An im­per­fect al­ter­na­tive to good gov­ern­ment poli­cies

Belfast Telegraph - Business Telegraph - - News - with John Simp­son @bel­tel_busi­ness

The North­ern Ire­land Ex­ec­u­tive Of­fice has pub­lished a 93-page re­view of the ac­tions that will be taken to im­prove the well­be­ing of ev­ery­one by “tack­ling dis­ad­van­tage and driving eco­nomic growth” in the cur­rent fi­nan­cial year, 201819. This Out­comes Frame­work itemises ev­i­dence on 12 groups of top­ics.

The om­nibus list of de­sir­able out­comes was orig­i­nally ap­proved for the Pro­gramme for Gov­ern­ment be­fore the Ex­ec­u­tive col­lapsed nearly 17 months ago.

The re­view fails to of­fer a con­sid­ered cri­tique with pro­pos­als for bet­ter poli­cies. The ab­sence of an ad­e­quate cri­tique is the re­sult of set­ting an agenda to bal­ance use­ful ev­i­dence along­side a neu­tral state­ment of no change, or even re­fine­ments, to the poli­cies in­her­ited from the for­mer Ex­ec­u­tive.

Nev­er­the­less, the Out­comes De­liv­ery Plan is a help­ful state­ment sum­maris­ing what the min­is­te­ri­ally de­prived pub­lic ser­vants are do­ing. How­ever, it falls a long way short of a thought­ful cre­ative re­flec­tion which would serve as a suf­fi­ciently ac­count­able re­port on which to build fur­ther pub­lic debate.

Since the Out­comes De­liv­ery Plan sim­ply re­states the very generic word­ing of the out­comes ac­cepted by the out­go­ing Ex­ec­u­tive, it starts from an un­con­tro­ver­sial se­ries of state­ments. The re­port does not chal­lenge the search for out­comes such as:

1 We pros­per through a strong com­pet­i­tive re­gion­ally bal­anced econ­omy, or 3 We have a more equal so­ci­ety, or 4 We en­joy long, healthy, ac­tive lives, or 6 We have more peo­ple work­ing in bet­ter jobs, etc

Start­ing from the 12 dif­fer­ing generic out­come am­bi­tions, the plan sets out to show how well North­ern Ire­land is do­ing against each of them us­ing sta­tis­ti­cal ev­i­dence on well-cho­sen per­for­mance in­di­ca­tors.

Al­though the plan does not make an over­all assess­ment, the conclusion might well be “not do­ing very well, too many ad­verse dif­fer­ences, progress very slow”.

One con­se­quence of the fo­cus on the se­lected ‘out­comes’ is the ab­sence of a se­ries of tests ask­ing whether the achieved out­comes (or the fail­ure to achieve tar­geted out­comes) rep­re­sents good use of re­sources or, in an al­ter­na­tive set­ting, is value for money.

Crit­i­cal to the evo­lu­tion of pub­lic poli­cies, and the com­pe­ti­tion be­tween pub­lic poli­cies, are the judg­ments on how to sus­tain the cur­rent level of pub­lic sector spend­ing and ways in which that spend­ing might be al­tered, usu­ally look­ing for in­creases.

Read­ers of the Out­comes De­liv­ery Plan will not find an­swers to ques­tions on the size and al­lo­ca­tion of the pub­lic ex­pen­di­ture bud­get, the mer­its of ma­jor cap­i­tal projects or ser­vices where pub­lic sector bud­gets are in­ad­e­quate.

One in­ter­est­ing idea that is ab­sent from the plan: it is si­lent on any sug­ges­tion on progress to­wards im­ple­ment­ing a lo­cal cor­po­ra­tion tax rate.

Sim­ply as a ten­ta­tive re­flec­tion on the plan, the ev­i­dence on the changes in the lo­cal econ­omy, as part of num­ber six out­come, il­lus­trates the chal­lenges and the weak­ness.

In an­swer to the ques­tion “do we have more peo­ple in bet­ter jobs?” the ev­i­dence of­fered is weak.

In the last 10 years, the scale of eco­nomic in­ac­tiv­ity is slightly lower, the employment rate for adults is al­most un­changed, skills lev­els in the work­force are not much im­proved, the jobs gained by lo­cal grad­u­ates have im­proved slightly and the num­bers of peo­ple work­ing part-time and look­ing for more hours has re­duced af­ter an in­crease from 2008 to 2013.

This ev­i­dence fails to be con­vinc­ing be­cause the plan crit­i­cally lacks com­par­a­tive in­for­ma­tion.

If North­ern Ire­land is mak­ing slow progress to­wards bet­ter jobs, how does that com­pare with an ac­cept­able UK and/ or Ir­ish com­para­tor?

We know that the lo­cal econ­omy is lagging both the over­all UK and the Ir­ish im­prove­ments.

The plan nei­ther mea­sures these dif­fer­ences nor offers any com­ment.

The North­ern Ire­land pub­lic ser­vices have now be­come much more sta­tis­ti­cally com­pe­tent.

In fu­ture, doc­u­ments such as this Plan should of­fer bet­ter com­par­a­tive ev­i­dence.

Skills lev­els haven’t im­proved much

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