Beyond the first 100 days - and still no Programme for Government

Forum hears that a new PfG needs to be drafted at speed, with clear priorities identified and delivered

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris meeting First Minister Michelle O'Neill, Deputy First Minister Emma Little-Pengelly, and members of the newly-formed Stormont Executive at Stormont Castle, following the restoration of the powersharing executive
More than 100 days on from the restoration of the Executive, there is still no sign of a Programme for Government (Kelvin Boyes/Press Eye/Kelvin Boyes/Press Eye/PA Wire)

While headlines are currently dominated by the general election taking place on July 4, we should not lose sight of how positive it has been over the past few months to see the Stormont Executive and Assembly functioning as they are supposed to.

After the shortest of honeymoon periods, those in government can have been under no illusions that the challenges facing the delivery of public services in Northern Ireland are complex and multifaceted, with no quick fix.

Deloitte’s annual State of the State report, published the same week the devolved institutions were restored, laid out those challenges, with the general public and public sector leaders citing health and social care, education, cost of living, justice, housing and the planning system as immediate priorities.

It is likely we will hear a lot more during the election campaign about how political parties plan to deal with these huge societal challenges, and hopefully some further insight into how new ideas might be implemented locally.

A few weeks ago Deloitte held a follow up State of the State forum with public sector leaders from across the NI Civil Service, its departments, arm’s length bodies, local councils and the emergency services.

The diverse backgrounds and perspectives of the attendees led to informed critical insights on a range of issues, including trust, leadership, collaboration, net zero, digital transformation and the public sector’s approach to risk.

And a key theme that emerged across all topics was the urgent need for a new Programme for Government.

While publication of any such plan may have been put on hold because of the general election, a new PfG needs to be drafted at speed, and clear priorities identified and delivered, with a particular focus on robust plans, milestones, rapid implementation and monitoring.

A PfG is not only critical to communicate the key priorities for the public sector to all stakeholders, but also to drive the changes required in high-impact areas such as net zero, sectoral reform and digital innovation.

The survey of the general public carried out for State of the State this year showed trust in government in Northern Ireland was particularly low, reflecting two years without a functioning Stormont. The leaders we met with believe the process of improving trust starts with a transparent PfG.

The leaders at our forum all stressed the need to be transparent about responsibility and accountability for what is to be delivered, both in a PfG and in general across delivery of services – which may require new accountability arrangements to be drawn up by the NI Audit Office.

We also need to see better communication between the public sector and its internal and external stakeholders - both to rebuild trust in their capability to deliver, but also to inform the general public of what the sector is doing to address their most critical priorities – cost-of-living challenges, health waiting lists and access to essential public services.

At our event, public sector leaders also said communicating progress would be improved by better collaboration between organisations. Our attendees felt that public sector leaders could act as a supportive collective to provide advice and assistance to government. This would best be facilitated by formal engagement between ministers, senior civil servants and representatives of public sector leaders.

Siloed working in current arrangements was also flagged as an issue, and it was recognised that subject matter expertise and lessons learned previously should be used to inform future decision-making, programme delivery and improved ways of collaborative working.

A dedicated multi-year fund for major transformation programmes could be a potential driver for collaboration, with allocations for specific initiatives and transparent accountability arrangements to support building trust in the process, they said.

Programme for Government
Marie Doyle, partner at Deloitte

Whether this could be achieved amid current budgetary constraints remains to be seen, but across all of our discussions, there was belief that improved collaboration and cooperation between departments, arm’s-length bodies, local authorities and the teams within them can be a critical driver for change and innovation.

A key point for all the parties currently getting into full election mode is that this change will require more than just money to deliver, it will require capacity and capability too.

It’s imperative that public sector leaders work together with our political leaders to create a more cohesive, efficient, and effective public sector that serves the needs of all citizens in Northern Ireland.

  • Marie Doyle is a partner at Deloitte