Welsh tolerance of mediocrity in public services

Liam Ryan looks behind the headlines at the key recommendations of the Williams Commission report


The recent report of the Williams Commission generated a great many headlines but all of them focused on just one part of a much bigger document. In total the Williams Commission made 62 recommendations and only a handful of them dealt with the headline issue of council mergers. So let’s not go over that same old ground here.

The rest of the recommendations focused on other issues relating to the delivery of Welsh public services. It is to the credit of Sir Paul Williams and the other report authors that it is so broad in its perspective, and so constructive and thorough in setting out a wide variety of policy suggestions to improve public service delivery.

Any reading of the report will note the amount of dissatisfaction with the current operation of Welsh public services. The evidence was overwhelming and led the Commission to make the following bold assertion:

“The current weaknesses of national performance management arrangements are mirrored at local and organisational level. We found repeated evidence that organisations do not use data effectively: they tend to collect it simply to comply with requirements to do so. They may also suffer from a lack of ambition and a tolerance of mediocrity: too many were content with being ‘above the Welsh average’. Some organisations also appear to report their performance selectively, choosing the data which present them in the best possible light. These problems are exacerbated by the weaknesses at national level, but overcoming them needs local and organisational action too.”

A tolerance of mediocrity – these are damning words indeed. According to the report, dissatisfaction with public services is a common feature of the evidence from both the private and third sectors, which felt frustration at the absence of consistent delivery. It mentions that the third sector can provide access to users’ experience of services and can help to ensure the systematic and sustainable engagement of communities as well as the expertise of the sector in diverse policy and service areas. The private sector’s frustration is similar.

However, it isn’t the negative assertions made in the report that should be the focal point when reading it. The real value and potential of the Williams Report is not in its critique of the present, but in its suggestions for policy change for the future.

The report sets out six key principles that need to be better reflected in the way that public services are delivered. The one on capacity and the size of the delivery units is well documented. However, new and bigger local authorities will only perform if the five others are properly implemented too.

One of these relates to strengthening governance, scrutiny and accountability of the local authorities. But the four others are not about the democratic structure at all but are instead reflections on the functioning of public services. For example, more streamlined approaches to performance management are set out as vital in order to create greater clarity of purpose for individuals and organisations through a single and concise set of national outcomes. Such an approach is intended to reduce complexity, increase clarity and avoid confusion.

Another key principle is the call for “new and more coherent approaches to leadership, to recruit the best, develop the leaders that we have and identify their successors”. This is crucial for the future of public service delivery. Hard choices always need to be made to ensure local authorities and others deliver, and this requires clear leadership. Tied into this is the principle of avoiding duplication and streamlining. The report makes a strong case to make much better and more selective use of collaboration, and maximising the synergy between organisations.

Crucially this principle is turned into action with a clear commitment around the ‘back-office’ functions of public bodies. Indeed, the report recommends creating a single shared services organisation to provide back office functions and common services across the public sector by the end of the 2016-17 financial year. This is one of the most revolutionary commitments in the report and points towards a huge opportunity to deliver benefits for the people of Wales.

But this will not happen if all that results is the creation of yet another layer of public sector bureaucracy.  The private sector, with its expertise in the efficient management and delivery of back-office and shared services,  must be brought on bioard if this commitment is to be achieved successfully.

Similarly, the sixth principle makes the hugely important point that mainstreaming and improving the use of data and digital/ICT should be an integral part of our programme of change. Again, the private sector, with its appetite for harnessing emerging technology, is ideally placed to eliminate wasteful practices, albeit we must ensure that proper data protection controls remain in place.

Are there any missed opportunities in the report? Arguably. One could question whether enough weight has been given to the taxpayer’s perspective. Ultimately, taxpayers want to get the best quality outcomes – not services – from the taxes they pay. It’s about the ‘what’, not the ‘how’. So has Sir Paul been radical enough in challenging public services chiefs to make better use of the private sector to do what it is good at: harnessing and investing in emerging technology and maximizing outcomes from defined budgets? Time will tell.

As this brief analysis hopefully demonstrates, the Williams Commission needs a range of implementations to be effective. Importantly, although it refers to the public sector it also makes the key point that there is a distinction between the ‘public sector’ and ‘public services’. It recognizes that the public sector is the body of staff directly employed by publicly funded bodies. On the other hand, public services delivered for the benefit of the public. As the report says, “This can include services delivered through the third sector, through social enterprise or through services that are contracted out.”

The Welsh Government needs to remember that although the Williams Commission’s recommendations focus on public sector, we also need the experience and input of the private and third sectors to ensure the principles and recommendations of the report are successfully realised.

Liam Ryan is a Director at Capita