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

21 thoughts on “Critical friend – the IWA’s key role

  1. Having had some experience of School governance I would say that the ‘Critical Friend’ stance is… utter nonsense. There is some backing for my opinion in a study done by the school standards and governance department some years ago. They found that 75% of small schools’ Governing Bodies left decisions entirely up to the Head Teacher and acted only on the instructions of the Head Teacher.

    It may be a good analogy to study. The prime purpose of school Governing Bodies is to further the interests of children, specifically their education to a high standard and, simultaneously, their safety and general emotional wellbeing and development.

    However, time and again (too often to be dismissed) the objective for Governors is self enhancement narrow cultural concerns and they lack of the ‘critical’ factor in “Critical friend”. In short the Chair meets the Head on a weekly basis. The Head speaks to the LEA and the Governors. Parents talk amongst themselves and parent governors are marginalised. Children and their wellbeing? Often an afterthought.

    How is the IWA going to conduct itself? It has no power to dictate or change. It has little popular following. It is prey to becoming a vehicle for Nationalism. Indeed, it is almost by definition a vehicle for the assertion of Nationalism.

    I would be interested to know a little more about your views Lee. It came as something of a shock to me when the outgoing head of the IWA said:

    “There will still be formidable challenges, and among them, in my judgement, the following should be priorities:

    •Developing the comparative advantage that Welsh medium education gives us by extending it, over time, to all of our schools. We need to promote Welsh not just for the sake of the language, but for the sake of our children.”

    Could you tell me where you stand on this issue that John Osmond has left you to progress?

  2. My goodness, Wales needs a critical friend or two. Good luck and may the IWA achieve this laudable aim.

  3. Jon, I didn’t claim every school has cracked the ‘critical friend’ relationships but when it works it is a very dynamic force for change. Equally I don’t accept your analysis of the IWA, and I’ve followed your views on the language with interest. I am not a fluent Welsh speaker but value the language and support its promotion. I understand you disagree, and I respect that.

  4. The first responsibility of an independent political think tank should be to the people.

    It should operate by putting data above dogma.

    I’m not holding my breath on either score!

  5. I enjoy reading the various articles published by the IWA, and grateful for the opportunity to put my very limited views (compared to most others) up for ‘scrutiny’. Clearly we need clever/experienced people to articulate their views on the options available to us, however the IWA is firmly in the camp of a) wanting more powers for our fledgling local democracy, b) supports the incursion of the Welsh language, where in areas it has virtually died out in its entirety, c) supports the ‘statist’ model of provision of services. As these are the policies of Welsh Government, then talking ‘truth to power’ is a bit over the top. What is needed is a truly independant organisation that can get to the full facts of services, however that wouldn’t be welcome in certain places. I’m only little and unsophisticated me, however the vast majority of views expressed do not resonate with the people I mix with, but at 68 don’t have to worry too much for the future, as long as I retain my rights as a subject of HM the Queen and protection by Westminster!

  6. Lee,
    Some good points and the one about not receiving Welsh Government funding is important – long may it last. Too many UK third sector bodies and think tanks rely on funding from the government of the day and are beholden to the client state.

    There are a few points I would like to mention:-

    • the need for Wales to compare itself more with the rest of the UK and internationally. Just comparing within Wales is so introspective. There are many areas where we are completely “off the pace”.
    • as already mentioned, using facts to consider a course of action not ideology
    • recognising that Wales is a very small country and there are limitations to the extent to which one can swim against the international tide. This may hurt national pride but it is true. The UK itself finds it difficult enough to go it alone on many issues let alone Wales which is about one twentieth of the UK.
    • understanding that many policies, which would be seen, by the “chattering classes” in Wales, to involve inappropriate and impolite discussion in public, are mainstream in many other countries

  7. @malcolm prowle

    “…Wales is a very small country… This may hurt national pride but it is true…”

    Opinion presented as fact.

    Some sixty-two member states of the UN have smaller populations than Wales, another thirty or so are less than twice Wales’ size. (UN statistics 2010)

    Eleven member states of the EU fall into this population grouping, as does Norway.

    Of the larger members of the EU, the UK is one of the worst performers in economic terms, having a massive, if not the highest, per capita debt and very poor and intermittent levels of growth. Seventy-seven per cent of its GDP comes from the service sector, and its manufacturing base in terms of GDP is declining. Within the UK, Wales is generally in a much worse condition, but less so in terms of manufacturing.

    The conclusion I draw is that being part of the UK has been, and is, bad for Wales and its people, and I see no prospect of things improving here whilst we remain part of it. Sooner or later we will have to bite the bullet and take responsibility for our own affairs. I liken the UK to the Titanic, it’s going down, and I don’t want to go down with it.

    The prospect for Wales is continuing economic decline and increasing dependency within the UK, or a drop in living standards by forming an independent state, with the possibility of turning the economy around under our own efforts. Other small European nations have succeeded in doing that within the last twenty years, having overtaken Wales in terms of prosperity, and having started from a very low base.

  8. Dave

    75% of the global population is accounted for by 10% of the countries
    95% of the global population is accounted for by 35% of the countries

    Of those countries smaller than Wales the bulk are small African countries, poor East European countries, oil sheikdoms and a collection of small remote islands. Hardly encouraging.

    Of course the UK economy is in a mess but the Welsh economy is even worse and it is being managed even more incompetently than the UK economy.

    Where is the magic bullet for a Welsh economy to revive itself other than wishful thinking. At one time we were doing well on inward investment until the Welsh Government, in its wisdom, decided to abolish the successful WDA. And our schools system (a key to economic growth) is falling apart under the twin pressures of political ideology and vested interests.

  9. @Malcolm Prowle

    There is no magic bullet. However, we can keep on taking the medicine doled out to us for decades, which hasn’t worked, and wither and die slowly, or decide to get up from our sick bed and do something about it.

    I agree that Labour’s management of Wales since the inception of the Assembly has been poor and incompetent, within the very narrow parameters of its weak devolved powers.

    I’m not arguing for devolution. The intention of it was not to better Wales, but to serve the interests of the Labour party, both in Wales and at Westminster, and to weaken, if not destroy, the rise of Plaid Cymru. I’m arguing for independence – that is attaining all the attendant legislative, fiscal and monetary levers necessary to address the fundamental problems that we face. There is no guarantee of success, but we have a stark choice, to continue as we are or do something about it. Sooner or later that choice will have to be made, either by us, or be forced upon us by external circumstances. Given our history I rather suspect the latter.

    I disagree on your contention regarding inward investment. There were other, external, factors at play independent of government which ended the flow of funds into Wales although I agree that the abolition of the WDA was not a positive step and didn’t help matters.

    As for your contention that ‘big is beautiful’ (i.e. little Wales nestling in the comfort of its big brother), the UK is small fry in economic terms, and there are strong right-wing sectional interests, particularly in England, which wants to distant, or isolate it, even further from its partners in the EU.

    The irony is that many ‘small’ economies have performed significantly better than the UK, whilst others have not. What we do know is that Wales, right now, is performing less well than Slovakia and Poland, and is on a par with large swathes of Romania and Bulgaria.

    I’m also not arguing for independence purely on economic grounds. There are many other benefits, in terms of dignity, morality, culture, freedom of choice, and so on.

    Are you suggesting that we continue as we are? What are your alternatives?

  10. Malcolm: your British nationalism is admirable but you can’t re-write history. Wales has been exploited for centuries whilst the London financial classes (certainly post-1979) have encouraged greed and insularity within the London financial bubble. Wales needs a fresh start, which it could achieve if it re-assesses its relationship with other countries – large and small. Blindly towing the London line gets us nowhere.

  11. Keep it up Malcolm. As Lee points out the last thing many in the political class want to hear in Wales is the truth. No money for bus services and another £500,000 wasted on an airport no one wants or needs to use. Welcome to Freedonia

  12. Dave and Noel

    You completely misread me:-

    * I am not a British nationalist
    * I support devolution in fact I also believe in devolution to the English regions
    * If you read some of my writings you will find a very strong anti-London streak
    * I am a big supporter of the Welsh language
    * Of course Wales has been exploited along with Merseyside, the North East, Cornwall etc

    My point is that under the current political arrangements in Wales and the situation we are now in I just fail to see how Wales can go it alone economically in the face of UK, EU and global forces. For a start, independence would probably result in the end of the Barnett formula and an immediate 20% shortage in funding for public services – this is not scaremongering. How is that going to be resolved – by raising income tax or VAT. That will do a lot for the economy. I can understand the emotional wish to “go it alone” but it is one hell of a risk

  13. Jeff, Money… “wasted on an airport no-one wants or needs to use”. Come on. Do you really think it would be no harder to sell Wales to the business world if it had no airport? I think the Welsh Government had no option but to buy Cardiff Airport. It was clear that the private owners were unlikely to invest, and there was a risk that the airport might have been sold in a package deal to someone else for whom Cardiff Airport would be only a marginal activity. This deal places a long term asset in public hands, allowing an arm’s length commercial management also to take a longer term view. The problems do not go away, but it is an ownership model that gives good management the best chance of success. It is a model that works in many good airports around the world, including Europe and the USA. Hundreds of successful airports around the world are owned by regional or municipal authorities. In Cardiff I hope it is a model that lasts and succeeds.

  14. @malcolm prowle

    Many feel the same as you. Economic conditions are harsh. The type of devolution that has been ‘given’ (handed down) to Wales has not been helpful – it merely underlines Wales’ powerlessness. There is no prospect of further meaningful devolution – i.e. real power. The two major unionist parties are in full agreement on that, although for different reasons.

    Essentially, your argument boils down to the age old view of Wales, it’s too small, too weak and too poor.

    I agree that Wales is poor and weak, in many ways, although it’s exaggerated. I think of Dickens’ Oliver Twist in his workhouse situation, where the outlook was bleak, of the Israelite slaves in Egypt in the time of Moses, or the abused wife dependent on her husband. Sooner or later each has either to accept their lot in life, or break out of it.

    The risk is high, with no guarantee of success, but the alternative is more of the same, if not worse. Wales is deteriorating by the day in so many ways. I don’t think it can go on like this indefinitely. I also don’t think that subsidising Wales’ growing deficit will continue to be politically acceptable, or economically possible, in the medium to long term. The squeeze is already happening, its built into Barnett, let alone the austerity cuts. Social conditions in Wales are worsening – NHS waiting times are a case in point. Given the UK’s knife-edge economic situation – its massive GDP to debt ratio – we may not have to wait very long for the crunch to take place.

    For this and other reasons, I see the break-up of the UK as inevitable, and it won’t be pressures from within Wales which will bring it about. We will have a significant, if not catastrophic, drop in living standards, in or out of the UK. As a political entity it’s not working, and hasn’t been for a long time. It’s long term, accelerating economic decline is testament of the fact.

  15. Dave

    I dont think we are that far apart.

    Yes I do think we are poor and weak and there are many historical reasons for this. One I focus on is the failure of successve governments (WG or UK) to develop a decent education system that will aid economic development. Too much political correctness and vested interests.

    I can see the thrust of your argument that we cant carry on as we are. The problem I have is that, based on experiences so far, I just cannot see the Welsh Government ever being competent enough to do what needs to be done to make Wales a success.

  16. “One I focus on is the failure of successve governments (WG or UK) to develop a decent education system that will aid economic development. Too much political correctness and vested interests.”

    The trouble is Malcolm that you are a supporter of the biggest “Vested Interest” and the one thing that is crippling to both Education in Wales and the economy……”* I am a big supporter of the Welsh language”.

  17. Geraint, Read the consultants report which was used in the recent London Assembly report on air port capacity in London. It makes some interesting points about the spare capacity in both Stansted and Luton for start. It also stresses the local market as a key factor even for London’s airports and the importance of good road links. As for the business world, Cardiff is and probably always will be a fairly small regional airport in competition with another, Bristol for the leisure market. If you think that having an airport in your region is important so that people can fly to the sun then £52 million has been well spent. On the other hand, if you believe as I do that it is a vanity project driven more by nationalism than economics then there are far better ways in the present economic climate to spend £52 million. Just think how many affordable homes you could build with £52 million and the kick start that would give the economy. Not as glamorous perhaps as buying an airport but perhaps a bit more practical for most people in a region where disposable incomes are less then £15000 and a holiday abroad is a pipe dream.

  18. Jeff, The IWA recently published a report, prepared by very knowledgeable consultants, which argued the case for a Severnside airport to replace both Cardiff and Bristol. This would create a major airport for south west Britain, that would kick off with a 10 million per annum passenger load as well as creating the UK’s first purpose built, 24 hour cargo airport. That would be a real business and leisure airport. There will be plenty of sceptics, but the Davies Commission may be the last chance we have of getting a proper strategic assessment. The Welsh Government’s purchase of Cardiff Airport buys Wales an equity stake. If Cardiff Airport ever closed the land value would far exceed the £52m purchase price.

  19. Geraint: Only if it gets planning permission and I wouldn’t bank on that. Severnside is a cracking idea and definitely the right one if the actions of Herr Hitler hadn’t dictated where Cardiff and Bristol airports would be. But in the real world Severnside airport is probably as much a non starter as Boris’ s airport in the Thames estuary. If it does come about perhaps it should be named Graham Powell International after Gwent CC who suggested the idea in the first place. Likely scenario for the foreseeable future is more likely the argument that more public money from a dwindling pot needs to be spent on connecting Cardiff airport to Cardiff in order to make money.

    It’s really an 18th Century ‘throwing guineas at windows’ view of the world I’m afraid. We’ve already seen the first £500,000 spent to show visitors the wonders of Wales. They definitely must be different to me. My reaction on arrival on my annual European city break is to get out of the airport asap. I’ve already done the research on the area otherwise I wouldn’t have given my £200 winter fuel allowance to Easy jet or Ryanair in the first place. Next year I will definitely fly from Cardiff but only if they can get me a flight to Bologna !!!

  20. Just listened to interview on BBC Radio Wales with owner of TBI who purchased the airport many years ago, and saw the numbers using it rise to 2 million before selling it on for large sum and at a nice profit. The previous owner seemed very sceptical about the £52 million, particularly as it was going to need further capital investment, and all from very limited public purse. Who ever owns the airport there is a dire need for major carriers to use the airport, and as seemingly happy at Bristol, why transfer business to Rhoose? It was clear that the ‘former owner’ thought that without ‘incentives’ it was unlikely that there would be increase in service providers and that the use of Welsh and English taxpayers’ money should be completely open and accountable. What I cannot understand is that if Rhoose is such a opportunity to ‘make money’, why haven’t hedge funds/private investors come forward and bought it and reap the money down the line. On a personal level I’ve used Rhoose, Bristol and Birmingham airports in the last year and quite frankly Rhoose was tired and general standards poor, Bristol was unpleasant, due to huge overstreach of people in relation to facilities and Birmingham was first class, with flights going everywhere in world, and in couple from ABERYSTWYTH who had never flown from RHOOSE! In conclusion the purchase of Rhoose was a vanity project by political masters as our ‘nation building’ exercise cannot possible prosper without an INTERNATIONAL airport within its borders. Meanwhile in Bridgend the PoW hospital is potentially losing its A+E facility and our FM is not going to be popular if this happens!

  21. The concept of the critical friend does indeed reach beyond the education sector but as I’m on record as saying, “There are differences in emphasis between the terms advisor, consultant and critical friend but integrity must underpin the relationship. An effective critical friend must imply the development and deployment of a palette of skills and sensitivities as we reflect and adapt to new contexts”. It is not enough to simply ask the provocative questions – it really is about getting the client body to take ownership of the issue and getting on the rollercoaster with them.

Comments are closed.

Also within Politics and Policy