Northern Ireland Assembly Flax Flower Logo

Committee of the Centre

Wednesday 1 May 2002


Review of Public Administration

Ordered by The Committee of the Centre to be printed 29 May 2002
Minutes of Evidence: 03/01/E (Committee of the Centre)


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 1 May 2002

Members present:

Mr Poots(Chairperson)
Mr Beggs
Mrs Bell
Mr Dalton
Mr Maskey
Ms Lewsley
Dr McDonnell
Mr McElduff
Mr McMenamin
Mr K Robinson
Mr Shannon


Prof Skelcher ) University of Birmingham
(School of Public Policy)


The Chairperson: I welcome Prof Skelcher from the School of Public Policy at the University of Birmingham. He has provided a briefing paper and the Assembly research and library staff have also prepared a paper.


Prof Skelcher: Thank you all for inviting me to Belfast. I must admit that it is my first visit, but I am sure that it will not be the last. That fact is important because I have brought a different set of experiences to the meeting, and part of the process of public administration reform is concerned with fitting different possibilities and solutions into a particular context. If international studies on public management reform have told us one thing, it is that the context is very important. The particularities of regions and nations are very important when it comes to adapting the broad principles and making public management reform successful.


First, the review that the Committee is embarking on is probably the most substantial and significant review of public administration that has been undertaken in the UK for the past 50 years - probably since the creation of the welfare state in the late 1940s - in terms of its scope and the possibilities that it provides, particularly those offered by some of the developments that were mentioned earlier. The impact of e-government and new technology enables us to think in different ways about how we organise public administration systems.


The review is also significant because we are at an important stage in understanding public administration. For 20 years a particular model dominated the new public management, and we are now moving to a different kind of formulation, which in my submission I termed "new public governance".


The new public management was driven mainly by a set of largely economic theories that criticised the big public bureaucracies. As well as that, the sets of prescriptions in that system were about management. Those prescriptions included: letting managers manage and devolving responsibilities to them; breaking up the big public organisations; and using boards of appointed individuals rather than elected politicians to make decisions on policy, management and delivery issues. They also included an emphasis on looking at users of services as customers in a quasi-market sense, as well as a strong emphasis on commercial-type forums, such as markets, contracts, competition between public sector providers, hard contracts, performance indicators that examine the input side of costs, and staff numbers. We are now moving into a situation in which, internationally, the value of the new public management will be reconsidered, and that has had a major impact because there have been significant benefits. However, the debate now focuses on how public administration relates to what my colleagues, who work much more in the international arena, call civil society. That asks how public administration operates effectively as part of a democratic society in the elected institutions. That then means that we will take a different emphasis that focuses more on the importance of political leadership in supporting good quality service delivery and encouraging citizen involvement.


There is also a new emphasis on joining the fragmented sections of the public administration system and focusing those on the particular societies' key priorities. As well as that, there is more of an emphasis on using the solutions that seem to work - those might be public or private provision, community or voluntary provision, partnerships, or a desire to focus performance management on achievements.


I picked up on several lessons in my evidence. In the UK the developments in England, Scotland and Wales and the different flavours there are interesting. In England, there is a highly centralised public management system, and it is noticeable that research from the Organisation for Economic Development and Co-Operation (OECD) says that while other countries are decentralising, England is still very centralised. Therefore there is discussion about democratic involvement, but the centre also has a focused and interventionist strategy. In Wales and Scotland there is more consensual discussion between different tiers of Government and between politicians in those tiers.


One lesson that we can learn about the new public Governments is that sometimes we can be distracted by discussions about structure and size of units. The implications of e-government and the lessons of new public management show us that there is not necessarily a particular appropriate scale for a given level of service delivery. Services can be delivered at different scales, and the way that we organise that may be based appropriately on citizens' senses of identity or the geography of particular problems and issues, such as social deprivation, or rural issues. We need to think about what we are trying to resolve through public administration.


We must think about organising our services more on issue and client bases rather than on a professional basis. Many of our services are organised around professional groups. Professionals are important in good quality service delivery, but we must try to ensure that there are effective connections between those professionals groups.


Good centre-local balance must be ensured. Many OECD countries are devolving and the right balance must be struck between what authority is devolved to local, regional and subregional levels and what is held at regional and national levels of government. We must also consider elected and appointed bodies. A growth in appointed systems in Northern Ireland, as in other parts of the UK, has resulted from new public management (NPM) and one implication is that local elected systems are probably undervalued. That has been the experience in England. The value of elected systems must be considered, as must the potential contribution of appointed systems. Perhaps the construction of more effective governing bodies could be considered.


In respect of the review's remit, the review might find it helpful to explore a few areas in more detail. One is the necessity to examine processes as well as structures - not only how the different bits of the system are organised, but how they interlink. Secondly, there is the culture of public administration. What values are to be inculcated in those who work in, govern, manage and deliver public services? Thirdly, whatever the capacity to deliver the results might be it must be considered, together with necessary investment, training and development for staff at all levels in the organisation, as well as for politicians and board members.


The Chairperson: Thank you for that succinct summary. Have you any thoughts on the Assembly's role in examining organisations? Currently it is not possible to examine some; for example, the Northern Ireland Housing Executive does not come under the control of any Department. The Minister's powers in relation to the Housing Executive are limited, yet it has a substantial public role in the provision of social housing. How could that be addressed by the review of public administration? There are other similar bodies.


Prof Skelcher: Are those bodies which are not currently included in the review?


The Chairperson: Yes.


Prof Skelcher: When I am not teaching undergraduates I teach sailing, and I always carry a bag of rope in case something breaks. When I take out one bit of rope usually several other bits come out at the same time. Sometimes I can shake the rope free and sometimes it stays tangled. That is the position with reviews such as this.


The boundaries are drawn in particular ways for particular reasons. When the review process starts it will link to other issues, and some of those may relate to the agencies you mention which are not currently in the review's remit.


Other issues may emerge from the review. For example, one concern in several administrations is the way in which public services may be delivered through publicly-controlled companies; yet company law imposes certain restrictions on those board members which conflict with their role as politicians. The review process must be able to establish mechanisms by which any tangles can be negotiated. That is part of a successful review. The review is clearly wide-ranging, but the implications take many directions. Equally they take the directions you mentioned earlier with regard to links into Europe.


The Chairperson: Have you any thoughts on the reform of the Civil Service? Should that be taken in conjunction with the review?


Prof Skelcher: My answer is the same. There is a level of decision about the boundaries of the review, and I am not qualified to comment on whether that boundary is correct. That is part of the political process. My comment is that if one is trying to deliver effective public services, whatever reviews are undertaken must work to common sets of principles. I understand that there are concurrent reviews in education and health.


Clearly, there are those linkages and discussions. It is important that civil servants, who are at the centre of Government, are as committed to the values and outcomes of the new system of public administration as those who are directly affected by any changes that the review might produce.


Dr McDonnell: Thank you for your presentation. I want to make a general point that you have touched upon already.


The crisis for the Committee, which is trying to take a global view without going into detail, is where should the review begin and where should it end? Should the review be confined to local Government and the many quangos that exist within it, or should it contain - dare I say it, or speak the unspeakable - a review of the Assembly and its functions? A review of public administration might involve power shifting up and down. I anticipate that some of the quangos will be squeezed. Much of their influence will move either to local Government or to regional Government.


The review can only accomplish so much. What parameters should it have, and how should it be defined? Where should it start? Could it be phased? If so, phase one could address quangos, followed by phase two in five years' time. Could that work, or would it be disruptive and destabilising?


Prof Skelcher: Clearly, that is one possible strategy. However, it is part of a much bigger question. A strategy of addressing everything could be adopted, but where would it stop?


The linkages with Europe are very important. Should the mediation of the UK Government in relationships with Europe become part of the agenda? It is a difficult issue. In the context of Northern Ireland it is not a question that I am qualified to comment on. However, the key issue is that if the review will, for example, consider functions, clearly there are several functions that are common at different levels - for example, economic development issues have a role at both central and local level. Part of the review is to consider the processes of linkages - what is the process by which Assembly functions and related functions, such as quangos, interlink and work effectively in order to deliver the outcome that the Assembly desires? That key issue is part of the debate that needs to surround a review of public administration.


Mr McElduff: I welcome the emphasis on the recognition of customers as "citizens" under the new modernisation. Often, district council's refer to local people as "ratepayers". That can be a negative concept because people always question what services they are getting, which is fair enough. However, "citizen" is a better way to describe an individual.


The idea of electing people from the voluntary and community sectors to serve in their constituencies is interesting. Have you any further ideas about that? There is always tension between the elected tier and the community sector.


Prof Skelcher: I am drawn to that idea because a debate is developing in England about the role of councillors, the place of party politics in councils and the ability of councils to reflect the diversities of local communities - whether that is ethnic diversity, age, interests and so on.


The idea behind the proposal comes from Hong Kong. At the time of handover to the People's Republic of China, the legislative council in Hong Kong was elected on the basis of both geographical constituencies and constituencies of interest. That seems significant. Clearly, it is important that there is a geographical focus for political activity and that societies develop communities of interest, association and identity. However, Northern Ireland's political system does not necessarily accommodate those as strongly as interests of locality.


It is trying to begin to work through that possibility, and the possibility that, at a local level, the political institutions might be structured in a more inclusive way than the area base we currently use. That is not to undermine the role of councillors or the reflection of a variety of interests, but there may be other possibilities.


Mr Maskey: Thank you for your presentation. You have focused quite a bit on public governance. I am curious that there is an almost inherent acceptance of the apparent contradiction between democratic control and good management, delivery of services or customer satisfaction. People seem to constantly suggest, or almost accept, that there is a build-in contradiction between public, democratic authority and good management.


Prof Skelcher: Public sector managers' traditional values have been much concerned with service to the public. Those values have often been expressed through fairly resistant bureaucracies - bureaucracies that may be resistant to change or lack responsiveness. Underlying that is the sense that public service managers want to serve the public. That is entirely compatible with democratic values. The new public management movement has begun to undermine those values in public service managers, because of the stated need to concentrate on efficiency, specific target achievement and management by results. In some senses, that has undermined their ability to reflect more public values, as we expect of them.


The new agendas of involvement are important in reconnecting public managers with local communities. Through community conferences, citizens' juries and other consultative mechanisms, public managers and politicians are currently meeting members of the public and pressure groups and are part of the debate. That reconnection is important in building the capacity to deliver good quality public services.


Mr McMenamim: You are welcome to Northern Ireland; thank you for your presentation. I want to ask you a similar question to one I asked a professor from Limerick in the Republic of Ireland last week. What would you see as the most important issue in the review? His reply was decentralisation.


Prof Skelcher: Decentralisation is important. In addition, one should think about the process of implementation at the same time as the process of review. So, my answer is slightly different. Many public management reviews are undertaken in isolation from the implementation process; we redesign the public management system, and then we think about how to implement it. That causes difficulties. In the review process, it is important that we think simultaneously about how we are going to make the change, what we need to do to build the capacity to deliver the change and how we can ensure that people are onboard with the kinds of changes that are emerging. That suggests that there needs to be a consultative approach to the review process. There must be a series of outputs from the review process about the way that thinking is developing, and there has to be discussion with the key actors so that you can deliver the desired outcomes more efficiently.


Mr Shannon: I am intrigued by some of your ideas. In the information that you submitted, you say: "A proportion of council seats could be reserved for such members."


That refers to members from the community be they business individuals, voluntary workers or whoever. Is that at odds with what you said about quangos? Many of us would be concerned about the make-up of quangos and the fact that they are unaccountable. Are you suggesting that there would be people from the business community, for example, who would be put onto the council as of right rather than going to the electorate and asking for the mandate of the people to make decisions on their future?


In other words, there are people in councils who are accountable each four years. If my interpretation is correct, you are suggesting that other people will not be accountable because we are just going to put them onto the council every four years anyway. I do not understand that; it worries me a bit. We are not taking away from the increasing influence that quangos have; we are actually ensuring that "quangoism" will be created and indeed supplemented within councils. Can you clarify that for me?


Prof Skelcher: I am not suggesting that. Having written what I have done on quangos, I would not dare.


Mr Shannon: I am glad to hear that.


Prof Skelcher: Members could also be elected on the basis of a functional constituency. They might come from the voluntary sector or the business community. I am not suggesting that those individuals be appointed. I am saying that particular seats might be reserved for individuals from those sectors, who then have to face the electorate. That may be a way of constructing a more balanced council. The electoral process is very important. It is the best process that we have for articulating the views of the community at a particular time and for holding individuals to account.


Mr Shannon: The terminology that was used in the late 1960s and early 1970s was gerrymandering. I am sure that you are not suggesting that we engage in gerrymandering so that people automatically have a seat on the council set aside for them. That would allow the business community, for instance, to decide whom they want to put forward, and to have a seat given to them. I am at odds with you on that matter. We will agree to disagree.


Prof Skelcher: These are ideas that have to be worked through.


Mr Shannon: The waste paper bin would be a good place for it.


Mr Dalton: I do not want to get into that discussion. Before you know it, whole families will be getting elected. To what extent can the separation of administration from policy development be achieved usefully? We have seen the development of Next Steps agencies within Departments, where the oversight and policy areas are separate from administration. How can that be developed?


Prof Skelcher: That helps to focus attention on delivery. International evidence suggests that there is a debate about how we ensure more adequate steering of the delivery function by the policy function. An interesting set of papers exploring that issue were presented at an Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) conference in Bratislava in 2001. They asserted that Next Steps agencies have been successful and helpful in focusing on delivery, although they are not necessarily well connected with the democratic process, or with citizens and civil society. People are discussing that process, and putting forward ideas about the guidance of those agencies. It is important to pursue that agenda, because these are public sector bodies, working in the public interest. There needs to be a clear relationship with the democratic process.


Mr Beggs: I am pleased that you have been able to give us a wider view of things, as well as some ideas to develop. I listened to your views on how structures are set up to deliver results. Our biggest challenge is our Health Service. We have a Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety, a Committee at Stormont, four health boards and 19 trusts serving 1·6 or 1·7 million people. In terms of modern management techniques, that has resulted in extended lines of communication and reporting that are not on message. How are the health needs of 1·7 million people in an equivalent geographical area in Great Britain managed? How can improvements in development be achieved? To what degree is there a democratic input? Currently, there is no democratic input whatsoever into the health boards and trusts.


Prof Skelcher: I will provide written information on how 2 million people are served by the Health Service in England. I do not have that information to hand.


There is much discussion and debate in the health sector, at the heart of which is a reconsideration of what the Health Service delivers. There is also a view that the public health agenda, the notion of being fit and well and the variety of factors that affect people's health - housing, environment, transport, income levels and diet - are all significant. Therefore, health provision must be more than the GP or the hospital. It must be a more inclusive activity that engages schools, leisure facilities and a whole range of providers.


In England, Health Service development is now trying to stress that public health agenda should build local partnerships between Health Service bodies and other providers to consider ways of integrating provision around those agendas and, to return to an earlier theme, devolve responsibility locally through the creation of what are called "primary care trusts", which are essentially primary care service deliverers with budgets to purchase services from hospital trusts.


That leads to thinking about public health as a broader agenda and the need for budget flexibility. We have not touched upon the extent to which budgets are, or are allowed to be, flexible so that whatever package of services is necessary to deliver particular outcomes can be purchased. Those can quite significantly constrain the ability to deliver good-quality public services.


Mr Beggs: Can you briefly outline health structures? How many different tiers are there? What is the democratic involvement?


Prof Skelcher: In England, there is a small number of what are called "strategic health authorities", which distribute resources and have a broad overview of the health agenda. Trusts deliver acute care in hospitals and so on. There are also primary care trusts that are essentially built around GP practices or consortiums of GP practices.


The democratic input from directly elected individuals is minimal, as those boards are largely appointed. Health professionals, including GPs, have quite a strong influence on local primary care trust composition. Public involvement is largely through consultative mechanisms: health fora, surveys, public meetings, and citizens' juries. They can be effective in gaining public information and views, debating issues and looking at policy choices, but poor as regards health services accountability. Accountability, certainly in the Health Service in England, clearly lies at national level with the Secretary of State. It is a national service, largely delivered locally, with no effective local democratic input.


Mr K Robinson: I want to set our problems into a Northern Irish context as opposed to the English context on which you based your presentation. You stated that there is an anti-governmental emphasis on the new public management (NPM) approach that has perhaps undermined public trust in public services and the democratic process. Given our enthusiasm for elections and politics - if not for politicians - what lessons can we learn to head off that antipathy towards both the democratic process and the provision of public services?


We have been much closer historically to both delivery points. Politicians here are stopped as we walk down the street, are at the supermarket, the bus stop or trying to cross the road. We can confront our health and education professionals in the same manner. A Westminster politician told me that that just did not happen to him in his London constituency - half of his constituents would not know who he was. Surely we have bridged, to some practical degree, the gap in England that you identified?


I used the example of district councils earlier. How can we improve the status of professional members of a district council who are struggling to provide a quality service within existing constraints? How could they provide the same level of service, or perhaps an improved level of service, under the schemes that you identified?


Prof Skelcher: Councils are often undervalued, and part of the difficulty is that they are seldom supported effectively in fulfilling their responsibilities. They get professional advice on the services for which they are responsible, but training and development for councillors as professional community representatives are very poor. That is not restricted to the United Kingdom; it is an international problem. It is important to devote sufficient resources to developing councillors' capacity if district councils - or any elected local administration there may be after a review of public administration - are to be strengthened. That may involve training or councillors' allowances or increasing their research and administrative support to help them in undertaking their roles.


The review should ask what the job description for a local councillor or a member of a local democratically elected body should be and how it should be resourced. It is an important issue. The review may address several issues, but it should also recognise areas of present good practice. It should not start again from scratch: it is inefficient to remove areas of good practice and it demoralises staff and politicians. The review ought to ensure that it incorporates and builds on good practice in public administration.


Mr K Robinson: Are you aware of the European Union's influence on Northern Ireland, including its district partnerships and local strategic partnerships?


Prof Skelcher: Yes. I am aware of the peace partnerships and the Northern Ireland Urban Initiative.


Mr K Robinson: That brings in the business and voluntary sectors in a way that you suggested was the case in the traditional democratic process - a point that seemed to exercise Mr Shannon. That partnership can work and seems to deliver, but it leaves out the political element.


Prof Skelcher: It does. We have, although they are not exactly the same, such local civic partnerships representing local authorities, business, and community organisations. They are a very positive step, and just as we may question the corporate governance and accountability of quangos we must ensure that partnerships adequately reflect good public service governance values and that their structures are transparent and accountable. We should not, however, make them too bureaucratic and we should ensure that they are flexible and able to respond to requirements.


Mr K Robinson: Should Northern Ireland have elected mayors?


Prof Skelcher: That is a difficult question. An elected mayor would be a structural solution. Elected mayors in England have various executive functions and they can be the sole decision maker for the community. Whether that is a solution for a community seeking to ensure compromise, negotiation and discussion across the whole community should be subject to careful investigation, because it does centralise power. With centralisation of power come all sorts of different consequences. It is about the design process. We are designing institutions, and, like the best building, the best designs fit in best in their local context.


The Chairperson: The review's terms of reference asks what lessons can be drawn from systems of public administration in other jurisdictions. Are there any useful lessons to be learnt from the organisation of public administration on these islands, and have you looked at anywhere in particular outside these islands?


Prof Skelcher: There is a whole range of examples, and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) literature is good at trying to capture some of those. New Zealand would be an example of a model of new public management taken to the extreme, but they are beginning to retreat from their pure new public management model. Denmark would be a model where local councils may deliver services that, in a UK context, are seen as national or regional services. They deliver social security services through local councils.


There is a range of possibilities. One of the key themes of international comparison is how one ensures that there is innovation and experimentation, because it is out of innovation and experimentation that we get good solutions. The key is being able to strike the right balance between central and local government. Local, sub-regional institutions need to have the capacity and freedom to experiment, and a network to support that experimentation. The centre or regional level of government needs to admit that experimentation, learn from it, and recycle it into other institutions.


The Chairperson: I thank you for your time. Your evidence will be used when we draw up our report on the review of public administration on behalf of the Committee.






APRIL 2002



I welcome the opportunity to give evidence to the Committee in relation to its study of the report of public administration in Northern Ireland. My evidence is drawn from my own research as well as that of colleagues at the School (notably Prof. Sue Richards and Prof. Janet Newman - now at the Open University) and researchers at other institutions.

Models of Reform

There have been two phases of public administration reform since the 1980s. The first has been adopted in various ways throughout the world and is universally known as 'new public management' (NPM). The second is a more localised approach and does not have an accepted title, being referred to variously as 'modernisation' or 'Third Way' - however I prefer the term 'new public governance' (NPG). The key difference between the two reform movements is their respective emphasis on management and governance.

Figure 1: SOME Key Points of Comparison between NPM and NPG

New Public Management

New Public Governance

'Let managers manage' - separating management from political process

Effective political leadership of a delivery-focused administration

Widespread use of appointed boards to manage services

Encourage citizen involvement in policy, management and delivery

Creation of single-purpose agencies

Creation of partnerships to join-up policy and delivery

Emphasis on 'customers' of public services

Recognition that customers are also citizens

Emphasis on private sector approaches

Emphasis on most effective solutions, whether public, private, voluntary or community - evidence-based

'Hard' contracts between agencies

'Relational' contracts build on trust and negotiation

Performance management concentrates on inputs and throughputs

Performance management concentrates on outputs and outcomes

The significance of NPM is that it is a theory-driven approach to public administration reform. The theory posits that there is 'government failure' due to:

The prescriptions flow directly from the theory, namely:

However weaknesses in NPM have become apparent. The anti-governmental emphasis of NPM has undermined trust in public services and democratic processes. Without trust in government, there is a danger that social capital - and hence social cohesion - will weaken. It also challenges the value base of public servants by introducing quasi-commercial considerations into their work.

The emerging new public governance reflects a realisation of the need to enable public administration to function as an integral part of a democratic society rather than as a managerial offshoot. However it should be recognised that it is still a developing practice and does not have a well-established theoretical foundation. It is also being applied in different ways. In England, it is implemented in parallel with a rigorous performance management regime initiated by central government and reaching down to local authorities and other local public service agencies. In Wales and Scotland, following devolution, the approach is more one of change through encouragement and consensus seeking - and clearly this is more possible given their smaller size of the networks here. There is also a wider recognition of the limits of NPM globally, for example by the World Bank in its World Development Report 1997.

New Public Governance: Some Lessons and Implications

In this section I will address some of the implications of the above for the reform of public administration.

Size of Administrative Units

There have been long debates about the appropriate size for different administrative units. Economists traditionally emphasised economies and diseconomies of scale. NPM - with the disaggregation of large bureaucracies - leads us to consider the transaction costs involved in managing relationships between multiple administrative units.

However I would question the importance of economic considerations to the geography of public administration:

1. NPM has shown that we can organise public administration to separate the geographical areas covered by front-line services and those covered by the back-line support infrastructure (e.g. finance, human resource management, ICT, etc.) where economies of scale may be more significant than customer access to services. For example, there may be pooling or purchasing of back-line functions to serve a number of front-line services - one might have a number of primary care service units sharing a common support service.

2. The development of ICT and e-government offers new possibilities for the flexible organisation of services. Staff do not necessarily need a physical base, users may contact service delivery units electronically and single-points of access (either through phone, 'e' or physical means) can be developed.

Consequently the key criteria in determining the geography of public administration may well be:

1. 'Citizens' sense of geographical identity - meaningful geographical units are particularly important in order to give citizens a sense that they can take part in the governance of 'their' community.

2. Equity in resource distribution and access to services - although grant systems can compensate for the former.

3. The specific geographical targeting of the service - e.g. Sure Start in England covers areas which may only include several hundred households.

The Division of Services

Traditionally, services have been divided along functional, professional lines - health, housing, libraries, education. These do not necessarily meet the individual citizen's needs and there are inevitable issues about the boundary between services. Recent developments in England have given a greater focus to issue and client-group rather than functional criteria for organising services - i.e. social exclusion, older people, market towns, young children and their families, lifelong learning, sustainability. The opportunity to redesign a whole public administration system, as in Northern Ireland, does offer the opportunity to make the organisation of services more meaningful to citizens.

The Centre-Local Balance

Our research into improvement and innovation in local government showed that three factors were important:

1. effective local leadership;

2. encouragement for staff to work with users to develop new approaches;

3. a supportive network.

This suggests that subsidiary and discretion at the local level should be fostered, with the centre setting overall frameworks for services defined in outcome terms where possible. Incentives and rewards may support this process, as in the Local Public Service Agreement system in England. It is important that the natural concerns of the centre do not lead to excessive inspection, regulation or intervention, to the detriment of a focus by local organisations on service delivery and improvement.

A key development in England to support modernisation has been the creation of the Modernisation Team of seconded local authority officials who advise and assist councils in responding to the new agenda and are able to convey messages back to the centre.

Elected and Appointed Systems

The growth of appointed boards is a feature of NPM. Potentially have certain benefits:

1. the membership can be balanced in particular ways

2. they can incorporate special expertise

3. they are more impartial than elected bodies with respect to party politics

4. they can be composed of individuals committed to policy implementation.

However there are major difficulties in their accountability. They may give an account (i.e. explain their actions) but cannot be held to account other than by the appointing individual or body.

Election is the preferable system for the democratic control of public sector bodies. However there may be a case for thinking about the composition of elected bodies. Councils, for example, are composed of individuals elected to represent a geographical area. But there could also be members elected on the basis of a functional constituency, e.g. the voluntary sector, faith communities, the business community. A proportion of council seats could be reserved for such members. This would enable a more effective representation of the various interests in the community, bringing some of the benefits of an appointed system without compromising the democratic principle.


It is important to strike the right balance between good governance on the one hand and service delivery which is effective and improving on the other. Effective service delivery suggests innovation, experimentation, risk-taking. Good governance emphasises conformance to procedures and accountability for decisions. It is important that the new system of public administration enables local innovation and development while at the same time assuring citizens and the Assembly that the process of managing and governing public services is being undertaken appropriately.


Janet Newman, John Raine and Chris Skelcher (2000) Innovation and Best Practice in Local Government: A Research Report, London: Department of Environment, Transport and the Regions.

Janet Newman (2002) Modernising Governance, London: Sage

Chris Skelcher (2000) 'Changing Images of the State: overloaded, hollowed-out, congested'
Public Policy and Administration 15(3)

Helen Sullivan and Chris Skelcher (forthcoming mid 2002) Working Across Boundaries:
Collaboration in Pubic Services, Basingstoke: Palgrave

24 April 2002 / Menu / 8 May 2002