This category looks at the effectiveness of government - can it really make decisions that affect people’s lives and deliver on those decisions? Our indicators include: distinctions between reserved and devolved authority, evidence of ‘joined-upness’, the adequacy of north-south and east-west arrangements, communication of policy to different publics and citizen feedback.
Devolution to Northern Ireland (and latterly to Scotland and Wales) has always worked on the principle of a distinction between reserved and devolved authority—the former comprising powers retained at Westminster, the latter those transferred to the Stormont assembly. This is a muddled system—unlike German federalism with its framework laws passed in the Bundestag (challengeable by the Länder in the Bundesrat) with the regional parliaments providing the administrative detail. The UK system has no means of intergovernmental co-ordination, except ad hoc Joint Ministerial Committee meetings. And a huge associated problem in the reserved/devolved interstices—whether the stringent welfare ‘reform’ Westminster legislation of 2012 would be transferred to Northern Ireland, where in principle welfare was devolved—almost brought down Stormont until the Fresh Start agreement between the DUP and SF of November 2015. Inevitably, the devolved/reserved tension had polarised along nationalist/unionist lines, particularly given the high number of benefit claimants among SF voters and the stigmatising of such individuals by many DUP supporters. Unsurprisingly, the inter-party/intercommunal deadlock was broken by acceptance on the one hand that the issue would be treated as if it were a reserved matter, so that Westminster passed the relevant legislation implementing the ‘reform’ in Northern Ireland, and on the other inviting the region’s leading expert on poverty, Eileen Evason, to propose transitional and mitigating measures (Wilson, 2016: 86-87). Paradoxically, this appears to have led to a rather more deliberative outcome than elsewhere in the UK: social-security officials worked with Advice NI, the Northern Ireland Council of Voluntary Action and individual NGOs on the Evason package, and some 35 advisers were deployed on the ground in communities. Prof Evason herself was able to declare:
‘There is not another part of the UK with a belt and braces system in place to help people through this.’
That positive outcome, however, precisely arose from the failure of deliberation between the parties in this arena.
A further instance of the moveable boundary between reserved and devolved is the issue of fiscal powers. Successive Stormont administrations have failed to address the challenge posed in 2003 by the Scottish public-finance expert David Heald (2003), who called for greater ‘fiscal effort’ for purposes of funding public programmes in Northern Ireland and to ensure greater democratic accountability within the region. But since the renewal of devolution in 2007 the regional rate—the only devolved fiscal lever—has been successively frozen in real terms, with a cap for the owners of expensive properties, while the administration has sought to lower taxation on business and the proposal by a government-commissioned review to charge for water (by raising the regional rate accordingly) has been ignored. This is in sharp contrast with the way the Scottish and Welsh administrations have sought to push the envelope towards greater fiscal autonomy, following expert commissions. The Scotland Act 2016 gives Holyrood responsibility for raising more than half the money it spends, including power to set rates and thresholds of income tax on the revenue side and to top-up and create benefits on the expenditure side. The expert analyst said: ‘The great failure has been the failure to engage in a grown-up conversation about how our political class deals with the equation between getting and spending.’
The public tend, not unreasonably, to think of Stormont as one entity, rather than a congeries of departments, and to expect that problems they experience will be addressed regardless of whether they fit or straddle departmental silos. So evidence of ‘joined-upness’ is another key indicator. In Scotland this challenge has been tackled by having only one top-rank official acting as cabinet secretary and civil-service head, whereas in Northern Ireland there remains a permanent secretary for each of the current nine departments. Nor is there any commitment to collective responsibility in the executive—a feature going back to how the Belfast agreement married a nationalist desire for a power-sharing executive, as in 1974, with a unionist proposition of a structure like a county council, in which departmental heads would double as heads of committees, proportionately distributed by the d’Hondt formula used in the European Parliament. In the resultant executive appointed by d’Hondt, collective responsibility—which had been agreed at the very first meeting of the 1974 executive—did not apply (Wilson, 2010: 148-51). The special advisers, or SPADs, to which individual ministers are entitled as paid party assistants, are however a significant barrier to ‘joined-upness’. Decisions which appear to be the product of deliberation around the executive table tend to be merely a case of ministers signing off on deals previously horse-traded among departmental SPADS. The senior voluntary-sector figure said:
‘They need to make collective decisions. The executive needs to operate as one.’
The hope attached to the PfG is that it will at least assist in that regard. One senior official said there needed to be a ‘culture change’ on the part of ministers:
‘They all operated with their fiefdoms.’
Conceiving of a deliberative democracy in network terms highlights how any such system can be closed or open to its wider environment: it can plug into wider networks or it can seek to sever them. So in our case we explore the adequacy of north-south (in Ireland) and intra-UK arrangements. One of the surprises of devolution in Northern Ireland has been how these have worked out quite contrary to expectations. It might have been thought ‘unionists’ would always seek to strengthen links with Great Britain and cut those with the Republic of Ireland. Yet, particularly in the second phase of devolution with the DUP the largest party, the primary focus has actually been on distancing Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK, in the name of an extreme social conservatism—particularly on issues touching on sexuality, sexual orientation and women’s autonomy. Indeed, faced by loyalist flag protesters, the then party leader and first minister, Robinson, defended devolution in terms of keeping Westminster-inspired same-sex marriage and ‘abortion on demand’ at bay. This was encapsulated in an eventually unsuccessful attempt by DUP councillors in Newtownabbey, Co Antrim, to stop the performance of a satirical play about the Bible by the highly regarded Reduced Shakespeare Company at a local theatre in January 2014, which made for derisive headlines in the London media (Nolan, 2014: 161). It has been matched by an almost complete lack of interest in policy exchange with the other devolved jurisdictions, even where, as in Scotland, this has involved the sometimes innovative exercise of similar transferred powers. There has been no curiosity whatever towards the substantial deliberations which have taken place in Scotland and Wales about the devolution of fiscal powers.
On the other hand, the DUP has been willing to take part in the North/South Ministerial Council established by the Belfast agreement—despite its founder leader, Ian Paisley, leading the campaign to bring down the 1974 power-sharing experiment by focusing on its, more substantial, north-south dimension (Wilson, 2010: 108-12). But the party has done so in such a manner as to reduce such relationships to instrumental economic co-operation, devoid of any normative ambition for wider island-wide reconciliation. Brexit has, however, thrown all of this up in the air. Earlier, it was indicated how Northern Ireland’s ‘cosmopolitan’ sub-electorate had swung the June 2016 referendum, polarised along sectarian lines, towards ‘remain’. This constituency will feel extremely uncomfortable if Northern Ireland finds itself in a UK—perhaps minus Scotland—dominated by a ‘little England’ worldview. Hence the referendum has led not only to a marked rise in applications for Irish citizenship north of the border but appeared to generate the possibility of a swing towards support for Irish unification among this group, stemming not from a conventional nationalism but with a view to remaining in the EU should the UK leave (Wilson, 2016: 166).
If there is so much public dissatisfaction with Stormont, why is there not more protest about or even against it? Here the communication of policy to different publics may be significant, taking into account how the vertical structures of the two main parties and their clientelistic networks work to sustain the system. The DUP from its outset operated on the principle of there being a great leader, and in the early days under Paisley the party faithful saw themselves unabashedly as followers rather than members. The internal culture of SF, meanwhile, has grown slowly out of the IRA command structure. Downward communication is thus in each case relatively untroubled by discord or noises off. These duopolistic parties are, in turn able to frame in their respective nationalistic projects concerns arising from supportive communal associations in a manner which appears to empower the latter—a process lubricated by the Social Investment Fund, providing patronage for favoured political clients (Ketola and Hughes, 2016: 37).
From all of the foregoing, it is clear that a well-functioning deliberative network requires communication not just by government but citizen feedback on delivery of public policy as well. One positive aspect of the draft PfG which a number of interlocutors pricked up their ears at was the reference, under the outcome of high-quality public services, to the latter being ‘responsive and citizen-focused, co-designed in association with local and community expertise with the end-user in mind’. This was in line with thinking on the ‘co-production’ of services at the leading edge of discussion of public-service reform (Wainwright and Little, 2009). This would drive a different dynamic than the Friedmanite concern to align official agents with government principals, instead aligning public servants with the needs and demands of service users. The proof of the pudding will, of course, be in the eating. But one positive pointer is a document issued by the Department of Health in October 2016, Delivering Together. This promises that co-production ‘will empower patients, services users and staff’—to design the system, especially with maintenance of good health in mind; develop specific pathways of care, designed around the individual; and be partners in that care, especially in self-management of chronic conditions.
For every example we heard of policy being framed with the co-operation of intended beneficiaries, there was however always another where people felt shut out from decision-making and where the outcomes were at variance with the stated objectives. This research was conducted as the controversy over the RHI scheme erupted into a full-blown crisis, and it may be that some of our respondents were mapping this backwards in such a way as to establish links between this episode and previous failures and in so doing privileging a narrative of the assembly failing to deliver for its citizens. It would of course be possible to construct a counter-narrative which emphasised the successes of the assembly. This would include, for example, the fact that Northern Ireland now attracts more foreign direct investment than any region outside London and the south-east, the fall in unemployment from 58,644 in 2011 to 39,320 in 2016 or the changed mood allowing the past three ‘marching seasons’ to pass without any serious public disorder. However much the positive side is emphasised, though, the perception that the assembly does not deliver for its citizens shapes the reality of a political class out of touch with the citizenry—as can be seen in the survey data quoted above.
With different groups different reasons are given for this disconnect. The arts community does not see it as a problem of delivery, but of something more troubling—a philistinism which sees the arts as too challenging. The discussion group we convened on this subject agreed that communal arts practices, such as marching bands or community festivals, were favoured because they could be folded into the dominant narratives, while challenges to those narratives would not be allowed support. Another discussion group, involving people working closely with disadvantaged communities, talked of the ‘Daniel Blake’ syndrome, meaning that people at the delivery end of the welfare pipeline were constantly frustrated by what appeared to be an uncaring bureaucracy. One advice worker said that many of the problems they dealt with within the welfare system were generated by the system itself. The example was given of a case where a particular form went through 45 different transactions—that is to say, it was handled 45 times as it went back and forth and as a result the client had to wait 80-90 days for it to be processed.
In the various interviews and discussion groups we co-ordinated criticisms of government tended not to distinguish very clearly between what might be laid at the door of Westminster and what properly belongs with the devolved government at Stormont. When probed, however, one distinction became clear: criticisms of Westminster politicians tended to be on ideological grounds, while the failure of Northern Ireland politicians was attributed to venality, corruption or the inability to rise above sectarianism.