Public sector leaders believe a returning Northern Ireland (NI) Executive will need to demonstrate strong collective leadership and an ability to make difficult strategic decisions, according to a new report from Deloitte.
The State of the State 2024 is an annual report on attitudes to government and public services, delivered by Deloitte and the independent think tank Reform.
The research includes a survey by Ipsos UK of 5,815 UK adults aged 16-75, including 420 from NI, as well as in depth interviews with more than 30 leaders from across the NI public sector.
The publication of this year’s report comes as the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) announced it has agreed a deal with the UK government to return to power sharing after a two-year absence of devolved government at Stormont, with discussions between local political parties on restoring the Northern Ireland Assembly and forming an Executive taking place this week.
Public sector leaders interviewed for The State of the State report late last year said a returning Executive must prioritise a small number of costed, deliverable transformation and reform initiatives if they want to ensure the long-term viability of public services – with health and social care, education, justice, the planning system and housing top of their lists.
Delivering these programmes as part of a new Programme for Government will require ‘clarity of vision’ and ‘a relentless focus on delivery’, as well as agreeing sustainable, multi-year budgets with the UK government, which NI currently does not have, they said.
While almost all public sector leaders want to see devolved Ministers in place, they said a new Executive would need to demonstrate a willingness to take difficult decisions and constructively allow policies to be developed and implemented. Those interviewed by Deloitte stressed the need for the new Executive to be more stable and resilient in future.
Cost of living and NHS top public priorities
For the second year running, the cost-of-living crisis was the NI public’s top concern, mentioned by 83% of people, five percentage points higher than the UK average. The next biggest issue in both NI and across the rest of the UK is NHS waiting lists, with 82% of the NI public saying it should be a government priority, higher than elsewhere in the UK. The public in NI placed social care third on their list of priorities with 49% mentioning it, with affordable housing coming fourth (47%). The percentage of the NI public who want to see improvements in the country’s infrastructure has risen from 28% in the past year to 36%.
The outlook for NI was pessimistic, with 73% of people expecting NHS waiting lists to get worse in the years ahead, 69% expecting the cost-of-living to worsen, and 62% expecting the availability of affordable housing to get worse, all above the UK average.
Asked how they would like to see public services improved, the top priority cited by 53% of people was being able to access decent quality services when they need them, while 40% wanted complaints to be dealt with effectively. The third response, highlighted by 39% of people, was the desire to be able to access the same services wherever they live in the country.
Lower ranking priorities included quality of information, data sharing between agencies, use of digital technology and personalisation, suggesting the public has limited interest in how public services are delivered – just the outcomes.
The survey also found that the NI government is the least trusted of the UK’s administrations, likely due to the lengthy absence of a local Executive.
Marie Doyle, partner at Deloitte in Belfast, said: “It is good news that discussions are underway to restore the Northern Ireland Executive. NI’s public sector continues to grapple with the cumulative impact of successive crises, reductions in spending power, increases in demand and labour challenges. The return of an Executive could critically deliver on the backlogged transformation agenda as well as on policy and delivery choices. The financial position will undoubtedly be challenging but the proposed fiscal package from UK government could help to address some of those challenges.
“This year’s State of the State survey shows this has taken a toll on the public’s optimism for the future, faith in the government and even expectations on public services. People are as pessimistic as last year and trust in the NI government and its ability to deliver remains very low. It is telling that, when it comes to public services, peoples’ current priorities are simply to access them within a reasonable timeframe and be able to complain when things go wrong.”
Marie added: “Public sector leaders told us that NI needs a strong and cooperative Executive willing to make tough decisions, develop and implement policies, and work effectively to ensure stability and resilience. Many also said an agreed Programme for Government must be focused on a small number of strategic priorities. It’s clear from our conversations with those leaders that NI needs a sustainable, multi-year budget agreed with the UK Government to stabilise and improve public services, accelerate transformation in key sectors, and address industrial unrest. How quickly this can be achieved has implications for everyone in Northern Ireland.”