Critical friend – the IWA’s key role

Lee Waters says the IWA must encourage Wales to speak truth to power

What should the priority for the IWA be? As you might imagine, it’s been a question that has been exercising me in recent weeks. My conclusion is: to be a critical friend.

If small countries need to be smart to succeed then sketching out what a smart country looks like is one of the IWA’s primary roles. But to achieve a high performance culture we must first create a self-critical culture, and we have some way to go.

“The thing to remember about Ministers”, a senior civil servant recently told me, “is that they don’t like criticism”. Nor do senior civil servants, I might add. As understandable a human impulse as that is, it’s not the mindset we need if we’re going to achieve the promise of devolution.

We’re too small a country to self-censor, but we have developed an aversion to challenge.

I’ve spent seven years as a political journalist coaxing people to say on the record what they were willing to say off the record, and have spent the last six years leading a charity that has had to balance its desire to push decision makers with its reliance on Ministerial goodwill to achieve its aims. So I feel I have some insight into the uncomfortable line that people in Welsh civil society have to walk. There is palpable fear of speaking truth unto power.

Of course that is not unique to Wales, but our small size and our narrowly drawn political class, magnify the problem. Devolution may have succeeded in bringing Government closer to the people, but closeness brings problems of its own.

To become a smart country we must relentlessly ask ourselves how we can improve, but too often we hold back for fear of causing offence and inviting recriminations.

So what can the IWA do about it? Well, the Institute occupies an almost unique space at the nexus of a web of relationships of people from across the spectrum. By bringing people together the IWA can be that ‘safe’ place where ideas can collide and solutions can be forged.

The lesson I’ve drawn from my own experience of working closely with decision makers at every level is that if you demonstrate credibility as a constructive force, you can combine it with challenge. Having just finished a ten year stint as a school Governor I find that the concept of the ‘critical friend’ that is used in the education profession crystallises it nicely:

“A critical friend can be defined as a trusted person who asks provocative questions, provides data to be examined through another lens, and offers critiques of a person’s work as a friend”.

In short, it is someone who offers challenge from a desire to improve and not destroy.  That’s what I think the IWA is for.

I’m acutely conscious of the efforts of those who have created the IWA. The last 25 years of the Institute’s history can be fairly characterised as having helped create the conditions for legislative devolution for Wales – something hard to imagine in 1987.  Having done so much to deliver devolution, the IWA now has a responsibility to ensure our National Assembly and its Government meets the expectations that have been created.

As one of the few bodies in Welsh public life not to receive funding from the Welsh Government (apart from £8,000 a year from the Welsh Books Council – towards the cost of publishing literary material in The Welsh Agenda) we are truly independent of party or faction. As such are well placed to play the part of critical friend. But we can’t do it alone. And we certainly can’t do it without members and supporters. If you value what we’re trying why not consider joining the IWA. Together we can all help smarten things up.

Lee Waters takes up the post of Director of the IWA today

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