Public sector output measurement (NI)


The following letter of June 2005 to the Permanent Secretary of the Northern Ireland Department of Finance and Personnel
reviewed the demise of the  "NI Masternet Project" 2001



Des McConaghy


5 Glenluce Road, Liverpool L19 9BX



John Hunter CB                 18 June 2005

Permanent Secretary

Department of Finance & Personnel

Rathgael House

Balloo Road

Bangor BT19 2PR


Dear John


Public Sector Output Measurement


Thank you for your letter of 15 June. It dealt briefly with my 2 June email to Nigel Hamilton about the lack of response (even resistance) to my ideas for opening up public sector outputs in Northern Ireland. I had better try, finally, to sum up our liaison - since no project can continue indefinitely.


You refer to your own progress with Whitehall colleagues. But you must know the system I proposed is not the same as current Whitehall work on output measurement - though complementary to it. I felt Northern Ireland had good reasons for going faster than Whitehall in demonstrating public sector outputs because of the deep-seated lack of political accountability and mistrust.


So let me first deal with limitations of Whitehall staff work before restating just why the Province still needs extra effort.


The main action on sub-UK statistics follows the Atkinson Review, PESA 2004, the Allsopp Review and the McLean Report. As Iain McLean explained, his 2003 Report carries forward the early work by Bevan Waide in the Northern Region (which first reported in 1975). I was a civil servant during the early stages and can tell you that Bevan threatened his own private publication given government's reluctance to sanction any routine publication of regional statistics.


Iain McLean's 2003 Report leads into the 2004 Allsopp Report where the explicit emphasis is on the statistical requirements of economic policymaking. The 2005 Atkinson Report, to which you explicitly refer, is mainly concerned with the measurement of output and productivity for the national accounts.


Atkinson refers to sub-UK statistics (paras. 7.29 to 7.33) but has the problem of arriving at pay and price deflators for geographical areas. Nationally credible deflators at a regional level simply do not exist, let alone at below that level. But none of this is of much interest to local laypeople concerned with decisions about their services.


There are, too, encouraging developments in PESA 2004, ongoing ONS work on Neighbourhood Statistics and ONS long term plans for the full geo-referencing of data ... that is to say if the necessary funding and essential Whitehall co-ordination recommended by Iain McLean ever manages to materialise! There are also some very ad hoc attempts at Local Area Profiles and the like.


But I hope this summary of main Whitehall developments allows me to make three simple points. Firstly the routine demonstration of outputs I proposed in Northern Ireland is a relatively simple exercise of more interest for average laypeople than any of the above Whitehall operations. Secondly you yourself, David Woods, Nigel Hamilton and other senior NICS colleagues helped me to demonstrate this could be done in principle as early as 1986 ... until stopped by Whitehall! Thirdly there are compelling reasons why the two communities in Northern Ireland should routinely see who gets what !(1)


The NICS often lags behind Whitehall - and perhaps making constituency impacts so explicit was considered too "political". So my evidence on your GRA Bill began my formal attempt to involve Assembly Committees and Ministers (2). This clashed with your official "explanatory" advice that the Bill just reflected UK wide accounting changes and therefore didn't call for general consultation. As senior Westminster MPs noted, the GRA Bills were about the way the Legislature provides the Executive with the money to run the country!


So my proposed GRA amendments gave the NI C&AG greater powers to follow public money to outputs and placed performance reporting on a statutory basis requiring Assembly validation. The first was eventually accepted (after the Sharman Inquiry). But Whitehall still wants to keep validation away from Parliament though this could make more sense of our chaotic Supply procedures. What mattered was the ability of the NI Assembly to register political decisions at constituency levels and to systematically incorporate feedback.


It wasn't a fanciful aim. As you know preparations for the Scottish Parliament (FARC etc) specifically set out to avoid Westminster's parliamentary impotence. It is questionable as to how effective this has been. But the urgent challenge for the Province was to seek relevant innovation well beyond traditional Whitehall routines.


You seemed to agree about needing disaggregated information. After my evidence for the Westminster Treasury Committee on public service agreements (3) you wrote to me (as DSD permanent secretary) about "the need to disaggregate the targets not least to the 'point of delivery' as you say in your article", (11 April 2001). Remember the specific technical innovations proposed were quite modest and, as noted, already explored 19 years ago! 


My consultants then were Tony Travers and Dr Mike Richardson - the latter also serving on Lord Chorley's Review of Geographical Information Systems (GIS). It is of course also a disgrace that over the following two decades policy directors have kept all resource decisions out of our official GI strategies in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.


So you must know that eventually an official interdepartmental group met on 31 July 2002 to discuss progress. I circulated an "Aide Memoire" (as my own draft record and to seek corrections). But much later, and just before the Assembly was stood down, officials issued a brief note to the effect that we should avoid disaggregating data or indicators to the level of small geographical areas.


This stood public service reform on its head! But Sir Reg Empey confirmed this conclusion, perhaps one of his last acts as Minister. I drew parallels with Mark Durkan's initial resistance (as Finance Minister) to extending public auditors' right to follow public money to where it was spent. Perhaps both were just dutifully following official briefs. In any event the Assembly had become known as "the best club in town". Both paid the price - and so did the Assembly!


My email to Nigel Hamilton also referred to the support I received from the UK Statistics Commission about FOI "publication schemes" being used to show public authorities' disaggregated outputs. My evidence for the Westminster Public Administration Committee made it clear that the great weakness of FOI legislation would be in inadequate "duty to publish" provisions (4). Recently the Scottish Information Commissioner recognised this weakness - and the need for better regulations in any future legislation. But much can be done with the present provisions if piloted by departments. At least one Minister already supports this.


Finally let me refer to two examples instanced at my 2002 Stormont meeting with officials. Newspapers then accused Nigel Dodds (DUP Minister) of favouring Loyalist housing investment in North Belfast. It was untrue and in 1986 Nigel Hamilton had helped me to show how anyone could see (via user-friendly accessible online information system) just where all such investment ends up; once again, who gets what! At virtually the same time Belfast Telegraph headlines claimed SF Minister McGuinness was unfairly favouring Catholic schools in capital allocations. David Woods, who attended the meeting and also helped from DENI in 1986, knew that all such rubbish is easily and publicly disproved by the online systems we once pioneered together.


Back in 1986 the NI Central Secretariat offered to annually update all this local information on a publicly accessible online information system. But once again Whitehall halted progress with new rules to extract the maximum commercial return from official information. Of course such difficulties can be overcome but not without political support and a fundamental change in official attitudes.


Best wishes


Des McConaghy

(Notes and circulation in Annex)





Notes refer to the following ...


(1) The NI Equality Commission does not acknowledge correspondence about how the above proposals relate to the operation of Section 75 Equality Duty Provisions of Northern Ireland Act 1998.


(2) Des McConaghy. Written Evidence on Government Resources and Accounts Bill (NIA Bill 6/00) NI Committee for Finance and Personnel Session 2000/2001, 16 Jan 2001, Stationery Office Belfast.


(3) Des McConaghy. Written Evidence for Inquiry into Performance Targets: CM 4181 & CM 4315 for the Westminster Treasury Committee "Public Service Agreements" HC 378, Stationery Office. Also in Des McConaghy "Measuring (Accountable) Success", Public Money and Management, Vol 19, No 3, Oct-December 1999, CIPFA, London.


(4) Des McConaghy. Written Evidence on White Paper "Your Right to Know" for Westminster Public Administration Committee. Third Report of Session 1997-98, HC 398-II, Stationery Office.



This correspondence is being circulated for information to the following ...


PS/Angela Smith MP (Northern Ireland Minister)

PS/Nigel Hamilton (NICS)

Ciaran Moore (Northern Ireland Audit Office)

David Corner (National Audit Office)

Caroline Gardner (Audit Scotland)

Richard Alldritt (CEO: Statistics Commission)

Marie Anderson (Assistant Information Commissioner NI)

John Aldridge (Finance Officer Scottish Executive) for information

Sarah Hutchinson (Head of Policy, Scottish Information Commissioner)

Matthew Shearing (Office for National Statistics)

Professor Iain McLean (Nuffield College Oxford

Professor Glen Bramley ( Heriot-Watt University Edinburgh)

Tony Travers (LSE)

Seamus McAleavey (NICVA)

John Barry (Acting Director Inst. Of Governance & Public Policy (QUB)

Ray Gosling (Public Finance)

Stephen Pittam (Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust)


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Contact to Des McConaghy:




5 Glenluce Road, Liverpool L19 9BX,   Tel. 0151 427 6668


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