New Decade, New Approach: New opportunities

March 31, 2020

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

The Northern Ireland Executive is back. After three years; over 160 pieces of legislation in limbo; accountability mechanisms stress tested; and central government policy innovation paused, the Northern Ireland Executive and Assembly have returned. But it cannot be business as usual. In the last three years, the political landscape in Northern Ireland has transformed – new powers have been conferred; new structures have been formed; and new sectors have stepped up in an attempt to, in part, fill the political and policy vacuum. It cannot be a return to 2017 in terms of what the Executive does, and how it does it.

This is not to detract from the progress the Executive was making just before it collapsed. The commitment to put wellbeing at the centre of public services and to, for the first time, work to outcomes – to nuance over numbers of inputs or outputs, to contribution of the Executive alongside that of a number of other sectors and stakeholders – set the Executive on a trajectory to designing public services which were strategic and citizen-centred.

It is just to reflect that things have moved on – in Northern Ireland, across the UK, and internationally – and that we should learn from the last three years, and from those who have soared, and those who have struggled, during the political silence from the centre.

So as inboxes begin to fill up, strategies are set, and the Executive considers how it wishes to govern once again, the Carnegie UK Trust has published a new infographic on its priorities for the newly formed government – to extend, embed, and amend.

Firstly, to safeguard the approach to improve societal outcomes from further political impasse or even just routine electoral cycles, the Executive should now put the outcomes based approach on statutory footing. This step would utilise learning from experience both internally and externally – from that of local government and its partners in Northern Ireland in improving local wellbeing outcomes through Community Planning, and that of Scotland in using legislation to protect the approach from party politics.

Legislation should also be used to encourage culture change – a change to skill sets and mind sets – which requires agencies and tiers of government to work together to maximise the impact and effectiveness of new and existing legislation. A new Duty to Co-operate, as seen in Scotland, would put in place mechanisms to facilitate partnership working, both horizontally and vertically, across public services to ensure that citizens are receiving services which are connected, coherent and consistent.

But legislation alone cannot deliver hearts, minds and behaviour change. Political leadership, to personally endorse, demonstrate, and mandate as a way of working for their Departments and arms-length bodies under their strategic direction, the commitment to improve wellbeing outcomes in the Programme for Government, should be the collective responsibility of all Ministers in the new Executive.

Great strides to improve our understanding of the tensions between our present needs and those of future generations have been made across the UK and internationally in the past three years. The Executive should seek to align the outcomes in the Programme for Government with the Sustainable Development Goals which set the international agenda on improving societal wellbeing, and reducing inequality, poverty, climate change and environmental degradation by 2030. Closer to home, it should also learn from its near neighbours in Wales and the UK as they seek to balance present opportunity, prevention, inclusivity in the Wellbeing of Future Generations (Wales) Act 2015 and the UK Wellbeing of Future Generations Bill 2019 currently making its way through the House of Lords and House of Commons.

But the Executive should also look internally – to its local government colleagues, partners, and until now, unusual friends. November 2019 marked a milestone of Community Planning Partnerships publishing their Statements of Progress towards the outcomes and actions of their Community Plans for the first time, as part of a two year reporting cycle. And the range of methods of communicating their progress – successes, stalls, shortfalls and all – we saw some undertake was impressive. Through sponsorship on social media; progress laid out at the leisure centre; or while boarding the bus, we saw Partnerships take the message to citizens in their own places and spaces. The Executive should learn from this experience to ensure that citizens are equally engaged about progress on improving wellbeing from central government.

Finally, the rhetoric of co-design and citizen engagement in the New Decade, New Approach agreement is welcome, and it is time to move this to reality. The appropriate use of deliberative and participatory methods of citizen engagement puts people at the heart of decisions that impact their lives, and the Executive should seek to learn from the process and outcomes of the recent Citizens Assemblies in Northern Ireland, Ireland and Scotland. And this opportunity to forge new relationships should extend to the community and voluntary sector. Moving away from the traditional contractual, parent-child relationship between government and third sector, the community and voluntary sector should be more involved in the co-design, ownership, and management of public services.

We acknowledge that all of this marks a long-term shift of culture, of hearts, minds and skills, in public service delivery, beyond the timescale of one Programme for Government. But it is about commitment rather than content – a commitment to improve outcomes; to work together effectively; to learn from and align with good practice; and to engage others sectors and citizens who have a stake in the design and delivery of public services. A commitment to do with, not to.

And while this may seem daunting, even secondary to the day-to-day, the Executive is not alone in considering how it may make some of these legislative, structural and cultural changes. Other tiers of government; other sectors; other jurisdictions; and other independent organisations such as the Carnegie UK Trust can provide experience, insight, and learning on how it has been done elsewhere. And we stand ready to support.