Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 2 August 2014

Editor's Viewpoint: Watchdogs must also face scrutiny

At a time when public services are under threat as never before, it is evident that Northern Ireland's governance systems should be subjected to intense scrutiny.

It is a province of 1.7 million people with an apparatus of state that would do a much larger and more sophisticated nation proud. Of course there are sound historical and political reasons for much of the system of Assembly, Executive, local authorities, quangoes, arms-length agencies and scrutiny bodies, but it is difficult to entirely refute the charge of over-governance, even given recent reforms in education and health, and the proposed reduction in the number of councils.

Now the NI Ombudsman raises a very valid question - is our system of scrutiny too unwieldy? Essentially, he is questioning whether we need all the watchdogs that are in place.

It can be argued that the lack of effective opposition to the power-sharing Executive means that an alternative system of oversight is required. And in a province of historic mutual suspicions between the communities, ombudsmen and oversight commissioners are seen as necessary.

It is undeniable that some oversight bodies are vital. But perhaps we have gone too far, to the stage where public bodies are transfixed in the glare of the watchdogs, almost rendered impotent for fear of running foul of those charged with scrutinising their performance. It is, as the Ombudsman says, all a matter of balance.

He has raised an important issue and one which should be debated, not from the point of self-interest of the bodies concerned, but as to whether the watchdogs themselves give value for money or if their roles produce unnecessary overlap. Even scrutiny bodies cannot expect to escape the glare of examination in these straitened times and the sooner the spotlight is turned on them without prejudice, the better.

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