Prof Derek Birrell (Ulster)
A relatively new and common feature of the devolved administrations in the UK has been the emergence of outcome based frameworks as key components of their policy making processes. An outcome based approach was signalled by the Northern Ireland Government in 2015 as an ambitious approach which would be applied to the new Northern Ireland Programme for Government. The pressure for such an approach originated as a form of policy copying from Scotland and from lobbying by Carnegie UK and some consultancy bodies for the promotion of a wellbeing framework to inform a programme for government (Carnegie UK, 2013). An attraction of an outcomes based approach has been cited as the apparent offer of a simple solution to complex problems, reducing the need for detailed policy analysis to a list of simple statistics or indicators. Outcomes based accountability methodology is presented as a disciplined and uniform approach, applicable at all levels from local to national. The devolved administrations have tended to use the outcome based approaches as a long term projection of government achievement. There is an obvious attraction for governments in being able to set more time for producing achievements, for postponing difficult decisions and avoiding political conflict. An alleged benefit of outcomes based accountability is the potential for the alignment of outcomes, linking social, economic and environmental aspects and avoiding government departments and public bodies acting in silos.
The trend for outcome based frameworks has received comparatively little analysis or comment in academic work on devolved policy making and governance to date. This presentation examines the forms of outcomes based approaches used and the conceptual difficulties and validity associated with the use of these frameworks. It asks if such outcomes based approaches attempt to reduce policy making to a technical and rational problem solving exercise (Bovaird, 2014) with little recognition that indicators reflect an ethical or political framing process. It presents a critical assessment on the application and impact of outcomes based frameworks in the three devolved administrations, looking at why particular indicators are selected to assess progress towards outcomes, the lack of targets for interim outcomes, how the data will be used to inform policy formulation and the lack of robust evidence for success of OBA in improving services.
This seminar took place on 17 January 2018