Why good government may spell doom for sacred cows
The draft of the next Programme for Government (PfG) is now overdue. Adding together the suggestions from the recent wide ranging consultation to make an effective PfG is no easy challenge. More bluntly, it could bring together a bundle of contradictions.
Seeking a golden thread calls for a set of priorities around the most important objectives. Too often, partly to live with political pressures (often overstated), Government Ministers have been influenced by expediency or sectional interests. Single issue decisions do not usually set good precedents.
The logical conclusion is that a rigorous approach should identify the critical priorities and then give those priorities adequate resources and, in parallel, unproductive or misplaced ideas should be avoided.
In a metaphor that makes the point, some sacred cows may need to be slaughtered.
The authors of the next PfG should take particular interest in the persuasive logic of the submission by Catalyst Inc (formerly known as the Northern Ireland Science Park). It draws attention to an important flaw in the draft framework for the PFG.
The framework does not set out "an overall Vision for Northern Ireland, out of which [the proposed outcomes] should fall.
"The Executive need to set out a compelling and ambitious vision (or purpose) that we can all aspire to with three to five focused national priorities, which… should relate to growing a creative, innovative and inclusive economy, creating jobs and generating wealth."
Not too subtly, this draws attention to the weakness of a framework based on 14 overlapping, uncontroversial 'motherhood and apple pie' themes. Active equal pursuit of all 14 themes is neither sensible nor practical. To make a real difference, priorities are needed.
In a review of all aspects of official policy relating to social, environmental and economic policy, it could be agreed that not everything in the inherited policies is well chosen and equally important.
Ideas for improved policies are an easy challenge.
For too long, policy and ambitions have been widely spread, often ineffectively, and sometimes actually perpetuating failures.
The logic of the Catalyst Inc proposal is that extra efforts and resources should be delivered in a joined-up operational approach to build a growing, creative and innovative economy generating added wealth which, in turn, will need more people in jobs which reflect improved productivity.
Needless to add, coming from Catalyst Inc, this is exactly what that organisation is competent to deliver.
However, by implication, several other agencies also have critical roles to play.
The submission by Catalyst Inc is optimistic and persuasive. Clients of Catalyst Inc are linked to one third of total exports from Northern Ireland and a fifth of external sales, which demonstrates their disproportionate contribution to the local economy and, less directly, to the emerging success of a knowledge-based approach to private sector business development.
In a crude comparison with developments in the Republic of Ireland, Catalyst Inc quotes the success of Irish SMEs participating in the European Horizon 2020 programmes. More than 150 firms have attracted over €125m (£108m) in grants. This, as the authors say, implies that Northern Ireland has work to do.
In the next PfG, the challenge is to focus on a reduced number of priorities for the economy, alongside parallel services on social policy.
The unstated and difficult part is the identification of ways in which extra resources can be released from elsewhere in the public sector. This challenge is increasing.
Is Northern Ireland ready to transfer resources from either an over-provided school infrastructure or an over-subsidised water service or a costly public sector housing system in order to reduce current deficiencies?
Will the new PfG relaunch and target better higher education and skills plans, give a new focus to enterprise development (including the several science park type agencies), and carefully phase in an overdue modern infrastructure investment programme?
There are potential gains to be seized - and awkward reallocations to accept.