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Progress on public sector reform

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Joanna McArdle, Barclays (Host); Colin Walsh, CBI Chair; Minister Simon Hamilton; Jackie Henry, Chair of CBI’s Public Services Reform Committee
Emma Cowan on July 3, 2014 - 7:58 am in News

Finance Minister Simon Hamilton MLA has outlined the extensive progress made to date on advancing public sector reform.

Mr Hamilton told the Confederation of British Industry at a members lunch held in Barclays Bank in Belfast that a year after setting his focus on reform, he remains positive that Northern Ireland can create an innovative public sector capable of addressing the challenges Northern Ireland faces in the future.

Commenting, Minister Hamilton said: “A year ago, upon taking office as Minister of Finance and Personnel, I sketched out my agenda for the Department to an audience of CBI members. I outlined my vision that Northern Ireland should aspire to have the most innovative public sector in the world, harnessing the advantages of our size and our experience and leveraging the opportunities of public spending pressure to renew, redesign, rethink, restructure and reform our government.

“The degree of change that I envisage, the level of reform that we need, isn’t achieved overnight or even in one year. It isn’t even possible in the current term of this Executive. It is, arguably, a never ending process of change – always innovating; always reforming; always addressing emerging challenges.”

The Minister described how much of the last year has been spent constructing what he called the ‘architecture of reform’.He outlined a number of public sector reform initiatives the Department have been involved in during the last 12 months including:

  • the creation of the Public Sector Reform Division with DFP;
  • a modern, IT driven staff innovation scheme called ‘Ideas Engine’ which gives staff the chance to be involved in service redesign and be rewarded for their ideas that work;
  • the launch of the Northern Ireland Public Sector Innovation Laboratory with the inaugural lab examining the effectiveness of the regulatory impact assessment process was reviewed and other labs looking at dementia and innovation in procurement in planning;
  • the publication of the first ever Northern Ireland wellbeing data as the beginning of a better focus on outcomes; and
  • Executive agreement to engage with the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) to conduct the first ever sub-national public governance review with the OECD providing a strategic underpinning for Northern Ireland’s reform agenda.

Minister Hamilton continued: “Just as the vision of better to come isn’t enough. Neither is solely establishing the architecture for reforming our public sector. We need to show that change is occurring all the time. That continuous improvement can occur in the short term while we work towards our long term aims. In a range of areas across DFP, reforms have been bringing about positive change in the past 12 months. We have progressed with improvements in areas like e-government, asset management, shared services and procurement.”

Minister Hamilton outlined improvements to date as:

  • shared services savings of over £15million on rent, rates and service charges delivered by Properties Division;
  • Account NI achieving 90% of payments to suppliers within 10 days;
  • an expansion in e-government with more services including SpatialNI and GeNI launched this year;
  • agreement on an asset management strategy which will pursue potential savings of over £50million by 2022;
  • significant savings in procurement through collaborative practices, use of technology to simplify the procurement process and the introduction of the new eTendersNI system and;
  • plans for a centralised procurement and delivery service for major infrastructure projects.

Concluding, Mr Hamilton said: “I know that when I first said that I wanted Northern Ireland to build the most innovative public sector in the world, there were many who thought it was a noble aspiration but out of our reach. As goals go, it isn’t the easiest to achieve. But nothing I have seen or experienced over the past year has made me doubt that it isn’t an attainable aspiration. In fact, much of my experience over the last 12 months has highlighted just how innovative government in Northern Ireland already is.

He also stressed, however, that there are challenges ahead: “Whatever we have achieved to date won’t be enough. Even with a reform architecture in place, the assistance of the OECD and our existing experience, it won’t be plain sailing from here on in. The challenges we already face and those that face us in the future will be exacerbated by the fact that public spending pressures are growing.”

Commenting on the Minister’s address, CBI’s Chair of the Public Services Reform Committee, Jackie Henry said: “Today’s lunch was an excellent stock take opportunity in the context of progress over the last year. We have been strongly supportive of the drive by the Minister to consider new service models and developing more and more innovative approaches to public service delivery and will continue to lead this through our work with the Executive’s Public Sector Reform Division into the autumn. The business community is leading on the development of new technology that can enhance and make our public services more sustainable and it is such examples, in the context of continued public expenditure constraint that we will continue to showcase.

“On infrastructure, we again welcomed the commitment of the Minister to deal with the procurement and delivery challenges, such as a proper pipeline of works, which are such a critical concern to industry and formed the backdrop for our infrastructure report of last autumn. An Executive mandate for a regional infrastructure plan and a drive towards establishing a delivery focused culture in the public sector are key deliverables that now have the Finance Minister’s clear backing and we wish to see the changes implemented speedily.

“In respect of reform of the public sector and the infrastructure delivery environment, we did however reinforce our view that greater agreement on such fundamentals is required around the Executive table and, while we understand the constraints of five party government, we will continue to do all that we can to ensure this is achieved”.

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