Reforming Northern Ireland

Many years ago I interviewed the late Frank Dobson, then health secretary for England, about his plans for reforming the NHS. ‘It’s like turning round a giant super-tanker’, he said, using an analogy that applies in practice to pretty well all public service reform.

Tony Blair, in his initial years as Prime Minister, believed he could by-pass the challenges through structural reform. Public servants, at least in one example I’m aware of, could be doing the same job for three different employers in the space of 13 months, simply through structural reforms.

But, as Blair implicitly recognised in his remarks about ‘wearing the scars on his back’ from public sector reform, culture usually trumps structure and instruction. As a former temporary advisor to a member of the Policing Board, I can confidently assert that Jon Boutcher’s most intractable challenge at the PSNI will be organisational culture. Unfortunately, culture can persist over generations, acting like a ghostly presence telling staff to never change the way things are done.

While it is good to be ambitious, it essential to also be realistic. The Bengoa proposals for fundamental reform of the Northern Ireland health service recognised this required a ten year programme. Alas, this proved to be wildly optimistic – political stasis means that seven years on we are barely at the foothills of tackling a giant mountain.

Deciding on the right policy is easier, for most governments, than achieving effective implementation. In the case of Northern Ireland, even agreeing basic policy is often impossible. Some former ministers were barely even civil to colleagues in other parties. Achieving cross-party co-operation on matters requiring cross-departmental joint delivery has been extremely difficult and sometimes impossible.

Secretary of state Chris Heaton-Harris has instructed senior civil servants to launch public consultations on reforms that would address Northern Ireland’s underlying fiscal challenges. The Construction Employers Federation has proposed the mutualisation of both NI Water and the Housing Executive – suggestions which, by coincidence, were ones that I also made in my personal submission.

Another that I made was to harmonise tuition fees in Northern Ireland with those in England. This is not because I want students to pay more – I would like tuition fees to be abolished – but because the current policy has perverse outcomes. It creates grade inflation for admission to Queen’s and Ulster universities, favouring students who attended grammar schools – who tend to be from more affluent families. Students from poorer backgrounds are disadvantaged, potentially leading to them paying higher tuition fees and living costs at university in England.

For our economy, the impact of subsidised tuition fees is a cap on student numbers, so that we simply have too few undergraduates and graduates. This damages our SME sector in particular, as well as negatively influencing our low business start-up rate and inward investment.

But none of these policy reforms, if they happen, will lead to overnight change. Mutualising NI Water would enable it to borrow against its revenues and assets, taking borrowing off the constrained public sector balance sheet. This would assist it in addressing the infrastructure deficit for water supply and sewage that limits development. Similarly, the Housing Executive could begin a major new house building programme, which might even help to attract more economic activity from across the border, where housing costs are a serious problem.

Often, though, policies made today are not so much for the immediate future, but rather for the medium and longer term. Austerity policies initiated by George Osborne from 2010 onwards are today having serious negative effects across the UK in terms of lower growth as a result of skills shortages, not to mention the capacity of the NHS. Brexit impacts will almost certainly be felt for decades.

Ireland’s economic strength today is based on a global outlook, investment in education and skills and a low tax rate on foreign multinationals. It is benefiting today from a key policy framework set out in 1958 and decisions on tax and education taken in the 1980s and 90s.

We have in Northern Ireland at least four types of challenge in developing policy for the better. Politics in a still divided society makes it extremely difficult to agree significant policy change. Even where this is agreed, it almost inevitably requires buy-in from a range of departments and public bodies to be effective – but the silo approach of departments, but most especially of ministers, prevents and undermines joint working.

Then we have embedded organisational culture, which for a person like myself who came here from elsewhere sometimes seems like being from another century. Organisational culture can be changed, but it requires very strong and unified leadership. And then, lastly, we need to recognise that even when the other challenges are overcome, the full impact of reform is likely to be felt only some years on – while the pain may be felt immediately.

None of this is to argue that reform should be abandoned. Rather it is a plea to senior politicians to get on with it.

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