John Simpson: An imperfect alternative to good government policies
The Northern Ireland Executive Office has published a 93-page review of the actions that will be taken to improve the wellbeing of everyone by "tackling disadvantage and driving economic growth" in the current financial year, 2018-19. This Outcomes Framework itemises evidence on 12 groups of topics.
The omnibus list of desirable outcomes was originally approved for the Programme for Government before the Executive collapsed nearly 17 months ago.
The review fails to offer a considered critique with proposals for better policies. The absence of an adequate critique is the result of setting an agenda to balance useful evidence alongside a neutral statement of no change, or even refinements, to the policies inherited from the former Executive.
Nevertheless, the Outcomes Delivery Plan is a helpful statement summarising what the ministerially deprived public servants are doing. However, it falls a long way short of a thoughtful creative reflection which would serve as a sufficiently accountable report on which to build further public debate.
Since the Outcomes Delivery Plan simply restates the very generic wording of the outcomes accepted by the outgoing Executive, it starts from an uncontroversial series of statements. The report does not challenge the search for outcomes such as:
1 We prosper through a strong competitive regionally balanced economy, or
3 We have a more equal society, or
4 We enjoy long, healthy, active lives, or
6 We have more people working in better jobs, etc
Starting from the 12 differing generic outcome ambitions, the plan sets out to show how well Northern Ireland is doing against each of them using statistical evidence on well-chosen performance indicators.
Although the plan does not make an overall assessment, the conclusion might well be "not doing very well, too many adverse differences, progress very slow".
One consequence of the focus on the selected 'outcomes' is the absence of a series of tests asking whether the achieved outcomes (or the failure to achieve targeted outcomes) represents good use of resources or, in an alternative setting, is value for money.
Critical to the evolution of public policies, and the competition between public policies, are the judgments on how to sustain the current level of public sector spending and ways in which that spending might be altered, usually looking for increases.
Readers of the Outcomes Delivery Plan will not find answers to questions on the size and allocation of the public expenditure budget, the merits of major capital projects or services where public sector budgets are inadequate.
One interesting idea that is absent from the plan: it is silent on any suggestion on progress towards implementing a local corporation tax rate.
Simply as a tentative reflection on the plan, the evidence on the changes in the local economy, as part of number six outcome, illustrates the challenges and the weakness.
In answer to the question "do we have more people in better jobs?" the evidence offered is weak.
In the last 10 years, the scale of economic inactivity is slightly lower, the employment rate for adults is almost unchanged, skills levels in the workforce are not much improved, the jobs gained by local graduates have improved slightly and the numbers of people working part-time and looking for more hours has reduced after an increase from 2008 to 2013.
This evidence fails to be convincing because the plan critically lacks comparative information.
If Northern Ireland is making slow progress towards better jobs, how does that compare with an acceptable UK and/or Irish comparator?
We know that the local economy is lagging both the overall UK and the Irish improvements.
The plan neither measures these differences nor offers any comment.
The Northern Ireland public services have now become much more statistically competent.
In future, documents such as this Plan should offer better comparative evidence.