Northern Ireland Assembly Flax Flower Logo

Committee of the Centre

Wednesday 10 April 2002



Ordered by the Committee of the Centre to be printed 8 May 2002
Minutes of Evidence: 01/01/E (Committee of the Centre)

Review of Public Administration


The Committee of the Centre is a Standing Committee established in accordance with paragraph 10 of Strand One of the Belfast Agreement and under Standing Order No 54 of the Northern Ireland Assembly. The Terms of Reference of the Committee are to examine and report on functions carried out in the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister and on any other related matters determined by the Assembly.

The Committee has the power to send for persons and papers.

The Committee has seventeen members, including a Chairperson and Deputy Chairperson and a quorum of five members.

The current membership of the Committee established on 15 December 1999, is as follows:

Mr Edwin Poots (Chairperson)
Mr Oliver Gibson (Deputy Chairperson
Mr Roy Beggs Jnr
Mr Alex Maskey
Mrs Eileen Bell
Mr Conor Murphy
Dr Esmond Birnie
Dr Alasdair McDonnell
Mrs Annie Courtney
Mr Barry McElduff
Mr Duncan Shipley Dalton
Mr Eugene McMenamin
Mr David Ervine
Mr Ken Robinson
Mr Danny Kennedy
Mr Jim Shannon
Ms Patricia Lewsley

Wednesday 10 April 2002

Members present:

Mr Poots (Chairperson)
Mr Gibson (Deputy Chairperson)
Mr Beggs
Dr Birnie
Mr Dalton
Mr Kennedy
Ms Lewsley
Dr McDonnell
Mr McElduff
Mr McMenamin
Mr C Murphy
Mr K Robinson
Mr Shannon


Prof C Knox )
Dr P Carmichael ) University of Ulster


The Chairperson: The Committee welcomes Prof Colin Knox and Dr Paul Carmichael from the University of Ulster. The review of public administration will probably be the biggest undertaking that this and the next Assembly will face. That review could provide significant changes in the way that government is delivered. We look forward to getting our teeth into the review when we receive the full terms of reference. We are champing at the bit to get at it and you are here to provide some background information to the review before we receive those full terms of reference. When we do receive them, we shall be well prepared. I ask you to make your presentation; members will then ask you questions.


Prof Knox: Thank you. First, we thank the Committee of the Centre for inviting us to make our submission on the upcoming review of public administration. We would like to set our own remarks in context. Despite the Chairperson's comments, we do not have any pre-determined or "ideal-type" solutions for the future administration of Northern Ireland under devolved Government arrangements - none exist. Nor do we wish to promote any particular sectoral interest in the review, whether that be local government, Civil Service departments, quangos, or any functional area within their remit. Our comments are those of academic observers with a professional interest in public administration.


During our presentation we intend to look at four main issues. We shall begin by setting the review of public administration in context. That will include a broad yet brief summary of our existing structures. What is known or, more importantly, what is now known about the review to date will be considered. Political reaction so far will be outlined. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, we shall highlight some issues that we think the Committee of the Centre may wish to consider in its scrutinising role.


To look at the review in context, the Programme for Government of February 2001 pledges the Executive from the outset

"to lead the most effective and accountable form of government in Northern Ireland."


It stresses the need for change, and outlines the internal and external pressures that drive the change process. According to the Executive, a key consideration is

"the need to consider the rationalisation of public administration so that resources can be used best to serve the public rather than maintaining bureaucratic structures."


The Programme for Government reflected on the entire direct rule system. It contains an interesting quotation: "We have inherited from the last thirty years a wide range of public bodies. Their organisation and structure reflected the needs of those times. They helped maintain services at a time of very limited public accountability. But now that devolution has been achieved, there is a need for change that will provide not only greater accountability, but should ensure that the organisations that deliver many key services throughout Northern Ireland are much more coherently organised. It is therefore important that we set about a major process of reform in central government."


Therefore, the review of public administration's key themes are effectiveness and service accountability. The prevailing argument in Northern Ireland is that we have moved from a position of democratic deficit to a surfeit, with 18 MPs, 108 MLAs, 582 councillors and three MEPs, all for a population of 1·6 million. There is a strong suggestion that we are over-governed.


Aside from those political considerations, the focus is on how we should rationalise public services, not least because the Assembly is coming under pressure through its limited resources and its lack of tax-raising powers. There is an increasing demand for the rationalisation of public services. We have a complex mosaic of public administration structures in Northern Ireland, including 11 Government Departments, five education and library boards, four health and social services boards, 19 health and social services trusts, the Housing Executive, 22 Next Steps agencies, 26 district councils and more than 100 appointed executive quangos.


The most recent public appointments report, for 2002, states that there are 2,071 public appointments held in Northern Ireland in a total of 102 bodies. All of that is for a public expenditure budget of around £6 billion, which does not include those administrative structures associated with excepted and reserved powers, such as policing and criminal justice. There is an argument that we are not only over-governed but over-administered.


It might be helpful to point out what we know, which is probably less than what the Committee knows, about the review process to date. According to the First Minister,

"The Executive will lead the process, working closely with the independent experts, the core team of public officials, the Assembly and its Committees." - [Official Report, Vol 14, No 9, p373].


The centrality of the political input into the process was stressed. I take it that the First Minister meant the Executive when he said that

"we must lead the review and decide its outcome." - [Official Report, Vol 14, No 9, p373].

He continued:

"There would be a huge irony in an unelected body examining the appropriateness of other unelected bodies that had responsibility for the administration of public services." - [Official Report, Vol 14, No 9, pp372-3].


That would be like privatising the review out to an independent commission. The review will be conducted under the auspices of the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister (OFMDFM), and will include, we are told, widespread public consultation, through normal channels such as web sites and roadshows.


The review includes what is described as "a strong independent element".


Two types of "high-level" experts will be appointed to advise and assess the quality of the process. Experts with particular sectoral interests such as health, education and housing et cetera will work with a core team of civil servants drawn from across the public sector and, importantly, outwith the public sector. That latter point is important, because the Deputy First Minister said that that provided evidence that the review was not going to be an inside job.


The scope of the review, according to the statement from OFMDFM will:

"include the structure, accountability and responsibilities of local government, Non-Departmental Public Bodies and Next Steps Agencies. The Review is likely to have implications for the functions exercised by the Executive, but the institutions established by the Agreement and the division of functions between the 11 Departments will not be part of the Review's remit."


The target date for the launch of the review is spring 2002. Draft terms of reference have been issued and Assembly Members' views are being sought.


We find it useful that the terms of reference include some key principles, such as democratic accountability, community responsiveness, cross-community concerns, equality and human rights, subsidiarity, quality of service, co-ordination and integration of services, scope of the public sector, effectiveness and efficiency, and innovation and business organisation.


The draft terms of reference pose some questions that the review team will be invited to consider under such headings as accountability issues, delivery of service, performance issues, legal issues, financial issues, and North/South and east/west dimensions.


There are examples of questions under those headings, such as, "What should be the role of the community/voluntary sector and social partnership in the way government operates?" Since the review will cover functions of direct relevance to Assembly Committees, each will be able to respond and express its views, but one Committee - I understand that it is the Committee of the Centre - will take overall responsibility for reflecting those views to the Assembly. The Executive will seek formal endorsement of the terms of reference after the conclusion of the pre-consultation exercise. The Deputy First Minister, Mr Durkan, said that

"That is one part of demonstrating that the review is not in the pockets of Ministers or civil servants." - [Official Report, Vol 14, No 9, p412].


It was argued that the entire process would be open, transparent and flexible, as issues evolve in the course of undertaking this complex task.


The review, to use the First Minister's words,

"is the start of a long process." - [Official Report, Vol 14, No 9, p373].

He argued that

"The objective is to create the best possible system of public administration. We have set out on that with no predetermined outcomes." - [Official Report, Vol 14, No 9, p372].


Political reaction to the review thus far has ranged from a broad welcome as the first major opportunity for reform since the Macrory Report of 1970, to suggestions that it will be little more than an administrative reshuffle with half a deck of cards, since it excludes the 11 Departments. There is widespread concern that, despite claims that the review would be in place and delivering savings by the end of this Assembly's term, it has only now been launched. That concern has been rejected on the grounds that it was important to have political stability for the Assembly and Executive to bed down without any negative impact on the 2001 local government elections, given the uncertainties surrounding the future of councils. There is disagreement on whether the review should be carried out by OFMDFM, not least because, despite what is seen as a fairly hefty budget, it has been criticised for failing to deliver to the Assembly on legislation. Some have argued that taking on the review would further burden the Department. Certain politicians have suggested an independent commission to deflect criticism that the process is an exercise in protecting one's own political environment. As Mr Dalton put it,

"It should not be the case that everything else is changed while the Assembly, its 108 Members and all the Departments remain in a protected bubble." - [Official Report, Vol 14, No 9, p384].


Crucially, there has been severe criticism of reviews in general and the public scepticism that they engender. Some of them can be seen as a substitute for action or as putting change or reform on the long finger. There are also political suspicions about delaying any matters of substance arising from the review until after the next Assembly elections. There is undoubtedly a sense of frustration among MLAs. Although they understood the need for a review, given the ongoing crises in such services as education and health, they may feel, at the time of the next elections, that the public will be rather unimpressed with the excuse that the matter is subject to yet another review. I do not underestimate the scale of the task, but there is some impatience for change. Anti-agreement politicians have seized the opportunity to criticise the Assembly and the exclusion of the 11 Departments from the review's remit. As Mr McCartney put it,

"The quango reviewers are really the biggest quango of all . do we need 11 Departments that not only possess an army of formal civil servants but a multiplying horde of special advisers?" - [Official Report, Vol 14, No 9, pp380-1].


The costs of the review and the appointment process associated with special advisers have also been raised as issues of concern.


What issues do we feel might be of interest to the Committee of the Centre? It is not for us to criticise the review process and the terms of reference, nor indeed to address the criticisms levelled by MLAs. Part of our brief from the Committee Clerk was to help identify issues that the Committee of the Centre will have to consider. Those break down into short and medium-term issues that may be considered by the Committee. The short-term issues are the review's principles, parameters, methodology, and links with the Committee and the Assembly generally. In the medium term, there will be issues of substance for the review as it grapples with the detail of the reform of public administration and key public services. Our intention is to concentrate on the short-term issues, so that the Committee can engage constructively with OFMDFM in advance of the review's formal launch. Those comments are offered acknowledging that the draft terms of reference at the pre-consultation stage, by definition, did not intend to set out the full details of the review process.


I wish to consider four broad headings. First, it is laudable to set out principles that inform the process of the review. It helps to guard against what academics in the context of local government reform in Great Britain have described as

"the almost obsessive search for structural solutions"


or the cartographic approach. However, the headlong rush to reduce the number of councils and quangos, for example, is a knee-jerk, functional response to reform that considers the form of public administration before examining functions, and should be avoided. Although it is useful to articulate the principles that are set out in the terms of reference, it is not especially helpful, in the sense that few people could disagree with any of those principles. The problem is how they will be applied in the review process about which there is currently no guidance. For example, there is no ranking or prioritisation of the principles in the way in which they should inform the review, nor is there any acknowledgement of the potentially conflicting nature or trade-offs in their application. The often conflicting imperatives of efficiency, which point to larger units, often at the pan-Northern Ireland level, could conflict with democratic issues, which might suggest smaller units, conceivable at the town or district level. Those types of trade-offs have to be reconciled. That is not a pedantic point, as the weighting or ranking accorded to those principles will have a significant bearing on the outcomes of the reform process. For example, to what extent are cost-efficiency considerations driving the review? As Mr Close put it,

"those who send us to the Assembly. believe that their money - taxpayers' money - is being squandered through layer upon layer of bureaucracy and administration." - [Official Report, Vol 14, No 9, p377].

He continued:

"There are hundreds of millions of pounds to be saved, and we must focus on that." - [Official Report, Vol 14, No 9, p378].


Perhaps that will be one of the review team's first tasks - to prioritise the principles that should inform the process.


The terms of reference also includes a reference to the principle of subsidiarity. That implies decentralisation and popular participation, or that decisions should be taken at the lowest appropriate level of government. This principle is enshrined in the European Charter of Local Self-Government, to which the UK is a signatory. Therein it states that unless the size or nature of a task is such that it requires to be treated within a larger territorial area, or that there are overriding considerations of efficiency or economy, it should generally be entrusted to the most local level of government.


The creation of devolution in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales was informed by the principle of subsidiarity, and that in turn should instruct the relationship between the Assembly and any sub-regional reform that emerges from the review of public administration. We draw on the report 'The Commission on Local Government and The Scottish Parliament'. This interesting quote is useful:

"There is always a temptation for any administration to centralise - to draw powers into itself - and this is the reverse of subsidiarity. One way of expressing subsidiarity is that wherever a greater concentration and centralisation of powers and functions is proposed, the onus of proof must always be on those who propose centralisation, to demonstrate that it will indeed bring greater benefit to the public at large."


Given Northern Ireland's circumstances, where MLAs have been bereft of power for so long under direct rule, there is a temptation that they will seek to centralise.


The First Minister has argued that

"there is already much speculation about the outcome of the review. There are fears that councils will be abolished and that towns will lose public-sector jobs. There is, however, no presumption that centralisation, whether structurally or geographically, is better." - [Official Report, Vol 14, No 9, p372].


How strongly will the principle of subsidiarity feature in the review?


I do not mean to flog the issue to death, but that links into another interesting principle, community responsiveness, which is also cited in the review. A centralised or Stormont-based structure of locally administered services will ensure that there are common standards of services provision across Northern Ireland. There will be no arbitrary discrepancies regarding the way in which services are delivered in different parts of Northern Ireland. However, that system would sacrifice responsiveness to local opinion, which has been the hallmark of Northern Ireland's locally-elected system thus far.


Problems in the rural areas of Fermanagh and the Glens of Antrim are not the same as those in urban areas such as Belfast and Lisburn. Towns such as Dungannon, Downpatrick, Banbridge and Magherafelt will not necessarily face the same issues as those of the suburbs or inner cities. Even when those problems are similar, the most appropriate solutions may not necessarily be the same. Those who have the advantage of local information and experience, and who must live with the consequences of their decisions, can devise those most effectively. Diverse solutions also produce a fertile ground for innovation and experimentation, and for different models of good practice. A uniform and centralised system of administration is unlikely to develop or tolerate such diversity.


To summarise our argument, the key questions for the review are which services should operate at which level - the regional level, the sub-regional level, the local level - and why. That leads to a second consideration - what is to be included in the review? The current parameters of the review are ambiguous. The information available suggests that the review will include local government, quangos and Next Steps agencies. However, the institutions established by the Belfast Agreement and the division of functions among the 11 Departments will not form part of the review's remit. Although local government is clearly circumscribed, there are definitional problems over which bodies can be described as quangos, and whether that includes Executive bodies and advisory bodies.


In the public appointments report of 2002, reference is made to the fact that bodies such as the Community Relations Council and the Rural Development Council do not fall into the categories of Executive bodies and advisory bodies, or quangos. Importantly, the latest information indicates that around 65% of Northern Ireland Civil Service staff work in Next Steps agencies. Their inclusion in the review will cause confusion, given that the review will not include the 11 Departments. Moreover, we are unclear about the nuances of the distinction made by the First Minister when he argued that, although the distribution of functions is not included,

"the discharge and delivery of services under any one of those 11 Departments can be scrutinised." - [Official Report, Vol 14, No 9, p372].


He claims that the review

"may result in changes to the way in which services are delivered and alterations to the co-ordination and organisation of services." - [Official Report, Vol 14, No 9, p372].


Does that not imply that the distribution of functions in the 11 Departments may change, and, therefore, their structural configuration will change? The Deputy First Minister has argued that provisions exist under the Northern Ireland Act 1998 that allow the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister to propose changes to departmental structures. He said that

"The Assembly does not necessarily have to fix Departments for a generation in the same way as it might fix overall structures of public administration for a generation." - [Official Report, Vol 14, No 9, p413].


Does that imply that Civil Service departments and their functions are somehow not part of the system of public administration? Greater clarity regarding the parameters of the review is needed.


We must know precisely which bodies, sectors or functional areas are to be included, and how, in practical terms, the discharge and delivery of services of the 11 Departments can be considered without implications for the distribution of their functions.


Associated with the review's parameters is the need to establish a time line for the work that will be undertaken by the review team, as well as a sense of sequencing of the work. For example, should consideration be given to completion in stages, perhaps starting with an examination of quangos, local government and then Next Steps agencies? Or should the sectors be reviewed simultaneously because of the integrated nature of those services? Given the Assembly elections in 2003 and the local government elections in 2005, what are the milestones in the review process that, realistically, will have political connotations?


The detail of the Assembly Committees' involvement in the review process is similarly ambiguous. Although it is understandable that the review team will want a single point of access, it is not clear whether individual Committees will be able to call the reviewers to account for proposals that they might recommend in relation to functions over which they have a statutory scrutiny, policy development and consultation role.


Similarly - and this is no slight on this Committee - given the non-statutory status of the Committee of the Centre and the lack of real engagement with the First Minister, the Deputy First Minister and two junior Ministers so far, how seriously will the views of Statutory Committees, as expressed to the Committee of the Centre, be taken? That is not an attempt to criticise the process before it happens. I merely wish to highlight that some formal arrangements that link the review into the Assembly and its Committees more explicitly must be put in place. Moreover, what would be the role of the Committee of the Centre in relation to other Committees? Will it simply act as a postbox for their views, or will there be an added value in their role as a single access point, and how will that work?


The details of the review methodology are similarly vague, or perhaps still have to be worked out. At present, the suggestion is that there will be two types of experts: "high-level" experts who will act as mentors, monitors and quality assurers; and sectoral experts, who will work alongside a core team of civil servants, other public officials and, possibly, secondees from the private sector.


There are some questions about the mechanics of the process or how it will work in practice. Apart from the way in which the experts will be chosen, there might be concerns about the capacity for sectoral turf protection and how that would be dealt with. Moreover, how will the work be undertaken? For example, will it be based on primary and secondary research by officials in the sectors that are under review, or will there be interviews with elected representatives who have experience of interacting with public servants and public services on behalf of their constituents? Will reviews of the wider public be listened to, and, if so, how? Will the experience of reforms in other countries be examined, or will there be a combination of all of the above? It is important to get some sense of the emphasis in the methodology, as it will have a bearing on the cost of the review, the timescale and possibly the outcome.


Having said all that, we must end on a realistic note. Although there is a strong case for basing a review on the principles of reform as articulated in the draft terms of reference and on research into good administrative practices, it would be naive to suggest that that would not involve political considerations. At this point, we simply raise the issue of the weight that is given to political inputs in the review, and that is not peculiar to Northern Ireland. In considering reform of local government in the 1990s in Scotland and Wales, one observer said:

"Local government reorganisations in the United Kingdom have not been undertaken on the basis of any comprehensive theories of structural change. Instead, policy makers have worked on the basis of a few vague ideas which owe more to political sloganising than policy strategies. Conceptual links between structure and performance are not well developed."


Therefore, the challenge in this review will be the way in which MLAs seek to reconcile rational administrative considerations with political opinion. We suspect that administrative decisions will involve hard choices about our current service provision methods, and may even mean the abolition of several of our existing delivery bodies. That must be set alongside political considerations about a possible boundaries review and its electoral consequences, the administrative arrangements arising from the agreement and its sanctity, the promotion of Civil Service departments at the expense of other parts of the public administration system, and the relative roles of the two existing elected tiers - local government and the Assembly. None of those choices will be easy, but it represents what lies ahead in the review of public administration.


The Chairperson: Thank you for that comprehensive presentation on our current position. The list of agencies and tiers of Government is alarming. I would regret it if this were to turn into a pro- or anti-agreement argument, but how successfully can the review deliver if not every area of Government is included? For example, if there were a notion of transferring some regional Government powers to local government, local councils and authorities might then deliver on issues that are not strategic, such as planning and roads. How successfully can that be done? Some Departments might consider themselves weakened by that and, should there be no readiness to examine Departments individually, would resist its implementation.


Prof Knox: As regards the success of the review if it excludes the 11 Departments, there has clearly been an attempt to strike a balance between maintaining the sanctity of those Departments that were set up under the agreement and acknowledging the necessity for a review of public administration. How that balance will be achieved is not clear - in other words, how the discharge and delivery of functions could be examined but not their distribution. To use the Chairperson's example of the discharge and delivery of planning, if planning were to move to local authorities - and I am not sure that many local authorities would want that - why is it necessary to maintain a Department with co-responsibility for planning?


The Chairperson: That is exactly the point. To remove planning from the Department of the Environment would be to remove a large section of its function. If it were to become obvious to the review team that to move planning to local government would be in the best interests of the community at large, there would be resistance. I asked the question for that reason.


Mr Gibson: I welcome you both. It was refreshing to hear your presentation, which was significant. I liked your approach to the principles, parameters and methodology. One matter alarmed me. The Burns Report and the Hayes Report already suggested a significant impact on reorganisation in two major Departments. The Executive have not made it clear whether those Departments have been included. Therefore, it is not a matter of conducting a review with half a deck of cards - there may be only one third of a deck.


If you take the current two major areas of administration, and the five and four boards out of the equation, the argument is redefined. Have you a view to guide us on that?


Prof Knox: Unfortunately, I do not. I can give only the official position. The Deputy First Minister may have been asked specifically about that point, and his response was that they would not operate - and I hope that I am paraphrasing correctly - on the basis of nothing is agreed until everything is agreed. Although they acknowledged that the Burns Report and the Hayes Report were ongoing, they could not act in some kind of gridlock fashion on the review itself. Therefore, those undertaking the review would have to be aware of other ongoing reports. The Chairperson raised that point when speaking about the Civil Service accommodation report. That clearly will have implications for the review. The official line is that one must be cognisant of those reviews and incorporate them as best one can within the review of public administration. However, singularly, none of those other reviews should hold up the review of public administration.


Mr Gibson: One term that you did not mention along with those nice words such as "openness", "transparency", "rationalisation", "efficiency" et cetera was "integrated services approach". How can you have an integrated services approach without having an open review of all the deliverers or providers, including the 11 Departments? That does not mean that you change it, but you may change what goes on in various Departments.


I am asking for your expertise on a much more international scale. How are services delivered elsewhere on a sub-regional level? In other words, is there a complete new methodology that we might be missing? I raise a much broader question. Considering the present state of Administrations throughout the world, in a review of this type, should we perhaps not be looking at a different methodology of delivery? Should we not look at different models and consider how matters are conducted elsewhere?


Prof Knox: The review would intend to cover that. There is an intention to look at best international practice and draw from that experience. However, I agree with your first point about co-ordination and integration of services. One of the principles in the review is that the reviewers should take into account the issue of providing services in a co-ordinated or integrated way or, to use the rhetoric, "joined-up government". That clearly will be problematic if a key sector of government is missing from that review.


Mr Gibson: I have one more question. Should the review not be - or be at the level of - a Royal Commission review because there are sectoral interests, and OFMDFM is leading it. I am not against OFMDFM; this is not a "yes" or "no" argument or an anti-agreement argument. My point is that if you are serious about this type of review, should it not be seen not only as the hallmark of independence but should you not also be able to call on experts who do not have a sectoral or vested interest? In other words, you should honestly get to the point where those with sectoral interests can have those interests represented. I am speaking about the methodology.


Dr Carmichael: There would be an argument in favour of doing that, but it is fair to say that the notion of the Royal Commission has recently gone out of fashion. To return to your earlier point, one of the difficulties with the comparison that people draw between Northern Ireland and the situation in Scotland and Wales is that, although there have been reviews of local government in Scotland and to a lesser extent in Wales, here the review is doing much more because local government, by comparison, does much less here. In the Scottish case, there was not an equivalent review of the whole structure. However, without unravelling the Belfast Agreement settlement, here you find yourself almost inevitably encroaching upon the areas of those Departments.


We cannot examine local government in isolation, because local authorities spend only 3% to 4% of the devolved block. Even if one intended only to examine what are commonly referred to as quangos, one would implicitly be examining the Departments. For example, in health and education - where most of the money goes - a proposal to abolish the boards would immediately introduce the question of the Department's role in respect of schools, or hospitals. It will be difficult not to examine the specifics of what Departments do.


Mr Chairperson, you mentioned the Department of the Environment's planning function. If Departments were not examined, a transfer of powers to local government could result in a hollowing out of a Department's function, leaving many of the 11 Departments as a shell. If that happened, people would, naturally, ask why the Department of the Environment, for example, still existed. If it were found to be prudent to devolve that Department's functions to a reinvigorated tier of local government, people would claim that it no longer had anything to do. It will be difficult to carry out the review without encroaching on the Department's activity.


Prof Knox: In the light of that argument, we wonder whether the review has an inbuilt bias towards centralisation. If those carrying out the review are unwilling to strip functions from Government Departments, and if they want to retain those Departments, then, almost by definition, those functions will have to remain at the centre. Any opportunity for decentralisation in accordance with the principle of subsidiarity has, perhaps, been lost before the review starts.


The Chairperson: You pointed out that there are 108 MLAs and almost 600 councillors. If the number of councils were reduced, one might also wish to reduce the number of councillors. How would such a reduction wash with those involved in local government, given that there are 108 Assembly Members? I know nobody who would attempt to justify the number of Assembly Members; however, that issue is not being examined in the review because provision for the number of Members was made in the Belfast Agreement. If the number of MLAs were reduced to 70, or 90, that would not undermine the agreement; yet, we are not prepared to examine the matter. My point is not based on the "yes" or "no" argument; it is a rational one. It will be hard to justify some of the review team's decisions if they are seen to cut into certain areas while this amorphous organisation exists, which cannot be examined or changed.


Dr Carmichael: In response to your point about centralisation: at devolution, and irrespective of whether people were pro- or anti-agreement, it was almost expected that power and responsibility would trickle down to regional level and that local government would somehow benefit. However, the evidence of that happening is, at best, ambivalent.


In Scotland the trend is towards centralisation, with power moving from local authorities to the devolved Government. As a separate issue, there was the vote in Glasgow on housing, and most councils there are glad to be rid of that function because they felt it was a burden they could well do without. There is strong pressure to centralise national services such as policing, fire and even education. Local government cannot expect to automatically emerge from this exercise with enhanced functions. It must make its case; the transfer of powers will not happen by default.


Mr Shannon: I apologise for missing some of your presentation; however, what I have I heard has given me plenty of food for thought. I earned my spurs in local government; I was first elected in 1985. Serving as a councillor has provided important lessons for me because it gave me a way of contributing to grassroots social issues - a role that I enjoy.


Local government could take responsibility for planning, housing and roads. However, other Committee members are also councillors and they have varying degrees of experience - they may have different opinions. You seem to be suggesting that there should be a balance between not overly affecting the roles of the Executive, Ministers and Departments, and wanting to give local government a greater role. Should local government have a greater role? Is that what you are trying to focus on?


Prof Knox: We carried out research prior to our involvement with the review. We asked councillors to tell us the types of responsibilities they would like to have should reorganisation take place. By and large, they did not know. It is very difficult for councillors, within the parameters of the current structure, to think about taking on new powers across 26 authorities. It would be unacceptable to have 26 planning authorities; 26 housing authorities and 26 district councils responsible for roads. However, that is not to say that if those functions were devolved to a subregional or local level that there could not be a review of the structure of local government.


The issue is about subsidiarity and the extent to which those responsible for the review wish to see powers devolved to the lowest possible level. Our opinions are probably irrelevant. It is really about centralisation versus decentralisation. Once the decision is taken on which functions should be retained by central Government and which should be devolved to subregional or local level, structures can be devised to incorporate them.


Mr Shannon: Change tends to be confrontational. You have outlined changes that we will be looking at further. When change comes, how can we ensure that effective relations between local government and the Assembly, and, indeed, the Executive, are retained and built upon, and that they best serve the citizens that we represent?


Prof Knox: One difficulty with change is the fear of change. People are naturally concerned about changes in circumstances and there is a lot of fear and apprehension among councillors about the erosion of local authority power as a result of the review. The same would be true among the quangos.


To help allay those fears it is important to involve as many people as possible in the process of change. You will be trying to win the argument that the change will be for the corporate good of Northern Ireland. Whether you are successful is another matter. However, fear of change is often down to poor communication. There may be a fear that the review is sewn-up and that it is not transparent - the things we are being told it is not. We are being assured that the review will be transparent and that there will be opportunities for people to provide their views. Proper channels of communication should ensure that people are brought on board and kept informed about the process.


Dr Carmichael: There is one rider to that. Until recently, the failure of local government to speak with one voice - and we understand the political reasons for that - may have led to the fact that it has been a weak player punching below its weight. Irrespective of ideological and geographical/territorial differences between bigger and smaller councils, until local government can speak with one voice it will not enjoy the influence it might otherwise have. I understand that this difficulty has been overcome, to some extent, over the last few months. It would give local government, as a whole, better influence in the review process.


Mr Shannon: By and large, local government has been the only platform for political expression prior to the Assembly, other than through Members of Parliament. Local government has played an important role since the re-organisation in 1973. Change is happening; but local government did play an effective role. It was important to have a forum where political viewpoints could be expressed.


Dr Birnie: You rightly stressed subsidiarity and levels of functions, which are clearly key issues. You hinted that principles have to be prioritised - subsidiarity may always be pursued because it could be expensive. Is there any information from Great Britain on the likely cost differences between running health or education administrations based on 300,000 to 400,000 people and a single unit based on 1·7 million people? Is there a ballpark figure for what could be the cost saving through merging, or increasing, units of administration?


The terms of reference mention national, inter-regional, and international comparisons. What are the best comparisons, given that so many other things differ between Northern Ireland and other parts of the UK and Europe? Are any particular parts of the world most relevant for comparison purposes?


Dr Carmichael: I have no figures on costing because, as you would expect, there is conflicting evidence. Generally - and this appears to be the case in Scotland, post local government review - the then Conservative Government freely admitted that a structure based on smaller units would, on balance, cost more than one based on larger units. However, they would not provide extra money to pay for it. During the 1970's reorganisation the typical figure quoted was 250,000 people to 500,000 people. That was seen as the optimal size - certainly nothing smaller than that. A fragmented structure, which meets all the desires of being close to the people, will cost more than one based on a large unit run from Belfast.


Prof Knox: The experience in other parts of the UK is that even when empirical decisions are made available, political considerations override them. That may be true here also.


When it comes to other countries, it really depends on the level of government being considered. For instance, the civil service type functions in some countries might be quite different from ours. Without wanting this to sound as if it would be heralding junkets, local and central Government functions here are different from those in other countries because of our uniqueness, and it is difficult to make comparisons. New Zealand and Australia are very good examples of new public-management and Civil Service reform initiatives.


Dr Carmichael: The Republic of Ireland embraced its own brand of new public management reforms, which involved much less heartache than the implementation of the reforms in the UK under Conservative Governments in the 1980s and 1990s did. Interestingly at local government level, there is a telling comparison with the Republic of Ireland. None of the changes introduced affected boundaries or the numbers of local councillors.


The Chairperson: Professor Stapleton from the University of Limerick will be giving evidence to the Committee about that review.


Dr Birnie: Perhaps I am mistaken. However, somebody - who may have been joking - told me that there was a scrapping allowance paid to councillors in the Republic. However, if, as you say, there was no reduction in the numbers, that would not be relevant.


The Chairperson: Perhaps it was a retirement allowance.


Mr Gibson: On a point of information, the Representation of the People Act in the South of Ireland has not been introduced or implemented, and there are strong political reasons for that.


Prof Knox: One phrase characterises the reform of local government in the Republic of Ireland. The system was described as "twenty-first century furniture in nineteenth century architecture."


Mr Kennedy: Professor Knox and Dr Carmichael's comments are interesting. The Assembly faces a major and crucial decision on the issue. It will be a difficult decision to make properly because there are so many personal stakes involved. Have other jurisdictions where such exercises have been undertaken opted for an internal approach, which appears to exist here, or have they gone for the external approach - the independent review, or Royal Commission, which we now agree is no longer favoured?


I am the Chairperson of the Committee for Education, which will be considering its response to the review of public administration and how it will affect education. Education will be one of the prime considerations, given the number of providers and agencies involved. It is inconceivable that my Committee, and others interested in education, could contemplate a review of administration that did not include a review of the Department of Education. I would be astonished if that were to be the case. Some people may try to avoid it, but I am reasonably sure that the Assembly and its Committees will insist that, if every organisation is to be reviewed, Government Departments be reviewed also. What is your view about that? Do you know what others who work in this Administration feel about it?


Prof Knox: I will answer your second question first. The answer depends on who you ask in the current Administration. Civil Servants, for obvious reasons, might be less keen for their Departments to be examined.


In some ways the question highlights an ambiguity. As Chairperson of the Committee for Education, you would like your Department to be included in the review. However, the terms of reference exclude the Departments. Although there was a defence, which hedged around "discharge and delivery" verses "distribution", I cannot see how that distinction will be operationalised in the review. The more comprehensive the review, the better it will be. I understand the political arguments for excluding the 11 Departments from the review.


The first part of your question concerned the approach taken in other jurisdictions. It is not easy to make exact comparisons, because other jurisdictions have tended to reform tiers of governance. They examined local government, health sectors and their civil services separately. We are trying to look at a mixed bag of administrative matters. Therefore, where we make comparisons - and within which tier of governance - will determine how usefully we can examine international practice.


Mr Kennedy: Do you understand the rationale behind the review? It may be an over-ambitious project, but the rationale is that, rather than examining one aspect of administration, it would be better to look at all aspects. Is that a sensible rationale, or is it ambitious?


Prof Knox: One must devise a realistic, time-bounded and cost-bounded methodology. Those factors will determine which international comparisons we use, and how they rank with other parts of the review process. It is not simply about looking at international examples of good practice. People with much experience of delivering public services within Northern Ireland, and who will have good ideas about what should happen, will do a lot of soul-searching - and that will include quangos. Politicians tend to want to bash quangos: they feel that such bodies are non-elected, unaccountable and control large parts of the public sector budget. However, we should not throw out the baby with the bathwater. Many people in quangos have great experience of public service provision.


Mr Kennedy: I am not sure if you answered the specific question. Is this is an over-ambitious project?


Prof Knox: I thought you were asking whether international comparisons were over-ambitious. A project that tries to review public administration is not over-ambitious. It is long overdue; it can be achieved, and the matter must be addressed.


The Chairperson: What is a realistic time frame - without any add-ons?


Prof Knox: How long is a piece of string?


The Chairperson: I hope it is not very long.


Prof Knox: The Committee should ask civil servants that question. There are political timetables involved. Two years would not be an unreasonable time frame. However, that is an arbitrary response.


The Chairperson: I do not want to tie you down to time; that answer is fine.


Mr Beggs: I declare an interest as a councillor. The discussion will eventually involve local government: much of the previous discussion already has; however, the focus should be on wider issues. Councillors should not allow the focus to rest on local government.


Although I recognise that there is worthwhile expertise in some quangos, there is an overabundance of quangos in areas, and some of them seem to make no contribution. Taking health as an example: we have the Department, the boards and the trusts. However, during funding crises the Department talks directly to the trusts, missing out the boards, and this tells me that there is something wrong with the structure, and that it is bureaucratic. Similarly, the piecemeal nature of the Ambulance Service's funding means that some of this comes from the Department, and there is bartering being carried out with the boards. There is a huge variation in service.


We should be examining how we provide public services - I am thinking about council interaction in gritting footpaths during the winter, which nothing has been done about because of the interests of Roads Service and councils. How can we keep the focus of the review on the efficiency and the responsiveness of public service delivery, as well as the accountability of decision-making in the delivery of those services so that they are improved, rather than on the self-interests of the Department, boards, trusts or councils?


Prof Knox: That is the nub of the problem. It will be difficult to achieve given, as you have rightly said, the tremendous vested interests of stakeholders, all of whom will be fighting for their own territory. OFMDFM must be commended for setting down principles that will inform the framework and, in theory, provide the focus for the review. Thereafter, in your role as scrutineers of the process you have some purchase on maintaining that focus. If you see that sectoral interests are vying to protect their patch, it is within your gift, as elected Members who oversee the process, to ensure that that does not happen.


We mentioned the strength of Committees to ensure that their views are adequately reflected in the review process, and that is important. If you see that the review is losing focus and is moving towards territorial interests, you have a mechanism for implementing checks and balances to redirect it.


Mr Beggs: There is high percentage of councillors in the Assembly. How can Assembly Members continue to focus on the wider benefits rather than think as councillors? As a relatively new councillor, it is perhaps easier for me, but longer-serving councillors may find it more difficult.


Prof Knox: As MLAs, you probably encounter that problem daily. There may be potential for conflict between parochial interests and interests at the Northern Ireland level. You should not apologise for being councillors. It is a perfectly valid input to the debate. If councillors who are also MLAs feel that the role of councils should be upgraded, those views should be fed into the process. I would not want councillors to feel that such views should be downgraded because they are MLAs. Many councillors have done lots of good constituency work during times when Northern Ireland was unstable - councils were the only elected forums, and much of the work was voluntary. The review must acknowledge that just because we have reached a level of political stability and maturity that allows for a centrally elected forum we should not now discard the good work of councils.


Mr K Robinson: I apologise for being late. I have just come from a meeting that was attended by councillors from three borough councils, MLAs from two parliamentary constituencies and the area's MP. They were there to ensure that a climbing lane is opened on the A8 road to Larne. It is an important issue, but you can see the sort of confusion that even such a simple scheme causes.


Like my Colleague, I declare an interest as a councillor. You highlighted the democratic deficit that we faced for many years. As councillors, we were told that we could empty bins, provide people with swimming pools and leisure centres and, if they were unfortunate enough to die, that we could bury them in the local cemetery - that was the extent of our responsibilities. Under John Major's Government we were able to expand our sphere of influence and take on an economic development role. Many councils proved to be very proficient and professional in their approach to that role.


Is there now a case for more responsibilities to be given to councils that will allow them to develop a closer relationship with the man in the street? Could it be done in a way that would encourage professionalism amongst councillors; promote inter-council politics, and attract people who are willing to give more time and bring more expertise to the job than perhaps, for a variety of reasons, has been the case until now? Councillors have lived dangerous lives. Despite criticism from the media and uninformed persons about not fulfilling their roles, councillors kept the democratic fabric of society together for the past 30 years.


What are your views on the way local government's role might be positively and professionally expanded so that, rather than having quantity, we could attract a certain quality of councillor - someone with a well-defined task. That task is coterminous with the work of other agencies, such as the health boards, the education boards, or whatever may replace them. The public sees local government as an amorphous mass. As a councillor, I have had the experience of having to make endless phone calls to find the right agency and the right person at the right level to ensure that even a simple problem is dealt with. I am sure that everyone has had that experience.


What is your view on the role of local government and on how might that fit in with the regional government level that is emerging?


Prof Knox: That is a good question. In some senses, the role of local government will be a function of this review. Local government can be given as much or as little power as Members wish. It is within the gift of the review and of Members, as scrutinisers, to give local government more functions, and to organise those functions in a way that makes them more coherent within the overall portfolio of public services.


The lack of professionalism in local government has been a rather chicken-and-egg situation. Councils have very limited functions, disparagingly referred to as baths, bins, births and burials. Therefore, the role of councillor has not been an attractive proposition for people who might have stood for election if councils had had major responsibilities. By the very act of giving local government major responsibilities, the quality of people coming forward for election at local government level will improve.


You must decide what functions local government will have. Its structural configuration will depend on the functional responsibilities it is given. It does not make any sense to have 26 planning authorities; 26 education authorities and 26 health authorities. We must consider the efficiency and effectiveness of service delivery. At that stage, there will be a role for local government at a particular level, where services are provided coherently, alongside other major public functions. Local government's role is entirely within the remit of the review, which will decide whether there should be fewer or more functions.


There is no reason why local government - but not as currently structured - could not be given a substantially expanded role.


Mr McElduff: My observation may be unpalatable, but we are planning governance well into the twenty-first century. What would happen if there were to be constitutional change? If Mr Trimble's referendum takes place in the next seven years or the next 14 years, thus requiring another strive for efficiency, what would happen?


My question relates to a sense of place. County Fermanagh has benefited from having a cohesive county identity. On the other hand, County Tyrone, which has four district councils, has not benefited from the same sense of identity. There are 55,000 people in Fermanagh and 157,000 in Tyrone, yet because of the sense of place that exists in Fermanagh, its voice is often heard demanding for services more than the Tyrone voice is. It is interesting that many people identify with the county boundaries.


The mutual lack of appreciation between quangos and elected representatives is an unhealthy culture. You are right about not throwing out the baby with the bathwater. Many people have made contributions to unelected bodies, and they will be called upon to help communities in the future. As the Committee discovered earlier in the week, there is a mutual lack of appreciation; councillors do not serve on health boards or many Chambers of Commerce. This must be overcome. There needs to be more maturity and less fear of politicians. A degree of honesty is needed.


Prof Knox: I have no difficulty with having a concept to guide the reform process. Aside from County Fermanagh, other local areas in Northern Ireland have a sense of identity. People see boundaries as being much more than lines on maps. Such issues should be to the fore in any reform of public administration.


Mr McElduff mentioned councillors and quangos. I am not here to advocate the role of quangos. My point is that there is expertise in quangos that should not be ignored. We should move towards the greater democratisation of quangos or their abolition.


The Deputy Chairperson: Mr McElduff probably omitted to tell you that my county gave the red hand to the whole thing.


Ms Lewsley: It is important that in reviewing public administration we do not throw out the baby with the bathwater. The expertise gathered by quangos and other bodies is probably being used as a model of good practice for any Administration that we have.


When we talk about decentralisation, we often discuss moving buildings and people. However, has anyone considered moving the service? Can that be achieved through e-commerce or e-government?


Prof Knox: OFMDFM in the principle described as "Innovation and business organisation" suggest that the review is forward looking in addressing the needs of service users, including the use of new technology. I hope that that would incorporate the best practices in e-government.


Many of these practices are emerging in local government in Great Britain and there are good examples on which Northern Ireland could draw - such as the one-stop shop approach. Receptionists in local government buildings are constantly bombarded by phone calls about issues that have nothing to do with them. There is a real need for central public service information at that level. Your point about using technology to ensure that this happens in any reconfiguration of local government is very valid.


Ms Lewsley: You are talking about an information service: I mean the actual services offered in some parts of the Department of Education or the Department for Employment and Learning. Could some of those services not be termed "outreach" and be delivered by people in Tyrone, Fermanagh, Larne, or wherever, rather than be located in a building where people are physically present.


Dr Carmichael: There is always potential for that, however, many services, by their nature, require a physical presence, for example, teaching or medicine. Professionals and staff need to be there to deliver the service.


Ms Lewsley: I am talking about administrative staff, such as those in the Department of Finance and Personnel. Why must someone be in a building to provide a service? Could they be based elsewhere? It is like people working from home.


Prof Knox: Your comments are valid, timely and should be embraced in any reform process.


Mr McElduff: I have an observation in relation to Prof Knox's comment about the reception desk in council offices. Derek Quinton is a senior official in the Roads Service in Omagh. He very often takes phone calls from people who say: "Youse boys in the council are doing nothing about the roads." He told me he replies by telling them they are right. Houses are still known as council houses even though they are now under the control of the Housing Executive. There is confusion.


The Deputy Chairperson: Thank you, Prof Knox and Dr Carmichael for your evidence this afternoon. It has shown us the intense thought that must to be given to the subject. Your contribution has been worthwhile.

Menu / 24 April 2002