Freedom and Responsibility

I spent today at an Open Space event organised by NICON, the Northern Ireland branch of the NHS Confederation. There were about 80 people there, representing different aspects of health and social care work in NI, as well as people from other government departments, consultancies, the private sector, the community and voluntary sector, health charities, and two of us from local government. We were considering the theme “How can leaders in the HSC and in partner bodies help shape and drive change to meet the health and social care challenges ahead “, with the purpose of building a wider understanding of the challenges and to propose solutions. Participants proposed topics for discussions, which were then self-managed in smaller groups.
The first session I took part in involved a discussion on collaborative working, focussing on reasons for and barriers preventing joined-up working, and looking at the potential for central-local working within the community planning process (due to be legislated in NI very soon).
Three key themes soon emerged:
• The need for a collaborative approach and shared outcomes
• The need for a political mandate
• The need for permission to be innovative, particularly in use of money and resources

There was broad agreement that collaboration hasn’t worked across the public sector in NI to date, never mind involving business and communities. The Total Place approach and single outcome agreements were discussed as potential positive ways forward, and as a means of looking at what we are collectively spending, which is currently very disjointed. To use our resources better, it was agreed that we should have shared themes and agreed outcomes on health across the public sector. There was lack of consensus on who should lead, with a particularly worrying comment made by a senior official, who believed that local government shouldn’t lead on community planning.
There was agreement that the way budgets are allocated needs to change, to reward the right work in the right place, and to achieve an agreed end vision, with collective agreement on the good we are trying to achieve. Building a shared understanding of the long term aims was agreed to be vital, with partner organisations being able to see and show the benefits of collaborating.
A serious barrier was identified in the lack of ability to pool resources effectively and to synchronise on time and it was acknowledged that, no matter how good the concept, to date NI has failed on implementation. There are particular difficulties at local level.
It was agreed that sometimes we need to bend and break rules to achieve. We need to rewrite the rule book if this is the case, and to negotiate with DFPNI to obtain their support for and action on financial innovation.
We need to look at the targets we are working towards, examine our corporate plans, and rethink them, to ensure an integrated approach and an outcomes focus. There needs to be permission for integrated working, and a move away from over-management of Trusts.
A further barrier was identified as the changing nomenclature for policy and practice, within a changing political context, e.g. Total Place now known as community budgeting. This confuses the issue, and is an unnecessary complication. Political maturity is preferable to rebranding.
It was strongly agreed that the mandate for a new way of working, with a cultural shift from delivery of services to delivery of outcomes, needs to come from the Assembly. A new set of agreed outcomes should be contained within the new Programme for Government. Local councils currently suffer from the need to implement a constant drip-feed of cross-cutting, yet unlinked government strategies, pulling us in many different directions, with a short termist funding provision (obtained at Christmas, spend by June). We need the NI Executive to ‘join the dots’.
It was noted that devolution to a regional assembly with local accountability, has increased risk aversion. Public servants need to be trusted to make decisions and to change priorities when needed, particularly if different departments and partner organisations are to work together to overcome silos and reduce duplication. The politicians and policymakers should focus on the ‘what’ not the ‘how’.
We are beginning to take on greater responsibility for education area planning, community planning and commissioning, but these all need to be joined up, without fear of paralysis or protectionism.
At the moment there is no space to acknowledge that change is necessary and to work out what is needed, to “call my baby ugly”. A cultural change is required, with a safe conversation on outcomes, working in a forgiving context. We need freedom, to be given permission to take risks, and to get things wrong occasionally. As my dad says; “anyone who never made a mistake, never made anything”.

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PICamp Session 2 – Participatory Budgeting


PICamp Belfast

Session 2: Participatory Budgeting

This group was exploring what participatory budgeting is, what it can be used for in NI and what barriers would be anticipated.

It was identified that Participatory Budgeting (PB) was commonplace in Latin America where communities were often given control of where money was spent in their communities. It was also noted that a number of councils in England had begun to use the technique. Councils in Northern Ireland have been looking at PB as a tool for use in community planning in the post local government reform era, but discussions were now taking place as to how the technique councils to use resources more effectively given the current economic pressures.

A number of risks were identified in that there Is potential to veer towards populism away from need; and for money to go to ‘fashionable’ issues over the more mundane.

There was consensus that there is a need to give the citizen a voice in decision making, to show how and why decisions are made. To do this people need to be given the necessary information and education, and the opportunity to use their ability to inform decision making.

It was observed that most of the population is not engaged, partly due to life pressures and the need to prioritise time. It was noted, however, that if people see the benefits of engaging, then they are more likely to engage.

The view was expressed that it was difficult for people with innovative ways of thinking and ideas, to get involved in policy and decision making.

“We need to get beyond dog fouling”


It is vital to explain where the money goes, and how best to use it. A number of good projects were discussed – it is much cheaper to spend on preventative healthcare than acute hospital care. Homestart can keep 40 children out of care for the price of looking after one child in care.

The media plays a key role – need to pressure politicians on the right things.


Lack of knowledge of the workings of government

Complexity of budgetary information and government statistics

View that government is ‘spinning’ if information is simplified

People caucus – can skew result. How to engage weaker voices?

A robust process needs to be in place – has to be about local residents

The powers that be need to be receptive to innovative ideas, and to community-identified needs



When does PB work?

PB is empowering, when the public get the information they need to make informed choices.

PB works best when you start small and take people seriously.

It builds a sense of responsibility

Community buy-in ensures what it built is not wrecked

…Sometimes the best work happens in the cracks…

How do we engage the disengaged?

Are public meetings the right forum? Need to be very careful to ensure all get a say – may not be possible for some to attend.

The value of meeting people face to face cannot be overestimated. Councils can work with community groups. Community groups can train outreach workers and can work with other agencies.

Need to encourage volunteering and participation in community. NI has come a long way in last 30 years – now moving towards issues based politics.

Need to achieve a balance and a trust in the information presented by government. The raw data is often extremely complex, and if an attempt at presentation is made, there is vulnerability to accusations of spin.

Macro issues

There was a discussion on global environmental issues that our local politicians are not addressing – e.g. fish stocks, climate change. Focus on micro issues squeezes out the macro – there is a schism between global and local, with the pertinent issues kicked into the ‘too hard’ box. Some scepticism was expressed about whether democracy as a system can ever deliver on environmental concerns, and particularly in an era when the western view of democracy is diminishing.

Alternatively, behavioural change at the micro level can encourage change at macro. If we increase responsibility locally , then we can use a sustainable development approach to feed into the global. If the macro issues are scary then we need to give people practical things to do to chip away at the macro issue at a micro level. For example – working with areas impacted by flooding to look at climate change issues and their carbon footprint


We each need to take ownership of our cost

There was a level of agreement that we don’t tend to measure the right things, and that we fail to take account of opportunity cost, and our impact on society. The new approach being taken in France was outlined, where the President is looking at issues in the round, viewing their impact on society as a whole.

We need to decide what we value.



So what can we do?

Work to increase participation and volunteering

Work to create a real two way exchange

Create civic forums at ward level, with open dialogue

Look at good practice in other areas – America Speaks, Swedish model

Work to overcome segregation and our adversarial approach to society

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Hello and welcome to localisbeautiful

Hi there. I signed up to wordpress so that I had somewhere to post up the notes from PICamp Belfast online, bit since I’ve started blogging I may as well continue. I’m not promising the posts will be regular or  deeeply opinionated, but they might give a small insight into the world of local government in Northern Ireland.

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