Programe for Government needs a large dose of reality

Posted By: November 05, 2016

Patrick Murphy. Irish News (Belfast). Saturday, November 5, 2016

Stormont is good for you. That’s the key message in the latest (and almost unnoticed) Program for Government (PfG), which is now open for consultation.

So forget low-fat diets, fruit and lots of fiber. Just swallow the PfG, Stormont’s new wonder-drug and you’ll be fine – although it might be best taken not with a glass of water, but with a pinch of salt.

The programe went out to consultation in May and our government (which the PfG claims is “a force for good”) learned that people were most concerned about jobs, education, and health. Armed with that surprising discovery, the programe is going to consultation again, this time for “engagement and comments”.

You might suggest that six months after the election, there is still no plan for governing. That shows how ill-informed you are because this program is “generational”, which means (I think) that it will take one or more generations to implement.

If a generation is about 30 years, many of us will not live to witness its beneficial effects, but we will die happily knowing “the sense of ambition the executive has for our society”.

Sadly, its ambition is not matched by a sense of responsibility. Named civil servants will be “personally responsible” for delivering the plan and the new head of the civil service will be the program’s Senior Responsible Owner.

When politics fails, blame the bureaucracy, especially one where you have just made 3,000 people redundant, leading to what the Audit Office has identified as a loss of key skills in some areas.

The PfG has three weaknesses, some more serious than others. The first is its belief that it is somehow revolutionary to present the programme in terms of outcomes (for example, details of improved health services) rather than inputs (merely stating how much money will be spent on health).

The executive does not appear to realize that schools already base their plans on pupil outcomes and every public sector body here uses a similar system. Private sector firms would not survive without customer-based outcomes.

So Stormont is just catching up with the rest of us. With the zeal of the convert, it gives outcomes-based planning an almost cult status, praising the work of Mark Friedman, an American guru on the subject. It even states how impressed Mr Friedman is with Stormont’s approach.

Mr. Friedman’s ideas are fine, but they rely on the ability of an organization to deliver and that is where the PfG’s second weakness comes in. The executive’s ability to deliver is severely limited, both through its own decisions and outside influences.

For example, one of its fourteen planned outcomes is to give our children the best start in life. The executive is now planning to re-introduce the 11-plus in all but name. Is that the best start in life?

Another planned outcome is a more equal society, which is unlikely to be achieved through academic selection, nor through the DUP’s promise to block the assembly’s democratic vote on gay marriage. The executive has already pledged not to achieve two of its 14 planned outcomes.

The third weakness lies in the measures to test the success of some outcomes. One measure for a more equal society, for example, is to compare employment levels by local council areas. But council areas here have been gerrymandered to achieve a sectarian carve-up.

For example, my local government area extends from Crossmaglen to beyond Saintfield, 10 miles from Belfast. The overall unemployment rate for that area would not reveal employment variations within it.

In any case, employment is not an indicator of well-being since, in the UK as a whole, two-thirds of children in poverty live in working families.

One of the program’s indicators for measuring the achievement of a confident, welcoming and outward-looking society is “self-efficacy”. No, I do not know what that means either, but the good news is that “Data in relation to this measure are not currently collected.” (God help the poor civil servant charged with delivering that one.)

A final problem for the PfG is, of course, Brexit and that one is not the fault of the executive – although it would be helpful if its two parties could reach an agreed position on the issue.

So Stormont’s Programme for Government needs a bit more publicity, a bit fewer self-congratulations, a greater degree of realism and an honesty which reflects uncertain times ahead.

All we need now is an American guru to preach that message, so that if it goes wrong, we can blame him – whether we are in this world or the next one.