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Spring clean needed for growing policy slippage

Politics | Published:

FOR many years the States has embarked on policy-making in a way that smacked of anarchy.

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Members voted for reforms without timelines or targets, often without costs or any clear understanding or acknowledgement of the impact they would have on other areas of a committee’s work.

But they consoled themselves that it looked good, looked like they were doing something, showed the public that they were acting.

Sure, there may have been the odd warning from a minister or president about the impact on staff resources, laying the groundwork for a budget bid, but as the departments themselves were equally to blame, it rang somewhat hollow.

It was this philosophy that led to items sitting gathering dust on the shelves when the attention had switched elsewhere, but conversely also served to gum up the system as the public sector was pulled this way and that trying to meet the political demands.

The Policy & Resource Plan was meant to help overcome this.

Except that it is a disease that still holds.

In the first update to progress on this plan, P&R warns of committees starting to work and explore areas that are not agreed priorities – this is the infection setting in before a report winds its way into the system.

The evidence is coming through in the committee performance reports and its ultimate consequence is inefficiency, cost to the taxpayer and no doubt not a great environment for a stressed-out workforce trying to meet all these demands.

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Next up is a president on his or her feet, complaining they are cut to the bone and arguing for more money if services are not to be affected.

Added to the mix is the legacy issue of previous Assemblies’ decisions which may well have been tres, tres important and urgent – and they always are when you read the reports – but simply do not matter now, but no one has seen fit or has been brave enough to axe the work.

There is this giant policy snowball rolling along, growing ever larger – it needs to be stopped, stripped back to the essentials.

P&R is intent on doing just that, echoing concerns raised by Environment & Infrastructure, not a committee renowned in the public conscience for just doing the essentials itself.

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The senior committee has noted ‘that many propositions are approved by the States without deadlines or consideration/evaluation of ongoing cost and, as highlighted by the Committee for the Environment & Infrastructure, pre-date the prioritisation process now in place'.

P&R is now scoping a project to make sure existing resolutions are in essence worthy of being dealt with.

This is not the sexiest of topics but, like a good old spring clean, is entirely necessary.

Of course, in itself it leads to more policy letters to clear up the mess created by the old policy letters, which is all a bit

Yes, Minister.

It is also a field day for the old hands who always like to remind you that one States can’t bind the next, whether they mean that in a good way or bad.

Once this mass de-clutter is complete, and dated resolutions rescinded, then committees become much more accountable for their use of resources – they can no longer blame past decisions of the States.

It may, of course, not be that simple.

There is an attachment, an understandable belief that whatever you are doing is the most necessary piece of work and deserves attention, and probably more attention than what another committee is up to. There may well be resistance.

The consequence of time and resources being wasted is clear when you start to examine progress against this States-agreed programme.

There are obviously cases where things are moving forward, but there are others where they are not.

It speaks volumes that the first government priority area, economic development policy, leads to this warning: ‘There is frustration at the lack of meaningful progress in a number of areas of the Committee for Economic Development’s priorities in the first 12-18 months of this term.’

There is a hope that the change in the board will help overcome this malaise.

Priority number two is air and sea links.

‘Progress against this priority has been disappointing during this term’, the report notes.

Other tensions are apparent in progress, or lack of, on things such as the justice policy and lifelong learning.

It is not all explicit – and the section of the report that is meant to show the public what progress has or hasn’t been made conspicuously leaves out any mention of what target dates were in the first place, perhaps because, just like its predecessors, that kind of thing brings unwanted attention and expectation.

So for instance, in updating the justice framework priority, we learn that Home Affairs has decided what its outcomes should be, the usual tackling the causes of crime, reduction in reoffending-type bullet points, but now believes more resources are needed if significant and timely progress is to be made on a new target operating model for justice.

P&R is clearly not convinced, telling the committee to make sure its resources are fully deployed on priority matters before it even thinks about asking for more money for staff.

Home Affairs is in special measures, working with P&R to make sure it is in control of its spending and the savings required of it.

Its Budget update is an indication of why.

Overspent by £57,000 in 2017, it describes this as an ‘extremely positive outcome’.

But it’s a distorted picture.

There is the mask of the income bonanza it has received from population management – up £365,000 on budget and including multi-year applications that will not be repeated.

It was, in fact, overspent by £127,000 on pay costs – because of ‘several one-off unbudgeted issues in prison and probation services’ and £365,000 on non-pay costs, an area in which spending increased by 8.8% year on year.

Those figures are the troubling ones and require more

public explanation.

Nick Mann

By Nick Mann
author

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