With the restoration of the Northern Ireland Executive and the Assembly, the Northern Ireland Civil Service (NICS) can now engage more fully in the development and implementation of public policies. It will be helped by a practical guide that had already been commissioned by the Northern Ireland Departments to provide practical guidance on the policy-making process in the devolved administration. That document was published in May 2023 and is entitled ‘Making a Difference: NICS Guide to making policy that works’  https://www.executiveoffice-ni.gov.uk/publications/practical-guide-policy-making-northern-ireland

The NI Guide on Policy Making

The Policy Guide is aimed at Northern Ireland civil servants at all levels who are involved in policy development or review but should be of use to anyone who needs to understand the policy-making process. While the guide was written to deal with policies which are initiated by Ministers and Government Departments in Northern Ireland many of the techniques which it advocates can equally be applied by other public sector organisations – in Ireland and in other authorities – in developing their own policies. The proposal is not a panacea for all Northern Ireland’s economic problems. As the guide admits on its opening page – “It is not a definitive guide but should be used alongside a range of factsheets, detailing specific aspects of the policy development process.”

The Guide reminds the reader that public policies are required to achieve goals and objectives. Sometimes objectives can make things better, sometimes they can stop things getting worse. Sometimes they are aspirational and long-term, sometimes they are specific and achievable in shorter timescales. Sometimes it is to fulfil political commitments, sometimes it is to fulfil legal obligations, sometimes it is to respond to emerging situations. The Guide goes even further and declares that – It can even be the policy not to have a written policy but to leave the official position unspoken or undecided.”

The Policy JourneyThe Guide is truly clear as to the stages that that should be taken on the policy journey.

They are set out in Box A:

The journey outlined in Box A might suggest that there is a natural, logical route that one can expect to travel in the development of a policy. But policy development is rarely straightforward. One can expect twists and turns, and you can sometimes wonder how you go to your destination. This Guide is an attempt to impose – “…some order upon an often unavoidably messy process.

Public policies cannot be developed exclusively by public sector organisations. It is imperative that public bodies consult with citizens, civil society, and others. This should involves undertaking a systematic process of meaningful engagement and knowledge sharing with those outside the policy-making process who have a clear interest in a particular policy area, to better inform that process. By enabling the public, to participate in policy development, they will gain a greater sense of political efficacy, and trust in the political system. As the Guide admits that – “Very rarely, if ever, does a Department have all the means needed to make the intended changes. In fact, it is impossible to imagine that any strategy worthy of the name can be delivered without the participation of partners. To be effective, public policy needs to get partners involved.”

Strategies, Action Plans and Policy

Strategies, Action Plans and Policy answer different questions.

  • A Policy answers the question what is our position?
  • A Strategy answers the question what must we change?
  • An Action Plan answers the question what are we going to do?

Put simply, strategies and action plans are distinct stages in the evolution of a policy. The strategies come first, the action plans later. A common requirement is data. One needs data to develop both strategies and action plans. Data is used to set targets to ensure that improvements are happening in line with expectations and intentions. The Guide makes very pragmatic observations about how data should be used – “It is important to analyse the data, to make sense and meaning for everyone involved in, and effected by, the policy. There is no point in collecting data for its own sake. Does the data show that we have a problem that needs to be solved, and if so, what exactly is the problem?

The involvement of different players for strategies and action plans are set out in Box B:

Box B : Action Plan Cycle (left side) and Strategy Cycle (right side)

Analysis of Options

After the early stage of policy planning, Departments must identify options. Once options have been identified they need to be assessed to ensure that the best option can be recommended to the relevant Minister. There are some tests or appraisals that must always be applied, and some which are good practice, or which are relevant to certain types of policy but not to all. Box C summarises key considerations that should be considered in the evaluations.

Box C: Key Considerations for Policy Evaluation

Advising, Recommending, and Implementing

The Guide admits that ‘buy-in’ by Ministers to policy initiatives is not always easy. And so, the Guide suggests that in advising Ministers, officials should ensure that they adhere to their own NICS values of Honesty, Integrity, Objectivity, and Impartiality. When it comes to implementation, the advice is that robust arrangements should be put in place to ensure that everyone knows what is expected of each party to the partnership. The policy team should not relinquish responsibility for the success of the policy (or the risk of failure) just because implementation has been passed to a partner. The Guide recognises that – “As a relatively small administration, we should always give proper consideration to whether we can work in partnership with neighbouring administrations in the delivery of policy interventions.”

There will be occasions where policies should not go ahead. It is paramount to have a series of performance measurements so that progress can be measured. If these show warnings signs that targets might not be achieved, then tough action may need to be taken. In such circumstances, the guide is truly clear – The most important single lesson in implementing policy when things go wrong is that you need to STOP.” And for those policies, that do get the green light and go ahead, there is need for evaluations in the ‘after-stage,’ in order to learn lessons.

A Final word

The Guide finishes with a section called “A Final Word.”  It is quite philosophical in tone. It extols the virtues of continued learning, not to be afraid to reach out for help and to be big enough to openly admit when one does not know what action to take. And in final sentences it produces words of hope and positivity – “Policy is challenging, but it is also a lot of fun, especially when it is done well in partnership with others. It is an opportunity to meet new people, learn new skills, understand the place in which we live and make a real difference in the world. So, get out there and give it a go.”

Tom Ferris consultant economist public affairs ireland trainer

Tom Ferris, Consultant Economist.


Tom Ferris is a Consultant Economist specialising in Better Regulation. He lectures on a number of PAI courses and blogs regularly for PAI. He was formerly the Senior Economist at the Department of Transport, Ireland.