Northern Ireland

NILGA 2023 Annual Conference – Responding to future challenges


Photo by Rory McKeever on Unsplash

In February 2023, LGIU travelled to Omagh to attend the Northern Ireland Local Government Association (NILGA) 2023 Annual Conference.

Local government is front and centre in Northern Ireland like never before. With political deadlock paralysing devolved governance in NI for over a year and local elections due in May 2023, local government is in an ever more critical position for delivering local services and democracy in Northern Ireland.

Focusing on “Responding to Future Challenges”, throughout the conference, we heard a myriad of ways for local governments to innovate and collaborate to achieve their ambitions.

Sharing the key learnings and innovations from NILGA’s 2023 conference, this publication re-caps the highlights from the day, providing a glance into the shifting and uncertain world of local government.

The conference began after a generous networking breakfast provided by Fermanagh and Omagh District Council. Source: @NI_LGA
The conference began after a generous networking breakfast provided by Fermanagh and Omagh District Council. Source: @NI_LGA


Each of the opening remarks reflected on the barbaric shooting of off-duty police officer John Caldwell in Omagh the night before and each speaker presented a different lens of what local government means in NI. For Cllr Barry McElduff, Chair of Fermanagh & Omagh District Council, local government is about providing leadership, and the pandemic showed how local government could be innovative, flexible and dynamic.

Setting out the local government’s agenda for the future, Cllr Martin Kearney, NILGA President, looked to the future and how we can do more with less to ensure NI can benefit from 21st-century Councillors and Officers.

The final opening remark came from Roger Wilson, Chair of Solace NI. Drawing upon evidence from recent public surveys showing extremely high levels of satisfaction and trust in Councils, Roger remarked how local government needs to seize the momentum and opportunities to deliver for our local communities.

Our future challenges

The first session of the day introduced the context for the challenges facing local government in NI.

Kickstarted with a presentation from the session’s sponsors, Amazon Web Service’s, Joe Reay emphasised the potential connectivity and innovation offered by Amazon Web Service, drawing upon case studies such as social care in South Warwickshire and Swindon Borough Council.

Kelly Beaver from IPSOS – “You can’t predict the future – but you can prepare for the futures”

 Joining virtually, Kelly Beaver from IPSOS delivered one of the most engaging presentations of the day on “Signals for the future”.

Source: @KellyatIpsos

2022 was a year of poly-crisis and highlighting these wild swings in public opinion, Kelly emphasised that our unpredictable age makes it more critical to look to the future.

“Even if we can’t predict, long-term thinking can help us prepare.”

But what does this mean for local government? For one, Kelly showed that inflation and the cost of living have sharply hardened attitudes to public spending and lowered perceptions of state capacity.

Moreover, the perma-crisis of 2022 shows there is a need to prove that government and public services are focused on the big future challenges

“79% in Britain are worried the government and public services will do too little to help people in the years ahead.”

Drawing upon IPSOS’s work commissioned by the Local Government Association, Kelly looked at four possible challenges that could be the focus of local government in 2030.

Local government challenges in 2030
Benefits for data workers? How can local government remain an attractive employer for highly skilled labour
Recycling from landfill? Will local councils revisit waste storage for valuable elements?
Building the digital high street? How can councils use technology to create online ways to support physical locations and businesses?
Local power generators? What role is there for local councils in storing and generating electricity in the future?

Kelly’s gripping presentation ended with three key lessons for local government in NI and beyond:

  1. You can’t predict the future – but you can prepare for the futures.
  2. The best time to prepare is now.
  3. Local government is well-placed to lead responses to the poly-crisis- Resilience is place-based, delivery-oriented and cross-disciplinary. Local solutions and experimentation are one of the best approaches.

Roger Wilson SOLACE Chair – “local government is battle weary”

Reappearing to the stage, SOALCE’s NI Chair Roger Wilson looked at the effect of 2022’s permacrisis on local government. From the Covid response and recovery, to war in Ukraine, industrial relations and political uncertainty, local government is “battle weary”.

“It takes a village.”

Showing an optimistic way forward for local government, Roger relied on the analogy of a village to show how collaboration and partnerships are the best way to weather future changes.

Navigating challenges in the internal environment, such as finances and human capital, as well as changes in the external environment, such as political uncertainty, inflation and the climate emergency, Roger spoke on SOLACE’s focus on offering an influential collective voice of local government, and to collaborate with stakeholders to demonstrate leadership and expertise.

SOLACE NI's priorities
SOLACE NI’s priorities

Responding to challenges – collaboration and innovation

Following a short coffee break, the second session began with an address from the sponsor, Small Business Research Initiative.

Four lessons to help us navigate the cost of living crisis

Sian Thornthwaite, SBRI – “a conduit for delivery in local government”

SBRI offers organisations the opportunity to work directly with the public sector to develop new technologies and processes. On behalf of SBRI, Sian Thornthwaite drew on examples of how SBRI with NI Water and the Education Authority to develop innovative solutions and that SBRI Can act as a conduit for delivering for NI’s local government.

Colum Boyle, the Permanent Sec for the Department of Communities – Making the “tin box” of resources stretch further

Introducing a lens into NI’s central-local government relations, Colum Boyle, the Permanent Sec for the Department of Communities highlighted the need to reflect on how past successes can help predict future needs.

While 2015 delivered one of the biggest local government reforms in NI’s history, ambition, trust, and transparency should be the pillars for local government moving forward.

Focusing on successes such as partnerships and community planning during Covid, Column spoke of the need for truly collaborative working, especially for areas such as regeneration.

Socitm CEO Nadira Hussain – “The only constant is change”

Next up, Socitm CEO Nadira Hussain’s presentation focused on the opportunities digital presents for revolutionising public services.

Social progress index. Source: Nadira Hussain
Social progress index. Source: Nadira Hussain

One interesting case study Nadira drew upon was the ​​Social Progess Index in a London Borough, which tells us where we need to locate our assets, services and people, based on the needs of our citizens. These metrics tie us all together, hold us accountable, and it is easy to see where we need to improve. Importantly, it is accessible to everyone. Moreover, measuring outcomes, not inputs or outputs, this case study demonstrates the basis for collaboration and participation.

Stepping forward: how councils are responding to the cost-of-living crisis

Responding to challenges – culture and mindset

Following a lunch sponsored by APSE, the final session’s address began with a word from the sponsors – Katie Johnston PwC UK and Helen Carmichael, PwC NI.

PwC – “At the core of our service is our people”

Reflecting on the internal changes and innovation within PwC, Helen showed how PwC Operate’s young workforce provides different and varied perspectives for their clients and says bringing your culture and workforce along with you during transformation projects is vital.

Source: Katie Johnston PwC UK and Helen Carmichael, PwC NI.
Source: Katie Johnston PwC UK and Helen Carmichael, PwC NI.

Following up with a case study on Nottingham City Council, Katie focused on how PWC helped free up roles and capacity in the Council to help them transform their service delivery.

Interestingly, Katie focused on the role change academies, where 15-20 Council staff were upskilled to ensure the changes to Nottingham could be sustainably embedded to deliver a long-term transformation.

Colette Kane – NI Audit Office “Ambitions for local government”

Colette Kane focused on the impressive partnership working from councils during the pandemic and encourages similar action in the future.

Looking back to recent developments in local government audit, Colette remarked upon ​ the growing professionalism in audit committees, the performance improvement audits and the utility of good practice guides.

Dominic Campbell, impossible ideas –  “when do we mobilise and how we transform”

Speaking virtually, Dominic spoke about entrepreneurial local government. With pressures and expectations on local government rising, councils need to innovate to stay ahead.

Emphasising the urgency for 21st-century public services, Dominic urged on the need for 3D thinking to encompass current paradigms, incremental changes and emerging paradigms.

Referring to how Uber, Amazon and Deliveroo change the public’s expectation of service, Dominic looked to the example of how John Lewis recognised this and went back to their founding principles to understand their purpose, assets and how they can push boundaries on their business models.

Visible in New South Wales, where new approaches create new outcomes, Dominic disputed the notion that local government is risk-averse – instead, it is blame averse.

In conversation with Dr Pat Daly, Chief Executive of Limerick City and County Council

Final thoughts

The wide range of speakers on many topics – all fitted into one day – was fascinating to watch. Despite Northern Ireland being in a difficult place politically at the moment, local government there is thriving and this is something we can all learn from.

Proving some much-needed optimism for the local government sector, NILGA’s 2023 Annual Conference was timely for both the local government sector in Northern Ireland and these wider islands.

Interested in local government in the UK, Ireland and internationally? Sign-up here to the LGIU to stay in touch with new policy briefings, events, training and more from the LGIU.


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