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

13 thoughts on “Welsh tolerance of mediocrity in public services

  1. This article merits widespread consideration and discussion.

    One of several problems with the Williams Commission’s headline-grabbing proposal to slash the number of local councils is that it distracted attention from the rest of its report – which actually contains a lot of really, really good stuff.

    Indeed, this is as good a place as any to amend something that was said in an earlier article, attacking that proposal. The proposal itself is still a very bad case of overkill – and there are hints that informed opinion may be coming around to that view – but something was said in passing that seems unfair when one reads the small print of the report: “one cannot expect the Assembly – or a Commission appointed by the Assembly – to admit an unsatisfactory situation is due largely to its own failure of leadership.”

    In fact, while Sir Paul is far too diplomatic to put it so bluntly, the report comes astonishingly close to saying just that in places – and it proposes some sound practical remedies. It was possibly a regrettable necessity that their radicalism sometimes had to be hidden in language that some dismiss as ’jargon’. The bulk of the 62 recommendations should not be ignored because of that. About two thirds of Williams’ recommendations are very sensible and, if implemented, would represent a real revolution in the way public services are delivered in Wales.

    It is therefore doubly sad that the more likely outcome is still that the politicians will latch on the undesirable but high profile bonfire-of-local-government part of the report and forget about all the desirable bits.

  2. In England and Wales public services are ill-run because of the limitations in experience and the consequent prejudices of the politicians. The prejudices are different in the two places and the faults are different too. In fact they are the mirror-image of each other. In England top politicians and Conservative MPs in general are drawn from a social class that makes limited use of many public services. Economy in provision is therefore rated above quality. They also believe that the private sector is unfailingly efficient while the public sector is full of second raters. The result is cannibalisation of public services and a rather incoherent outsourcing that makes integrated delivery difficult and results in profiteering, excessive administration and near chaos rather than efficiency.

    In Wales our politicians often come from a local authority or public sector background and are often funded by public-sector unions while having no experience of running large organisations in either public or private sector. They are therefore feeble when confronted with vested producer interests and biased against introducing private providers even when appropriate. Public services are not strongly led or managed so necessary rationalisations are not carried out.

    Neither system seems capable of diagnosing its own errors and correcting them. In each case politicians just point to the other side to show how much worse things could be! We need Welsh politicians with the courage to diagnose our failures and act on them, not point to the failures of others.

  3. “The private sector, with its expertise in the efficient management and delivery of back-office and shared services, must be brought on bioard [sic] if this commitment is to be achieved successfully”

    And no prizes for guessing which company Mr Ryan has in mind to help with that particular task. Apart from being a lengthy pitch for Crapita’s services, I’m not sure what exactly is the point of this article. We need less private-sector involvement in our public services in Wales, not more. Have we learnt nothing from the disastrous recent history of privatisation?

  4. Frank – If you have a few minutes, try and re-read what Mr Ryan has said, not get too pre-occupied with who he works for.

    It’s disappointing but inevitable that all the post-Williams discussion has been about local government boundaries. In fact, as Mr Ryan points out, the *vast* majority of the actual reports raises questions of delivery and performance, scrutiny and governance. So, lets talk about how we improve those critical four areas.

  5. A “tolerance of mediocrity” stings. I worked in the public sector long enough to know that “performance enhancement” in the public service can be a journey in search of a holy grail influenced by the latest management guru. That said, it was always the stalwarts that carried the day for me – Peter Drucker and Rosabeth Moss Kanter – tempered with contemporary thinking about entrepreneurship and craftsmanship. Entrepreneurship and craftsmanship in the public service? Why not!

    And that, perhaps, is part of the answer: to foster a culture in public service that encourages people to think about what they are doing – constantly, and to challenge accepted norms if they think that improvement is possible and the public is better served by those improvements.

    Are concepts such as collaboration, public engagement, partnership, joined up government really understood, or are the words repeated constantly like a mantra in the hope that “something” like that will happen? I doubt it. The concepts and the underlying principles need to be fully understood from the outset then monitored, tested, adjusted, refined, and improved over time.

    I sense from the critiques by government-appointed groups such as the Williams Commission that they want public service in Wales “to be better than…..” It’s a tall order, but possible if the Welsh and local governments establish a staff training curriculum in conjunction with schools of business and public administration. They might also consider work and training partnerships with public services in other small countries or regions in the EU. In this way, people with leadership and management potential are exposed to new ideas or the latest thinking about old chestnuts.

    Regular training is also important. Not “rah, rah” annual conferences, but regular classes and workshops with hard-nosed discussion about problems and issues. Costly? Yes, it is in terms of lost time and the payment of trainers or facilitators. The alternative – mediocrity.

  6. John Winterson Richards needs to learn the difference between the legislature and the executive in Wales before commenting here.

  7. Duncan, whatever the Richard Commission might pretend, there is no real difference between the Assembly and the ‘Assembly Government.’ It is all the Labour Party. You are kidding yourself if you think otherwise. The real question is why you think that point relevant to this particular thread?

  8. It is good to see some more debate on here about the Williams report. Despite my initial criticisms of the report (some of which I still maintain) on an earlier thread, it deserves to be read and studied by those people employed in the public sector in Wales and by all politicians in the Senedd. The reason is that the rationale behind commissioning the report, that public sector funding in Wales is facing an unprecedented and long term year on year reductions in its budgets, has not gone away and poses existential questions for large parts of the public sector in a country where the public sector generates around 2/3rds of GDP.

    The report suggests strongly that unless we start being pro-active about this then we will be overseeing the managed decline of the public sector in Wales, the public services we rely on, and the knock on decline in the economies of those areas that rely heavily on the public sector (just about everywhere).

    The well researched and lengthy report also sets out its suggestions for how this challenge can be addressed. You need not have to agree with it all, but it is a good starting point, and most people would agree there is a need to do something.

    to give some more context……

    The budget setting process for Local Government this year saw around £330Million taken out of revenue budgets across Wales, and to put this into perspective, the total annual revenue budget for a smaller Local Authority in Wales is around £150M. Therefore the cuts this year across Wales are the equivalent of closing Torfaen and Ceredigion Councils completely, and stopping all council run services in those areas completely. Cuts on a similar scale are proposed for the next two years, and the Commisions report predicts somewhat pessimistically that Austerity will continue for a decade. This funding crisis is not limited to local government either, but affects health and all other services funded through the Senedd as well.

    Even if we get a new Westminster government in 2015 that wants to reverse the current policies and spread wealth to Wales through direct investment in public services (which is very far from being a given and is based more on hope than reality) we will still be staring from a much reduced base and having lost many experienced and talented staff.

    I’ll have to post my thoughts on the report itself on another occassion, but as for this article’s assertion that we need more outsourcing and private involvement, my experience tells me that that is probably the complete opposite of what is required. What we need is a deeper, and ingrained, public service ethos particularly among senior managers combined with better business acumen in order to stop the short selling of public assets and the private sector treating public sector contracts as a cash cow.
    I am not aware that Capita, and companies like them that specialise in outsourcing schemes, are known for their public service ethos or good service delivery, but rather for returning good profits on public sector contracts.

  9. John, that may have been the case a decade ago, but since there is no longer such a thing as the “Assembly Government”, you are arguing from an incorrect position. If you believe it’s the Labour administration’s fault – and I would agree with you here – then say so. The functions of the Welsh Government and the National Assembly are quite separate now. You can blame Parliament for the utter shambles of Universal Credit, because the Conservatives/Lib Dems have the majority in Westminster, but most of us would blame the Government. Why is this any different?

    It’s really up to me decide what I post on here (and the moderators), but it is an important distinction because the Welsh Government has no incentive to address the issues outlined by the commission, so it is down to the opposition parties, in their scrutiny role, to press for the implementation of the report’s recommendations. As such, the important question is – when will the Welsh Government respond meaningfully?

  10. Duncan, whether one happens to approve or not, its increasingly grandiose titles cannot disguise the fact that the Assembly is still at this stage essentially a one-party local council in the Welsh Valleys tradition. It was designed to be run by Labour even when they do not have an overall majority. A recent article by Eluned Parrot on this website gives an excellent illustration of how their superior political craft enables them to run rings around other the other parties.

    So fine distinctions within the Assembly mean nothing in practice.

    Your comment does raise a more interesting question: why has the centralising ‘Cabinet and Scrutiny’ model been imposed on all local government in this country? It is unnecessary – councils do not need secret meetings to discuss defence and foreign policy – it is anti-democratic, and it is actually more inefficient than the old system of open committees.

    If the Assembly want to reform local government, perhaps they should look at internal structures before looking at boundaries.

  11. John,

    Agree entirely with your arguments about cabinet and scrutiny. I’ve seen it at work and it is a joke. I’ll go you one better – let’s televise council meetings, take the decision out of the hands of councillors.

    Maybe I’m not making my point well. While Labour holds a majority (and there is some merit in your argument on the institute’s advantageous design), it nevertheless becomes the responsibility of opposition parties to find ways to hold its conduct to its aims. Reports of this kind provide an opportunity for the party of power to demonstrate its commitment to its declared democratic values.

  12. Duncan, both your last comments are very sound. Democracy depends on openness and on an active opposition pushing proposals for change.

    The only matter of difference between us in your last post was where you questioned if you had made your point well. You obviously made it well enough because you have opened up a new line of argument that merits wider debate.

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