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Improving Public Services: Public Administration Reform in Northern Ireland


Academic year: 2023

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The devolved government in Northern Ireland has set out to establish a 'modern and efficient system of public administration capable of delivering high quality public services to our citizens'. With major political developments to restore devolved government in the form of the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement, stakeholders have agreed that it is time to review the way public services are delivered in Northern Ireland through the Public Administration Review. The current system of public administration in Northern Ireland only dates back to December 1999, when power was devolved to the Northern Ireland Assembly and its Executive Committee as a result of the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement of 19982.

2 Devolved government in Northern Ireland has currently been suspended (at the time of writing, October 2004) since October 2002. The Northern Ireland public sector is a mosaic of departments, agencies, non-departmental public bodies and local government (see figure 2). Local government in Northern Ireland is the weak link in the public sector and plays a relatively minor role in public service provision.

One observer recently described the infrastructure of Northern Ireland's state apparatus as "bloated, inadequate and not fit for purpose". Robert McCartney (UK Unionist, MLA) argued strongly against the exclusion of 11 government departments criticizing this as a means of supporting the Northern Ireland Executive.

Figure 1: Public Expenditure 2003-04
Figure 1: Public Expenditure 2003-04

Progress Report

While the Assembly has been suspended for the fourth time since October 2002, the Secretary of State, while acknowledging that key decisions should be made by a devolved government, has continued to progress the work of the Review, consulting with the main political parties as necessary. Regional and sub-regional public authorities: a type of public authority operating regionally or sub-regionally would provide public services. A reformed status quo with strengthened local government: while maintaining the main features of the current system, local government would be given new responsibilities.

Strong local government: Major public services would be the responsibility of a smaller number of new municipalities. There is broad consensus on the need for fewer government agencies, more cooperation and less fragmentation. There is a preference for models 4 and 5 above, with fewer quangos and a smaller number of larger councils with more powers.

There is a recognition that some services are better delivered centrally, but there is scope for more local provision than at present. The Assembly, the Executive and the Departments should be responsible for the development of policies and strategies, as well as for monitoring standards, but not for the provision of services. While some aspects of health are best provided regionally, most services must be provided by sub-regional organizations each serving a population of approximately 250,000.

There is a need for fair and robust governance arrangements to ensure transparent decision-making and protection of minority interests. In light of the findings of the consultation, the Minister (Direct Regulation) made known his preference for the form of the final model, which would go out for consultation in autumn 2004, suggesting a two-tier system of regional and sub-regional bodies. At the regional level, the Assembly and government departments will be responsible for policy development, strategic planning, setting standards and monitoring performance.

At sub-regional level, the emphasis will be on service delivery by larger local authorities and sub-regional bodies with council-led community planning and civic leadership (see figure 3).


Developing Model of Public Administration


The Minister said that it is clear that people want the review to proceed without delay, that improving the quality of public services should be the main consideration for reform, and that there are currently too many public bodies and a lack of effective collaboration is. -coordination and collaboration between service providers' (Pearson, 2004b).

Evaluating the proposed reforms

However, none of the characteristics of the reforms refer to political influences on the results of the Review. Despite the lack of transfer, local political parties must be satisfied with (or at least accept) the results of the Review, hence the Minister's desire for regular briefings. According to Frost (2002), reforming the organizational structure of the public service is a key strategy in improving efficiency within government.

Important policy initiatives in the rest of the UK such as Modernizing Government (1999), Reforming our Public Services - Principles into Practice (2002) and the recent policy debate contained in The Future of Local Government: Developing a 10 year Vision (2004) have almost bypassed Northern Ireland. As a formative assessment of the proposed changes, a number of specific observations can be made. The minister has imprecise references to functions that larger city councils 'could be responsible for', but has already predetermined (within narrow limits) the structural composition of the municipal council in the future, prior to the final consultation round.

The 'Next Steps' Agencies for example, employing 48% of the civil service, receive no mention in any future reform plans. It is conspicuous that none of the 18 agencies even responded to the first consultation document although they are clearly within the remit of the Review, adding credence to the view that this is a review of local government. If, for example, the functions of the 4 key agencies within the Department of the Environment8 were to be relocated, its raison d'être would be in serious doubt.

The same could be said of the Department for Regional Development, where removing the functions of the two main agencies9 would leave the department as an empty shell. 8 The four agencies of the Ministry of the Environment are: Planning Service; Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency; Environment and Heritage Service; and a testing agency for drivers and vehicles. As one observer of the Scottish case noted 'there is disappointment for those hoping for an end to quangos after devolution.

Currently, almost two-thirds of the members of the assembly are also local councilors (69 councilors within 108 MPS), which raises the question of whether there is a need for this number of MPS to represent 1.7 million inhabitants. In comparison, 129 Members of the Scottish Parliament (population 5.05 million) and 60 Members of the Welsh Assembly (population 2.92 million)10. The consequences of this acute segregation are the financial costs of duplicating public services for each of the communities due to low mobility between communities and the additional costs of dealing with sectarianism.

Improved public services?

For example, in Scotland and Wales, 23% and 24% of respondents felt that standards in the NHS had improved; 27% and 30% in education; 30% and 31% respectively in the general standard of living (Jeffery, 2004).

Devolution & Direct Rule

The results can be compared with improvements in service delivery in other devolved regions of the UK, which were relatively low. The results are shown in Tables 2 and 3 and illustrate a significant improvement in the economy and education under the devolved government, but no significant difference in healthcare (see Table 3 for significance levels). 13 This test takes into account the magnitude of the differences between two sets of related scores (people's views on education, health care, and the economy under decentralization and direct rule) by ranking the scores with the same sign and then adding them.

If there are no differences between the two samples, the number of positive signs should equal the number of negative signs (see, for example, Table 2: . negative and positive rankings for health). In health, for example, a long-running and unresolved debate about the rationalization of acute hospitals in Northern Ireland was passed to the minister for direct rule, Des Browne, who took the decision that the quality of health care should take precedence over access and reduced the number of emergency hospitals from 15 to 9 (with the addition of a new emergency hospital in Enniskillen). Similarly, a decision on the site of a new centralized maternity unit in Belfast had to be made by the minister for direct rule, Angela Smith, as political controversy raged over its location.

As support for devolution (and its sine qua non, the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement) is now eroding among the unionist population, accelerated by the IRA's intransigence to decommissioning, their attitude to public services may be changing. may be determined by their increasing dissatisfaction with the effects of the Agreement. Logit analysis is a regression-style causal analysis and we test whether people's views on education, healthcare and the economy are influenced by their religion, attitudes towards the Northern Ireland parliament and support for the Belfast (Good Friday) agreement. Northern Ireland Assembly (niabol) - respondent's opinion on whether he/she was 'satisfied', 'sorry' or 'wouldn't mind either way' if the Northern Ireland Assembly were abolished and Northern Ireland would return to Direct Rule.

An examination of the observed and expected frequencies (and adjusted residuals) in each model suggests that Catholics are significantly more likely than Protestants to vote for the Belfast Agreement (Good Friday) today; would be sad to see the abolition of the Northern Ireland Assembly and a return to direct rule; and believes that public services have improved under devolution. In terms of process, the parameters of the review, which excluded government departments, were politically engineered from the outset. Local politicians, weaned on a diet of 'power without responsibility' during 30 years of direct rule from Westminster, stand back as a British minister proposes radical reforms to local government, their interest piqued only by the political calculation of any new configuration in election limits.

Public perceptions of service quality are a comment on devolution, the peace process, the Belfast Agreement (Good Friday) and possibly the minister's political affiliation.

Table 2: Direct Rule and Devolution  Comparing Education, Health and the Economy
Table 2: Direct Rule and Devolution Comparing Education, Health and the Economy

Pierre (ed.) Handbook of public administration. eds.) New Public Management: Current Trends and Future Prospects. Cabinet of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister (2002) 'Preparations for the public administration review'. Office of the First and Deputy First Ministers (2003a) Overview of Public Administration Organizational Maps http://www.rpani.gov.uk/public_sector_maps.htm.

Office of the First and Deputy First Minister (2003b) A Shared Future: A Consultation Paper on Improving Relations in Northern Ireland.


Figure 1: Public Expenditure 2003-04
Figure 2: The Northern Ireland Public Sector
Figu re 4
Table 1: Public Services – devolution and direct rule

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