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Is there anything new in the New Decade, New Approach deal?

Lisa Wilson


The New Decade, New Approach deal restored our devolved government

The New Decade, New Approach deal restored our devolved government


The New Decade, New Approach deal restored our devolved government

The start of this year saw the New Decade, New Approach deal agreed to restore devolved government in Northern Ireland.

On first glance, the document appears to be an agreement and a Programme for Government (PfG) at the same time, complete with deadlines for various legislation and specific commitments to action for others.

The style in which the commitments to action are written are akin to the form which we would have seen in PfG drawn up by the Executive of the past. In this sense, there are examples of commitments to specific actions, such as the commitment from the Executive to deliver an extra 900 nursing and midwifery undergraduate places over three years.

In other cases, the commitments are vague and broadly conceptual. This in itself is not altogether too concerning given that the document places a further obligation on the parties who form the Executive to come up with a more detailed PfG within two weeks of the restoration of the Assembly.

There is also a further obligation to publish a new strategic level outcomes-based PfG aligned to a multi-year budget by April of this year.

At the time of writing this column the Executive still has not published their more detailed PfG and so it is in expected anticipation that the following comments are made. Indeed, in the absence of the new PfG, the New Decade, New Approach deal text gives us a good indication as to what we might expect.

Specifically, the New Decade, New Approach text stipulates that the new PfG will set a shared and ambitious strategic vision for the future of Northern Ireland with "the aim of improving wellbeing for all - by tackling disadvantage and driving economic growth on the basis of objective need".

This is the exact vision which was set out in the 2016 draft PfG. Moreover, the new PfG will measure its success at achieving this overarching strategic goal using what is termed an 'outcomes-based approach to policy making'.

Again, the same approach as outlined in 2016. Simply put, an outcomes-based approach to policy making is one that utilises an agreed set of outcomes and indicators for policy to focus on in its ambition to improve people's lives - or people's wellbeing, in this case.

This approach is in contrast to the more traditional style of governance in Northern Ireland which tended to focus on inputs and outputs rather than outcomes.

This outcomes-based approach has merit in that it shifts policy focus away from merely hitting targets and tries to get policy makers to think about how it can improve people's wellbeing through meaningful action.

In the 2016 draft PfG 12 outcomes were identified for government to focus on.

Again, the New Decade, New Approach document makes clear that the parties support these same outcomes and so we should not expect these to change too drastically in the new PfG.

The 12 outcomes include aims such as "living longer and healthier lives" or "having good jobs".

Each of the outcomes are of merit, uncontroversial and agreeable and so it is no surprise that the parties continue to agree with them in principle.

A positive addition in terms of outcomes is that housing need will also be included as an outcome in a new PfG, which was notably excluded from the draft back in 2016.

So then, if, the objectives of the government have not changed and the framework to achieve these objectives in any new PfG has not changed one is left to wonder have the Executive taken on board any of the criticisms made of the 2016 draft PfG?

Back in 2016 the Executive ran a 12-week consultation on an almost analogous PfG. Back then the Executive obtained widespread support for the broad framework and stated outcomes. The draft programme however also received harsh criticism on the detail - or lack thereof - and any policy analyst will tell you; the devil is in the detail.

Specifically, one key criticism made of the 2016 draft PfG was that there was no detail given as to how efforts to achieve improvements in outcomes would be funded or linked to budgets. It is thus somewhat encouraging to see that the Executive has committed to having the new PfG underpinned by a multi-year budget, but it remains to be seen as to whether the stakeholders are going to get an opportunity to debate this level of detail.

However, it will be a missed opportunity if the planned period of stakeholder engagement simply involved stakeholders regurgitating the same comments on the same set of outcomes that were made in 2016. If the Executive is really serious about policy co-design, stakeholders need to be let comment on the meat, rather than again be left to chew the fat.

Lisa Wilson is an economist at NERI

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