Northern Ireland: rising to the challenge

30 Sep 13

Public services in Northern Ireland are not subject to the burning platform of fiscal meltdown currently being experienced by English local government. But leaders in the province are taking this as an opportunity rather than a reason for inaction

At CIPFA's Northern Ireland conference in Belfast last week many strengths were on display - talented people, a sense of common purpose and a desire to change. But doing so won’t be easy.

New Finance Minister Simon Hamilton, set out ambitious plans for the province – an asset management strategy to make better use of its £36bn of public assets and developing the role of voluntary and community sectors in providing public services – but, above all, he stressed the need for radical change in the mind-set of public service leaders to drive reform and ensure effective implementation of such plans.

As well as the functions of central government, the UK’s devolved administrations carry out many roles borne elsewhere by local government, such as housing, social care and education. Agreed legislative changes will see regeneration and planning devolved to a local government that has more freedom to manoeuvre than counterparts elsewhere in the union.

Belfast City Council, for example, is 75% self-funded from domestic and business rates whilst other great metropolitan areas across the water are on average only 17.6% funded from the council tax base, or 12% in inner-London boroughs. Meanwhile, capital funding in Northern Ireland for public services has been reduced, but there is scope to explore new investment sources and vehicles.

In relative terms, the flat cash limit on revenue for Belfast means relative protection compared to most mainland counterparts. But public sector leaders there are keen to take this as an opportunity rather than a reason for inaction. There is waste, duplication and old practice that if tackled well could see rising investment in social priorities and economic growth.

While many are eager to see public investment lead the way on recovery, there remain concerns that welfare reform incentives to encourage people away from dependency and into employment will not work in areas where there just aren’t any jobs; and where deprivation may fuel lawlessness and disturbance.

But government-led public service reforms to encourage efficiency and investment may take time to deliver. For example, the stalled merger of five education boards into a single executive and the streamlining of 26 local authorities into 11 are seen as missed opportunities to build more effective procurement and shared services.

With direct rule ending less than a generation ago, in all fairness, representative democracy has had precious little time to move from a deeply local, operational and traditional service model to making all the big strategic calls on service reform that are now so necessary.

Of course, one of the privileges of working in the public sector is to witness representative democracy bringing some common sense to bear on the grand schemes of officials and business leaders, which in truth may not quite work for all their stakeholders. But mature systems also need leadership for the medium term. Take me as a Londoner for instance: my global city will continue to have far fewer new routes to China than Frankfurt until the nettle of Heathrow is grasped in the wider UK's economic interest.

The prize of using resources more effectively to drive better services and outcomes often also drives wider reform to governance and culture in public bodies. So whilst Northern Ireland is not subject to the burning platform of fiscal meltdown currently being experienced by English local government or adult social care, the present opportunity to find clearer accountabilities, public service reforms and improved efficiency equally creates a platform for capacity development within the finance profession and the opportunity to put itself at the heart of an exciting agenda for change.

In the spirit of public service skills exchange, on the one hand we can see Northern Ireland adopting efficiency techniques used elsewhere in the UK, while on the other, with integrated health and social care already in place, there is much good practice for others to learn from in return. And with public finance skills in need of development in parts of the neighbouring Republic, which still has cash accounting in some areas of delivery, further opportunities for exchange of good practice and benchmarking present themselves.

In Northern Ireland there is a real opportunity for public services to rise to the challenge and invest in efficiency, innovation, multi-agency working and vital economic recovery. But, as the minister stressed, it needs the mind-set to change, and pace of reform to accelerate, to make this certain to happen.

  • Rob Whiteman
    Rob Whiteman

    Chief executive of CIPFA since 2013, after leading the UK Border Agency and the Improvement & Development Agency. Previously, he was CEO at Barking and Dagenham council.

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