Making a Statement: In praise of local government in Northern Ireland

December 12, 2019

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by Lauren Pennycook, Senior Policy and Development Officer, Carnegie UK Trust

In difficult economic times, doing more with less is necessary. No-one across the UK knows this more keenly than local government. But as abstract percentages on policy papers translate into real life cuts to libraries, neighbourhood services, and road maintenance, how do local authorities have an open and honest conversation with their ratepayers? How do they identify what is most important to the wellbeing of their citizens, and report accurately and effectively on what they are doing to protect, preserve and progress the health of their communities? This requires new skill sets and new mind sets like never before. It requires a new conversation for new times.

In Northern Ireland, this new economic reality is compounded by a new governance reality. To transform local government in 2015 meant to streamline 26 local authorities down to 11; to bestow new powers and responsibilities; and to mandate new ways of working. But could a potentially perfect storm, in fact, be the beginning of a new relationship between local authority and local resident? Could it be the beginning of a change in what councils communicate with citizens, and how?

Community Planning is among the portfolio of new powers for local government in Northern Ireland – the duty on local government and its partners to develop a shared plan for promoting the wellbeing of the respective local government areas, improving community cohesion, and improving quality of life for all citizens. Since the introduction of the new responsibilities, citizens in the 11 local authorities areas have been engaged, priority outcomes for the communities have been agreed, and Community Plans have been launched. The strategic direction for the communities has now been set for as far into the future as 2030 or 2035.

November 2019 marks a milestone in Community Planning in Northern Ireland. The Community Planning Partnerships have a duty to publish a Statement of Progress towards the outcomes and actions of their Community Plans for the first time, as part of a two year reporting cycle. While other parts of the UK have been reporting on progress – from the national in Scotland, to the local in Wales – for some time, the Statements of Progress in Northern Ireland are about more than fulfilling a statutory obligation. They are local government’s effort to report on progress, challenges and all, to citizens in an accessible way; to reflect on work undertaken; and to refocus for the future. For the first time, we’re seeing full reports, as colourful as they are comprehensive; summaries in a seven page infographic style; and video clips by outcome, for those mostly interested in social wellbeing, or our environment or economy. We’re seeing plans to display progress on digital displays across cities; on buses; at railway stations – indoor, outdoor, and through your door. Plans to pop up on your social media, your trip the cinema, and visit to your local leisure centre.

Plans all the more impressive for the difficult economic climate, in which policymakers have to stop doing what they know works; say no; and shrink budgets. Dedicating time and resource to making your successes, and challenges, clear to those you serve, in their own spaces and places, and using it as an opportunity to inform future plans is to be commended. While working in new ways, with new people, with new powers has undoubtedly resulted in challenges with measuring contribution, or even attribution, the spirit in which local government has turned challenge into opportunity is to be applauded.

Through its Embedding Wellbeing in Northern Ireland project, the Carnegie UK Trust is working with three Community Planning Partnerships – Armagh, Banbridge and Craigavon; Derry and Strabane; and Lisburn and Castlereagh – to support co-production and shared leadership as ways of working to improve local wellbeing outcomes. The first Statements of Progress are an important part of this changing of skill sets and mind sets. In what can seem like quite a counter-intuitive process – taking responsibility while also sharing the workload; taking ownership while also letting go; and committing to working to improve the Community Plan outcomes internally, while also engaging externally, these are ways of working which require clear, accessible and engaging resources to coalesce around and spark further conversation and commitment.

So, at a glance honesty of successes, as well as challenges, on your screen, in your newspaper or while you’re scrolling, goes beyond a reporting mechanism to the Department for Communities in November 2019. It is more enduring and for many more audiences. It is more about how we work, with whom and why, so that policymakers can engage more with communities about what they need, when, and why, to improve their wellbeing.