Belfast Telegraph

Review must call time on a bloated mode of governing

By John Simpson

One of the priorities for the NI Executive after the election was to agree and publish a Programme for Government (PfG) for the next four years. It has not yet been published.

The policies and financial allocations for the next PfG are demanding. No attempt to blame the world economic crisis, the USA, the eurozone debt problems, or even the UK budget would be an excuse for an unprofessional PfG.

The Executive annual budget is set. Any appeal to the Treasury for a more generous settlement would get a frosty reception. The PfG must plan to get the maximum benefit from reduced spending. Sammy Wilson knows that the Executive must do more than simply say to each of the other ministers 'do your best'. External independent pressure must be applied to departments to deliver 'more from less'.

Mr Wilson established the PEDU (public expenditure delivery unit) to push departments for radical efficiency improvements.

The Executive should now initiate a review along the same lines as was undertaken by McCarthy for the Irish Government or Christie for the Scottish Parliament.

The size and effectiveness of the public sector, and particularly the central civil service, has been minimally affected so far. The new PfG should use an independent review to scrutinise the organisational structure and staffing in departments. A weak PfG would repeat the past process that asked department heads to police themselves.

The PfG must seek reductions in staffing, the ending of marginal services, organisational rationalisation, reduced overlap between the civil service and delegated non-departmental bodies and abolish unnecessary quangos.

The PfG is, marginally, a negative financial game, which must also allow for the changes when (if) corporation tax is varied.

In terms of service delivery, there can be a positive gain.

What can the PfG do for the economy?

First, the PfG needs to retain the ambition for economic progress as a priority. This should become more explicit and focused than the inherited policies.

Second, the PfG is the moment to plan to streamline the structure of the administration. Plans to reduce the number of departments can be initiated. Plans for the Reform of Public Administration (including local government) should be relaunched.

Third, the PfG must make room for the approval by the Treasury and Parliament of the new corporation tax regime. At the earliest, those changes will affect the Executive budget in 2013-14; three years into the present planning period.

Fourth, the Executive must incorporate the acceptable ideas from the awaited review of economic strategy as well as finalising the content and cost of adding an Enterprise Development Zone to the concepts to incentivise private sector investment.

Fifth, the PfG must restate the Executive budget, as amended by corporation tax adjustments, removing any doubt about the apparent gaps in health and social services, and employment and learning.

Lastly, the PfG is an opportunity to reconsider the balance of funding and external mechanisms for capital spending. Drafting the PfG will be difficult but it will be critically relevant to the local economy and the reform of public services.


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