Tuesday, 25 September 2012

Northern Ireland Governance - The Belfast Deficit

Sammy Wilson, the Finance minister, had this to say about the role of independent/non-executive members on Departmental Boards at Stormont back in August 2010:

The primary role of the Independent Board Member is to contribute to the good governance of the organisation. Independent Board Members will offer constructive challenge across the organisation’s business, with a view to ensuring that all aspects of strategy and delivery of policy are scrutinised for effectiveness and efficiency.

The Department of Finance and Personnel has issued a handbook [pdf file] which outlines its responsibilities:

Ministers seek to implement policies and deliver public services through public servants; but are able to do so to the fullest extent only when the Assembly grants the right to commit and expend resources. It falls to the Department of Finance and Personnel to respect and secure the rights of both the Assembly and the Executive in this process (and, where appropriate, to ensure compliance with HM Treasury guidance). Resources are provided by central government and hence it is expected that the public sector in Northern Ireland will operate within the broad framework established by HM Treasury.

The DFP handbook contains the following principle on the managing of public money:

1.1.2 At a high level the principles in this handbook apply to public services in NI, complementing the guidance on good governance in the Code of Good Practice on Corporate Governance in Central Government Departments (the Corporate Governance Code).

HM Treasury has provided such guidanceCorporate governance in central government departments: July 2011 - Code of good practice 2011:

“Secretaries of State should chair their departmental board. Boards should comprise other Ministers, senior officials and non-executive board members, largely drawn from the commercial private sector and appointed by the Secretary of State in accordance with Cabinet Office guidelines. The remit of the board should be performance and delivery, and to provide the strategic leadership of the department.” - Excerpt from Ministerial Code

So why don't Ministers at Stormont chair their Departmental Boards? Why aren't they implementing the good practice outlined in the guidance prepared by HM Treasury? Would the quality of governance be improved if Ministers, senior civil servants and independent members sat around the same table when key decisions are taken?

The present arrangement is a much looser one; the DRD Corporate Governance Framework illustrates the separation between the Minister and the independent/non-executive Board members. The Minister and his special adviser join senior civil servants for a Weekly Stocktake and the special adviser participates in the Weekly Business Review but both are absent from the monthly meetings of the Departmental Board.

The Departmental Board (the Board) provides corporate leadership to the organisation as a whole, takes responsibility for the Department’s performance and provides support for the head of the Department who provides advice to the Minister. .. DRD CGF

Perhaps it's time Stormont got in step with HM Treasury's guidance on good governance.