Alison Allen, Chief Executive of the Northern Ireland Local Government Association (NILGA), outlines the difficult line local government often has to walk between risk management and fostering a culture of innovation and creativity. Building upon the NILGA 2023 Conference theme of “Responding to future challenges”, which you can read about here, these insights offer a timely reminder of the important role local government plays in Northern Ireland.
As a public servant in Northern Ireland for many years, most recently in local government, I am always immensely proud of what we do to deliver for this region. Almost without exception, I’ve worked with public servants who are genuinely motivated to do their best for citizens and businesses.
But equally, there have been too many occasions over the years where actions haven’t matched this genuine sentiment, and unnecessary bureaucracy has negatively impacted delivery.
I often ask myself how we got to this point and what if we could really enable an environment where the passion, creativity and innovation of our public servants can thrive with an appropriate but not overburdensome approach to the management of risk.
Early in my tenure in NILGA, I attended a conference with senior representatives from across the public sector in Northern Ireland, and our collective leadership agenda for the future was being discussed. Almost exclusively, those in the room wanted public service delivery to improve and could identify the challenges that needed to be overcome in delivering that change.
The discussion started to move towards the checks and balances that need to be in place to manage public money, and very quickly the mood in the room became more deflated with references to the requirements of auditors. Then, out of the blue, a very senior auditor said to the room, “When has my organisation ever told you not to take a risk?” and the room was silent because the answer was “never”. What this senior auditor was communicating was that it was about managing risk and that, somehow, aversion to risk is starting to dominate our thinking.
The Northern Ireland Audit Office has been at the forefront in trying to understand these issues and, in June 2023, published “A Good Practice Guide for the Public Sector – Innovation and Risk Management”. Having surveyed 111 public sector organisations, they cited the following as the main barriers to innovation in the public sector:
- the risk of failure and being held to account
- risk appetite to innovate
- organisational capacity and capability
- uncertainty and short-termism.
With the main enablers of innovation identified as:
- organisational culture
- organisational capacity and capability
- the willingness to collaborate with others/partnership.
As public servants, I’m sure we all recognise those barriers, but if you look at the main enablers, it is glaringly obvious that local government delivers on those day in and day out, with its culture of creativity and innovation. From the emergency Covid-19 response in supporting vulnerable residents with food parcels, and the delivery of inaugural community plans, city and growth deals for Belfast, Derry/Londonderry and Mid-South West, to finding solutions to the global problems of climate change, councils have been leading the way.
Elected members in local government deliver consistently every day for their communities, despite periods of wider regional political instability in Northern Ireland, with the support of the ‘can do’ attitude of local government officers.
The closeness of both elected members and local government officers to the people they serve is unique in public service terms, delivering an intimate understanding of what individuals, families, communities and businesses need to thrive.
Motivated by this unique connection to the people we serve, local government consistently leaves no stone unturned in collaborating and forming partnerships with all sectors to deliver for citizens.
The continuing challenges we face as a society are significant, whether that be public service financial pressure, the cost-of-living crisis, post-Brexit delivery, evolving legislative and regulatory requirements, the climate emergency, or rapidly increasing digitisation.
It has never been more important to empower councils in Northern Ireland with all of the necessary statutory powers to deliver on their role as custodians of place, and the Northern Ireland Assembly must deliver on the outstanding legislation and regulations that are crucial to enhancing councils’ service delivery.
There is no doubt public service finances are under some of the most significant pressures there have been for some time. The cost-of-living pressures affecting our communities are affecting councils as well. But this means it is even more important to be courageous and challenge ourselves to do more with less.
Local governments’ track record of delivery with agility, flexibility, and high levels of accountability and democratic oversight should be an inspiration to the rest of public service, and if given our place as valued partners, we can provide solutions to some of the challenges we collectively face.
As a professional, I value self-awareness and a growth mindset as one of the key attributes in public service. As public sector leaders, we must demonstrate the courage to understand what we know and what we don’t know and have the openness to surround ourselves with the best minds from all sectors to co-create the best outcomes for citizens.
To find out more about the direction and work of NILGA, make sure you read our interview with Cllr Matt Garrett, NILGA President for 2023-24, about some of the opportunities and challenges facing local government in Northern Ireland.