ‘negotiated governance’, in which the role of government is as ‘strategy maker, co-ordinator, arbitrator and consensus-builder’ (Amin and Thomas, 1998: 199)–rather than simple executor.

    The reason for this is that the complexity of societies today, and their interdependence, mean that the old-fashioned idea of the state as omnicompetent is no longer adequate. Devolution of power from the ‘national’ level (it is, of course, the multinational level in the UK) to the region, and delegation within the region to non-governmental organisations, thus become crucial. Again, focusing on economic development, ‘If public bodies are now able to intervene effectively in the economy it is in their political capacity, by promoting co-operation between economic actors and by adopting policies that enable firms to create the microeconomic conditions for competitive success. Increasingly the public bodies able to perform these tasks are not conventional national states but regional governments’ (Hirst, 1997: 27-28).

     

  • The role of partnership
  • The idea of negotiated governance has taken more root in Northern Ireland than elsewhere in the UK in part because of the influence of the republic in this arena, arising in turn from the latter’s experience of the European-style social-partnership arrangements critical to the success of the Celtic Tiger (O’Donnell, 1998; Sweeney, 1998). A goal of government today is to act as ‘a "developmental state" capable of constructing and guiding a social coalition in favour of economic change’, a ‘symbiosis of public and private power’ which can be achieved more effectively at regional level and may require ‘a public philosophy of dialogue, power-sharing and negotiation’ (Marquand, 1997: 27-28). This claim is backed up by the research on successful economic regions commissioned by the Northern Ireland Economic Council, which detected in such regions ‘a shared culture of commitment involving the public and private sectors as well as local authorities and the voluntary and community sector’ (NIEC, 1996: xxviii). And in Scotland it has been suggested that the executive has ‘the freedom to innovate, to improve policy-making, and to rethink and improve relationships with local government, business, the voluntary sector, and the citizen’ (Leicester and Mackay, 1998: 2).

    Indeed, this opportunity is well understood by the business community and the voluntary sector in Northern Ireland. Business attitudes to devolution are extraordinarily positive, significantly more so than in Scotland and Wales (UMS, 2000). The Confederation of British Industry in the region, in addressing business priorities for the assembly, spoke of ‘a unique opportunity to put in place a 21st century system of governance–one which engages with civic society’ (CBI, 1999: 3). And the voluntary-sector magazine Scope editorialised (March 2000) that ‘governments seldom reach solutions alone. The voice, knowledge and unifying power of civil society has a crucial power to play …’

    Negotiated governance dovetails neatly with the idea of government by policy goals, rather than the more narrowly conceived administration of executive services. For the former, as against the latter, can clearly not be delivered by government alone. To take health again, the biggest improvements in mortality and morbidity in Northern Ireland are clearly dependent on improving diet and exercise and reducing smoking–cultural shifts which ultimately citizens have to buy into themselves. Lecturing by government is unlikely to have much impact, whereas peer group involvement may make a difference. The Ballybeen Women’s Centre Health Promotion Project is a model in this regard (Voluntary Activity Unit, 1999: B136-B150). Similarly, in terms of housing, the idea of a policy goal addressing the ‘environmental fabric’ stemmed from the focus groups, where disquiet was expressed at the drab character of many estates (UMS, 1999). In Scotland, it has been suggested that Scottish Homes ‘should be recast as a regulator and supervisor of social landlords’ (Goodlad, 1999: 203); a similar reorientation for the Northern Ireland Housing Executive might be the way to inject voluntary-sector enthusiasm into upgrading depressed projects.

     

  • Legitimising the programme
  • Negotiated governance is thus about participation, legitimacy and mobilisation. It is here that a very helpful synergy can be developed between the Executive Committee and the Civic Forum, even though the latter has no executive functions. What the forum can do is offer a role in policy formation for non-governmental actors, the added legitimacy for government arising from such input, and a vehicle for government to mobilise commitment to achieving agreed policy goals.

    A problem however arises from the duplication of the rather incoherently designed–and yet to be established–Civic Forum by the more coherent, but less autonomous and more narrow, Economic Development Forum set up in the wake of Strategy 2010. A sensitive rationalisation of these two bodies into one would be highly desirable (and facilitated by the migration of some members of the latter body on to the board of a single regional development agency). Regardless of that, giving the Civic Forum a key role in responding to, and consulting upon, the Programme for Government would allow the assembly to focus on the business of detailed legislation and scrutiny.

     

    11. Relating to the wider world

     

  • The region as protagonist
  • It is remarkable now to reflect on how controversial devolution to Northern Ireland used to be: many unionists saw it as a stepping-stone to a united Ireland; many nationalists saw it as copper-fastening partition. Apart from general war-weariness, what has more positively changed is the European context of ‘multi-level governance’–region, nation, Europe–which has evolved as the architecture of the European Union and its member states (Wilson, 1996). All that singles out Northern Ireland in this regard is that it is a region in two, rather than one, ‘national’ contexts. But even there its intergovernmental relations with the republic are perfectly consonant with efforts to build inter-regional and transnational relations elsewhere in Europe (Wilson, 1999b).

    The challenge of rendering Northern Ireland a ‘developmental state’ is in part a challenge to its prevailing fatalism. The extensive discussion of globalisation in recent years–especially the globalisation of the financial markets–has sometimes been associated with a belief that government today can do nothing to affect real improvements in people’s lives. Yet, in fact, globalisation has been matched by regionalisation, as regions have come to appreciate that their economic and social success depends on inserting themselves effectively into this intensely competitive international order. Conversely, this recognition must be sobering for traditionally uncompetitive and dependent regions like Northern Ireland: not only does the world not owe us a living, but we must also learn to run even to stand still.

    The positive response to globalisation is to recognise the opportunity it creates for replacing dependency and mendicancy by autonomy and viability. As has been well said of lagging regions in Finland, whose gross domestic product per head is similar to that of the UK, ‘every region is more and more the architect of its own fortune’ (Tervo, 1996: 235).

     

  • Connecting to the rest of Ireland
  • Not only does the Programme for Government have the capacity to cement relationships between the parties within Northern Ireland, and so to attenuate the debilitating nationalist-unionist tension (which itself should improve governance by enhancing trust). Similarly, on the all-Ireland national level, north-south co-ordination and joint implementation have the capacity to undermine enemy-images and end what the first minister has referred to as the ‘cold war’ between the two parts of the island.

    Encouraging in this regard, apart from the boycott of the north-south institutions by the DUP, was the businesslike manner in which issues of north-south co-operation were discussed during the first period of devolution. But it is remarkably easy to fall into partitionist thinking and practices. To avoid that, there should be a willingness on the part of the Executive Committee to take the government of the republic into its confidence at an early stage in the drafting of the Programme for Government, so that possible synergies can be explored.

    Thus, for instance, there are major potential synergies between the Department of Environment draft regional strategy, Shaping our Future, published in December 1998, and the National Development Plan produced by the republic’s government almost a year later. There is much scope for economic and labour-market integration, for improving performance and addressing social inclusion–very much in line with the ‘internal’ policy goals earlier suggested. Again, a liberal freedom-of-information régime would be critical for a proper public discussion of these issues. Crucially, the wealth of tacit knowledge accumulated by non-governmental organisations –business, trade-union, and voluntary–should be brought to bear by the establishment of the north-south consultative forum signalled in the Belfast agreement (Wilson, 1999b).

     

  • Exchanges within the UK
  • As this paper has itself demonstrated, Northern Ireland has a great deal to learn through constant contact with Wales and Scotland, as well as Downing Street–not forgetting the evolving English regional structures. The British-Irish Council provides one vehicle for such links, but its formal and episodic character, as well as the diversity of its components, mean it will be no substitute for direct, bilateral links.

    A key challenge for the Executive Committee will be to avoid falling adrift of major policy initiatives emerging elsewhere in the UK. The best response is to ensure the Economic Policy Unit is plugged into all relevant policy networks involving Edinburgh, Cardiff and London. Intelligent use of the internet will be crucial in this regard, as will involvement with bodies with cross-UK reach like the Constitution Unit at University College London.

     

  • Europe and beyond
  • ‘Europe’ has conventionally been seen in Northern Ireland rather like the Westminster subvention–as a milch cow from which funds are, in a dependent manner, sought (Wilson, 1996). Yet successful EU regions are characterised by their capacity to make a positive impact on the European stage, and weaker regions like Northern Ireland have much to learn in this regard. Catalonia, with its unresolved national question, has used ‘para-diplomacy’ to give itself a European presence beyond the impact of Madrid (Loughlin, 1999: 32). Wales has gained much from its relationship with the rich German region Baden-Württemberg in upgrading its economic performance. Such links can be of real value, in benchmarking and innovation, long after structural-fund support for the region is exhausted.

    This does raise questions about the representation of Northern Ireland (and, indeed, the representation of the North-South Ministerial Council) in the EU. The Executive Committee will want to establish an institutional presence in Brussels, which might be based on, incorporate or supersede the Northern Ireland Centre in Europe. Given the vast volume of paper generated by EU institutions, specialist expertise will need to be designated within the Office of the First and Deputy First Minister if ministers are to keep track of developments with a significant Northern Ireland dimension, particularly if they are to hope to influence the emergent UK ‘line’.

    More generally, the EU institutions represent a very complex set of policy networks. As is well known, this is often perceived by European citizens as being opaque and impenetrable. One countervailing tendency in this regard, which the Northern Ireland Executive Committee should emulate, is the daily press conference on the part of the European Commission to enhance the transparency of its work.

     

    12. Conclusion

     

    This paper has sought to ask the key question: why do we need a Programme for Government and what will it achieve? The answer, in short, is that the biggest single danger facing the new administration is co-ordination failure. All the conceptual and concrete indications from elsewhere are that the administration must be as holistic as possible in its operation if it is to achieve its developmental objectives, and that there must be a new relationship between political leaders and the ‘led’ if the required culture of commitment is to be cultivated. This requires the elaboration of a discrete set of policy goals which can act as a lodestar for the administration and which can be widely understood and supported.

    Crucially, the paper stresses the importance of the Economic Policy Unit, broadened into non-economic domains and enlarged accordingly, to provide ‘thinking capacity’ at the heart of government, able to monitor and evaluate how government fulfils its policy goals and to suggest innovations to improve performance. Unless such capacity is insulated from the day-to-day delivery of government, such activity will inevitably be sacrificed to short-term demands. It will be equally critical that the unit have strong links to policy experts across government, to practitioners and non-governmental organisations, and to all-Ireland and intra-UK policy networks.

     

     

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