Gerry McGinn discusses supporting evidence-based investment and reform in local public services.
It is now 10 years since the first Investment Strategy for Northern Ireland (ISNI) was published to address the priority infrastructure needs of the region. In the decade since 2005, over £11 billion has been invested by Stormont. New and upgraded roads and public transport, schools and colleges, health facilities, social and affordable homes, water and waste water treatment plant and sports and culture facilities are all testament to the progress that has been made. The strategy was updated by the Executive in 2012, with projects valued at £13 billion to be delivered across the region by 2021.
Such investment brings many benefits for citizens, business and the environment. Investment in transport and high-speed telecoms infrastructure, for example, is connecting Northern Ireland companies to a global customer base and attracting new employers into the region – helping to provide much needed employment opportunities. Attractions like Titanic Belfast draw additional visitors to the region. Green energy investments help reduce harmful emissions and enhance security of supply. Investment in new education and health projects transforms the experience for service users and provider staff alike.
In difficult times, Stormont’s investment programme has also supported jobs in the construction industry and in related areas such as quarrying and aggregates.
Looking forward, there is much still to do. Local government will play an increasingly bigger part with examples such as the Waterfront Hall extension. The Strategic Investment Board (SIB) already provides support to a number of new supercouncils and in the future may assist others with their infrastructure plans. Centrally, an assessment by SIB identifies the biggest challenge facing Ministers is to deliver an affordable programme of investment that supports public sector reform and the changing service expectations of today’s consumers.
Infrastructure investment, by its very nature, involves ‘concrete’ commitments resulting in built assets – decisions that cannot easily be changed or modified once in place. It is important, therefore, that projects are designed and scoped carefully to ensure that investments deliver long term value for money and meets current and future service objectives. Getting it right first time is vital. Yet we live in a time of rapid technological change, when old ways of delivering essential public services are giving way to new digital alternatives. This change is accelerating as citizens increasingly expect to interact with government online and receive a fast and personalised service experience.
Simply replacing old assets with new versions of the same thing (often on the same site) risks missing an opportunity to reform. To address this risk, the SIB is assisting a number of departments to develop Strategic Infrastructure Planning Models (SIPMs). Similar to the technology used by major retailers for new store developments, these tools help policy-makers to assess rapidly alternative investment options to deliver frontline services meeting most efficiently – securing best value for public money consistent with other policy priorities such as accessibility to essential services for rural communities.
This approach relies heavily on analysing the data collected by departments about customer demands and service responses. Fully exploiting the potential of such evidence-based approaches to infrastructure planning will require an increasing emphasis on data quality and data sharing across the NICS – as evidence gathered in one part of the public sector is often vital to inform decisions in another area (such as demographic forecasts by the Department of Finance and Personnel/ Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency and used by the Department of Education to plan future schools provision).
SIB recently participated in a Department of Finance Innovation Lab on ‘Big Data and Data Analytics’. More action in this area is likely to reap benefits for future investment across the region.
Gerry McGinn is chair of Strategic Investment Board Limited.