Blue skies over 2025

John Osmond discusses the prospects for a new project to scan Wales’ future that was launched yesterday

Blue-sky long-term thinking is always a tricky business. There is a danger that you venture so far beyond today’s realities that you lose touch with any thread that might connect the present with the future. There’s also the danger that, consciously or unconsciously, you place yourself in an ideological straitjacket determined by the place you’re in or the dominant ‘common sense’ of the thinking and political forces that surround you.

The IWA has been in this territory more than once. In the early 1990s we set out on a major project to try and imagine what Wales would look like in 2010 (that’s two years ago!). We did a lot of thinking and came up with a range of new ideas, some of which still have currency. The question that our report Wales 2010 sought to answer was this: what could Wales do to ensure that it was in the top quartile of prosperous European regions by 2010 rather than in the bottom as was the position at that time (and still is)? We didn’t really answer that question, though we came up with a few innovative notions such as the Welsh Baccalaureate qualification that, one day could make a major contribution to achieving greater prosperity – if implemented properly.

Over a year between the 1997 referendum and the first National Assembly elections in 1999 we pulled together 22 working groups covering almost every aspect of policy and constitution building you could imagine and published the results as The National Assembly Agenda, an essential 400-page handbook for all budding Welsh politicians. In IWA terms it was a best seller and has, I think, stood the test of time in terms of outlining the essential range of issues that still confront our policy makers.

However, there was a glaring element missing in this effort. We did not address the mechanisms of policy delivery in the shape of the capacity of our civil service, still trapped inside the Welsh Office. And, indeed, over the first decade this proved devolution’s Achilles Heel. Not for nothing did we title our next, more modest attempt at such an exercise Time to Deliver. That was in the run up to the 2007 Assembly election. It was with some rueful reflection that I noted that our present First Minister took this strapline as his motif in the wake of last year’s election.

Yet even that effort in the run-up to 2007 had its limitations. These we appreciated even while it was underway. Try as we might we failed to persuade the working groups of policy experts we brought together to think very far beyond their social democratic comfort zones. This was the case with both the policies they were recommended and how they might be delivered.

These thoughts went through my head yesterday as I sat through the launch of another stab at blue-sky thinking for Wales, Wales Public Services 2025. Funded by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation and the Carnegie UK Trust, and headed by Professor Ian Hargreaves of Cardiff Business School, this wants to do something more than just produce a report and elicit a government response:

“We want to wake people up to the scale of change needed over the next decade, and engage them in research-supported debate about what to do and practical action.”

The essential questions the project is asking is what should public services in Wales look like in 2025 and what will ensure that their delivery is effective. Among the inquiries it is envisaging are the future of end-of-life care, countryside protection and leisure, how to join up local services, something it calls “citizenship, mutualism and accountability”, and new models for young people’s services.

A problem the project has, it seems to me, is that so far it has merely stated it wants to examine the shape and delivery of public services in Wales and set out a list of possible topics to explore. Where is the connecting theme or themes of the endeavour? Surely it should be coming up with a concrete vision for the character of what I would describe as the Welsh ‘public realm’ in 15 years time, establish some targets to ensure this is delivered, and then set about examining how they might be achieved.

One example of what it might consider was prompted by some remarks delivered at yesterday’s seminar in the University of Glamorgan’s Atrium Building in Cardiff by Paul Johnson, Director of the Institute of Fiscal Studies. Following a magisterial survey of the desperate state of Britain’s finances and the consequent bleak outlook for public spending, he pronounced that he was shocked when, following recent research, he discovered the parlous state of the Welsh economy.

He said that before he looked he thought that Wales was nearer to Scotland than Northern Ireland in its dependence on the public sector for employment. However, on examination he found the reverse to be true. In terms of employment 60 per cent of the Welsh workforce are in the public sector compared with just 39 per cent in England.

This suggests an agenda for the Wales Public Services 2025 initiative. It could state that, as a target it wanted to see a better balance between employment in the Welsh public and private sectors – say a fifty/fifty split by 2025. This would still be 10 per cent short than the present position in England, but would significantly close the gap. What range of policies and interventions should the public sector across Wales be undertaking to achieve this result? One area to look at would be the Welsh public sector’s procurement policies, a highly significant and under-exploited policy tool. Indeed, we heard at yesterday’s seminar that some of the Welsh Government’s current procurement policies are working in the opposite direction of helping to build up indigenous Welsh firms.

There are many other fruitful areas for the project to explore. Some are outlined in a recent, but under-reported study of attitudes of leading Welsh business people to this broad agenda, entitled Wales 2020 – Perspectives on the Future. I shall be reporting on this on Monday.

John Osmond is Director of the IWA.

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