The State of the State

The view from Northern Ireland’s citizens and public sector leaders

For the past five years, Deloitte LLP and the think tank Reform have produced an annual report on the public sector in Northern Ireland as well as the rest of the UK. The State of the State explores the health of our public finances, the progress of public service reform and the issues that are concerning executives in councils, the health service and other public bodies. Ultimately we aim to get people talking about the public sector to understand its challenges, celebrate its successes and debate its future direction.

For this year’s State of the State, we commissioned Ipsos MORI to survey more than a thousand members of the public on what they think about public services, and we interviewed forty public sector leaders in Northern Ireland and across the UK. Put together, these two elements give us insight into the views of the people who manage our public services as well as the citizens who rely on them.

The citizen survey showed that most people are satisfied with public services, but there is a curious difference between national perceptions and personal experience. When we asked people if public services are getting better or worse, we found that more people believe they are getting worse than they did in 1998 – but their own experience of public services is better than ever. That suggests perceptions of austerity have created a sense of worsening services, or perhaps reduced expectations, even though actual experience of services remains good. In fact, the number of people who say that public services exceed their expectations has jumped from five per cent in 1998 to 18 per cent.

We also asked people if they thought leaving the EU will be better or worse for public services. Some 41 per cent think that Brexit will have negative consequences compared to 28 per cent who think it will be positive and 26 per cent who believe it will make no difference. People in Northern Ireland were more likely to say that they feared Brexit will be worse for public services, which was also true of people in Scotland and London – so in other words, demographic groups who were most likely to have voted ‘remain’ in the referendum are now more likely to be pessimistic about Brexit’s effects.

For public bodies figuring out how to connect with the public online, the survey offers useful insight. Overall, we found that people like to go online to find out information on public services, but still prefer to contact them by telephone for more detailed interaction. That said, the results point to a digital divide: people under 64 and people in professional occupations have a much greater appetite to do more with the public sector online. That suggests a strong future for online public services, but also highlights the risks of digital exclusion that public bodies need to recognise as they move contact channels online. People in Northern Ireland were among those most likely to say they want engage with public services online and most likely to say that the public sector offers a good online experience. That should be a message of validation for Northern Ireland’s public bodies as they continue their digital transformation.

Our public sector leader interviews in Northern Ireland also tell an encouraging story. Last year, most interviewees told us how the complex politics of a five-party coalition hampered decision making, with repercussions throughout the public sector. This year – in real contrast – most talked with a sense of optimism, energy and confidence created by a convergence of factors: a new and constructive political consensus in the Executive, the publication of an action-orientated programme for government, and years of inward investment that have overshot all expectations.

Of course, many expressed concerns about the EU referendum result given Northern Ireland’s exposure to Brexit. But equally, they respected the vote’s outcome and were ready to lead their organisations through uncertain times ahead.
Overall, our public sector leader interviews suggest that cohesive political leadership has created an opportunity for Northern Ireland to accelerate change already underway in its economy, communities and public sector. But at the same time, the effects of Brexit raise unique concerns for the region. That combination of opportunities and risks mean this assembly term could shape Northern Ireland’s prosperity for generations.

For more on our interviews and citizen survey, view The State of the State 2016-17.

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