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Why the draft Programme for Government falls far short

By John Simpson

Published 15/11/2016

The PfG fails to identify priorities and action
The PfG fails to identify priorities and action

The Executive has moved one step closer to deciding on the next Programme for Government (PfG). A 175-page synopsis lists ideas which would challenge every Government department or agency to do more to contribute to the wellbeing of everyone in Northern Ireland.

The wide-ranging review is informative, but the unresolved problem is that it does not identify where the policy priorities and official action for the next four years should lie.

How will the PfG tackle the need for improved competitiveness, enhanced skills and securing 40,000 extra jobs?

The Executive has grasped a new (to Northern Ireland) conceptual framework from which to make decisions affecting economic, social and environmental policy. The draft Programme is built on such an extensive wide-ranging agenda that it will create expectations where many will be disappointed.

In part the Executive deserves congratulations. Instead of expecting to launch a PfG based on a series of often unlinked policy proposals, as after the last Assembly election just over five years ago, the Executive has asked officials to prepare ideas on how to deliver a better lifestyle emerging from 14 different generic outcome statements.

The 14 outcomes are thoughtfully designed and NOT aligned with the silo mentality of existing government departments.

We are asked to consider how we can prosper through differing perspectives such as seeking a strong, competitive, regionally balanced economy, on living and working sustainably, on a more equal society, on more people working in better jobs, on ensuring high quality public services and creating a place where people want to live and work, and to visit and invest (to name just six of the 14 outcomes).

Each of the 14 outcome chapters can be read independently of the others and, helpfully, has a named senior official to whom consultative comments may be addressed.

The inadequacy of the newly published draft PfG emerges when the reader asks 'what next?' Since the Executive has, and will have, a limited capital and resource budget, does this presentation help identify where priorities should lie? Which target outcomes merit what ranking in the priorities? Faced with many statements of aspiration, how will selected priorities be translated into operational plans?

In preparing this latest draft, the Executive is using the results of a consultation that has been running for the last three months. Respondents were asked about the merits of the proposed outcomes. The new draft, for each of the proposed outcomes, reports that, singly, each attracted big support to be included: usually from about 80% of consultees examining that outcome. Of course, no surprise, this offers no comparative basis on which to say which outcomes attracted most (or least) support.

A second major flaw in the policy reviews is that, while there is useful statistical evidence, there is no effort to link the proposals to the comparative outcomes (or policies) of other regions. We are not advised on which outcomes Northern Ireland is leading or lagging behind other regions or comparator areas.

There is unfinished business in preparing a targeted PfG. The 175 pages in the draft read as useful insight into the headlines of a wide ranging public services agenda. However, they are synoptic and self-congratulatory.

Simply as an example, the proposals to build a stronger, competitive, regionally balanced economy fall into three action areas: (i) to create an environment to promote and enable innovation, (ii) to support business growth locally and globally and (iii) to promote regional balance [within Northern Ireland].

The detail within these action areas confirms the significance of effective policies, inter alia, for university development, skills enhancement, attracting foreign direct investment, incentivising higher levels of exports of goods and services and working with local councils to address regional imbalance.

Ideas on how to integrate these policies more effectively need to be signposted for the final version of the PfG.

Belfast Telegraph

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