“No politician in their right senses would have produced a government with 12 departments, as was done here”, said the then First Minister of Northern Ireland, Peter Robinson, announcing last year the detail of the restructuring of government departments. “It was done for entirely political reasons; it was done to have the maximum number of people in the Executive so that there would be a share-out to parties that were smaller than the main parties.”
That period of over-government is now ending. As of May, after the Assembly elections, the number of departments is to be cut from the current 12 to nine. The move has been justified on the basis of cost savings. But it also reflects changes in the way government in Northern Ireland is moving – the DUP and Sinn Fein are working more closely together, with the role of the smaller parties becoming less relevant.
The actual savings from this reform may be fairly small. There will be fewer ministers, permanent secretaries, special advisors and press officers. But that is some distance from achieving a significant reduction in the cost of government. Alan Bermingham, CIPFA’s policy and technical manager for Northern Ireland, believes savings may be limited to senior management level. “Lower down I can’t see it,” he says. “There is not much room for extra savings just from merging departments.” In part, he argues, this is because so much back office reorganisation and integration has already taken place across departmental boundaries.
However, Bermingham hopes that reorganisation will lead to more strategic governance, addressing criticisms of silo departments that fail to co-operate on policy. “Ideally it would make them focus more on the policy side, not interfering so much on delivery, and strengthen arm’s length bodies or local government as delivery vehicles,” says Berminham. “Departments do intervene too much in delivery.”
Nigel Smyth, director of the CBI in Northern Ireland, also hopes the changes will lead to a more strategically focused government – in particular in relation to business. “We have been supportive for many years of merging the Department for Employment and Learning with the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment into a single Department for the Economy,” he says.
“And we support a Department for Infrastructure also, which should create more focus on the need to invest in infrastructure, because people here don’t believe in investing into infrastructure. We need to see more [public sector] asset sales as well, on the back of that. There is progress with road infrastructure, but we also need investment in water and sewage infrastructure, particularly in Greater Belfast. That could put a limit on development if this is not sorted out. We need a more strategic approach to infrastructure.”
It is perhaps inevitable that governance in Northern Ireland has not reached its optimum when there is general agreement that the departmental structure was a ‘political fix’ to enable the right number of party representatives to sit round the Executive table. “One of the issues has been the public administration system has reflected the political jigsaw after power sharing,” explains Colin Knox, professor of comparative public policy at Ulster University. “It reflected the political realities, rather than creating a public administration system that addresses the needs of the public. It is not delivering terribly well in terms of the peace dividend.”
But Professor Knox is not convinced that the latest reorganisation will achieve the intended results. “Just to mirror political agreement and hope that will somehow deliver better public services is fantasy land,” he says. “We need to ask what structures we need. We are starting at the wrong end.” He argues that reorganising departments should be a means to an end, not the end itself. “That end should be improving public service. The Executive has been thinking horizontally rather than vertically. If you ask them to think across boundaries, they have difficulty.”
Despite that, Knox believes there are positive signs. “Civil servants will tell you that the next Programme for Government will be outcomes based,” he says. “Those outcomes will be transparent. That should raise the quality of outcomes.”
However, this is not Northern Ireland’s first public sector reorganisation – and the most recent experience does not inspire confidence. The Review of Public Administration began in 2002 and led to a restructuring of councils 13 years later. Not only did it take years, it also involved lots of party political arguments and achieved much less than intended. One desire had been to transfer service delivery functions from government departments to local councils, but “it actually created more non-departmental public bodies,” points out Knox.
Alan Bermingham is also frustrated. Last year’s merger of councils has not yet led to the rationalisation of council offices, he points out. He predicts it will take two years before actual savings are achieved through the reform of councils. “There is inertia in the public sector [in Northern Ireland],” he argues. And that inertia is inherent in the culture of Northern Ireland, rather than its structure, he suggests. Specifically he points to the Department of Social Development, in charge of social housing and regeneration, as being unwilling to give up control for the delivery of either of these responsibilities.
“My view would be there is more of a club here [between permanent secretaries],” asserts Bermingham. “It seems to me that even if they do wrong they are moved sideways into a different area, rather than being exposed. So they are protected. There is a bit of an old guard clique at the top level. I don’t think the departmental mergers will change that. A couple of guys eligible to go in the next couple of years will go, but that will not transform things.”
In Whitehall, too, there is discussion about making savings by merging departments and so cutting overheads. But there may be little to learn from Northern Ireland’s experience either at Whitehall or the other devolved nations. “It is not the same in Wales and Scotland,” says Bermingham. The current structure of government in Northern Ireland was a political solution to a particular political problem.
There is no question that Northern Ireland’s public sector requires significant reform – in health, schooling and social housing Northern Ireland spends heavily and fails to achieve commensurate outcomes. But changing the structure of government may do little to tackle that. It will though, reduce the size of the Executive. And that, in itself, just might improve Northern Ireland’s political stability. Whether it does will only become clear some time after the Assembly elections on 5th May.
12 goes into 9
Twelve Northern Ireland departments become nine from May this year. The Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister, OFMDFM, becomes The Executive Office. The Department of Enterprise, Trade and Industry swallows most of the Department for Employment and Learning to become the Department for the Economy. Social Development merges with Culture, Arts and Leisure and part of Environment to become the Department for Communities. The Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs is formed from the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development plus parts of Environment. The Department for Regional Development is reborn as the Department for Infrastructure. The Finance, Health, Education and Justice departments have only minor changes.