We can’t wait for the financial storm to blow over

Michael Trickey reports on the impact of the spending squeeze on the delivery of Welsh public services.

Two reports on the future public services in Wales, published last week, offer the first detailed analysis of the unprecedented financial and demand pressures which public services in Wales face over the next decade. Commissioned by the Wales Public Services 2025 programme they stress the urgency of building a response. As ever the really difficult question is what that should be.

In his report Pressures on Welsh Public Services, Mark Jeffs warns of a possible  revenue funding gap of between £2.6 billion and £4.6 billion by 2025. Bridging this is likely to require an unprecedented growth in productivity and efficiency – or a major shift in fiscal policy and taxation. He looks at the scope for responses such as co-production, lean systems, demand management and early intervention and prevention.

The other report Scenarios for the Welsh Government Budget to 2025-26, produced by the Institute for Fiscal Studies, contains similar messages. It concludes that by 2018 the Welsh Government is likely to have between 14 and 17 per cent less to spend than in 2010. Looking beyond 2018, it warns of the impact of a growing and ageing population as well as other demand and cost pressures. There will be tough trade-offs to make between health, social care and schools on one hand, and all other public services such as transport, culture, leisure and housing on the other.

The underlying message is that to sustain public services and deliver the outcomes we seek, we need to be prepared to rethink the way they are designed and delivered, the relationship between public services and the community, and the future role of public servants.

Many of these issues surfaced at the Wales Public Services 2025 conference last week at which the reports were launched. Participants from the civil service, local government, health, housing, and the third sector, recognised that the scale of the pressures meant that a strategy of waiting for the storm to blow itself out was unlikely to work. Putting things off could make matters worse.

Workshops looked at the business case for co-production in health, the scope for local government to re-invent itself and the possible development of a public innovation hub. The lack of good intelligence on service users, what they wanted from public services and the variable quality and use of data more widely, came up many times.   There were great stories of individual change projects in innovation in Wales. The issue is how to turn this creativity into systemic change.

The conference heard an update from Sir Paul Williams on the Commission for the Governance and Delivery of Public Services in Wales. Its work is crucial – but it is important to keep the momentum up in other ways as well. The focus for Wales Public Services 2025 will now shift from analysing the problem to looking in greater depth at just how a radical transformation might be achieved.

None of this is likely to be straightforward. But the report from the Commission on Public Service Governance and Delivery in Wales in the next few months will provide a potentially powerful context. We have to be ready to make the most of any opportunity it offers.

Michael Trickey is Director of the Wales Public Services 2025 Programme (http://www.walespublicservices2025.org.uk/)

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