Success has come from doing things differently

Geraint Talfan Davies says Laura McAllister’s call for less timidity in Welsh life must be heeded.

Professor Laura McAllister is much more than an academic. She is one of those who has brought her academic discipline as a student of government to bear on our public life, whether in shaping the details of our early devolution arrangements, raising sporting performance through inspired chairing of Sport Wales (and captaining the Welsh women’s soccer team), and in championing the cause of women in public life. She has earned a right to be heard and heeded.

This week at the Hay Festival she delivered the fourth annual lecture that commemorates the journalist and broadcaster Patrick Hannan – a lecture that was broadcast by BBC Radio Wales. The full text is here. She called for more confident leadership in public life, for more passion and ambition and ‘a little bit of positively channelled anger’. She bemoaned the timidity of our political class, but also the lack of consensus about what we really want.

The lecture ranged over the nature of leadership, the remuneration of our elected representatives, our resources of talent, the relative value of international exposure in rugby and soccer, and the plateauing of progress on the equality agenda. But linking all these themes, was the issue of our national psychology – the perceived lack of confidence and self-belief.

Now this is not a new thought; Welsh politicians of more than one hue often toss exhortations to greater confidence into their speeches. But in this lecture it was explored much more fully and used to open a window onto the other issues. Professor McAllister was also open about her own experience in confronting this demon, especially when faced with those at the other end of the M4 who, by upbringing and education (usually private), feel “entitled to be in every milieux in which they found themselves.”

The crux of her argument is that we do lack self-confidence, that it is not an inevitable condition of either our present or our future, but that “the conditions for change are challenge, shake-up, diversification and renewal.”

As evidence of what is possible she pointed to the fact that in “our record haul of Olympic and Paralympic medals in 2012, Wales topped the medal table, winning more medals per capita than any other nation – more than Australia, more than New Zealand, more than Canada and, yes, more than England.” Wales has also supplied 18 per cent of the performers in the elite programme in cycling – Britain’s most successful sport.

I confess that while I recognise the confidence issue, I have always been nervous about using it as an explanation or excuse for persistent failure. An inherent softness in performance management may be a bigger factor. Laura McAllister acknowledges that confidence can be both a product of success and, sometimes, a pre-condition for it. My own guess is the former is more common than the latter. And in a way, she provides the answer to that question.

“We are not world-beaters in sport by accident, but by design. We use our resources smartly and skilfully to identify sporting talent, to develop it and to provide the coaching, sports science and what is poshly called, performance lifestyle support, to ensure there is no leaky pipe-line in the production of the next generation of world champions.”

In other words, success has come from doing things differently, from doing the right things, things that work. Real confidence comes from being able to do the right thing more than once, to be able to repeat success. That surely, is the secret of competitive sport. Some confidence may come from innate talent, but it grows and is embedded by the habit of success. Lose the habit, and individuals or teams can lose confidence. Confidence is a fragile thing.

The challenge for the political class in Wales and for the bureaucracy that serves it, is to do the right thing, and do it often; to develop the habit of success. If we assume that society in Wales has no less a quotient of talent than any other society, we must ask, as Sport Wales presumably did, are we training them properly. Do we have all the necessary strategies and skills to improve performance and create success?

There was a link here to another of her themes – the proposals of the Remuneration Board (of which she is a member) that determines the pay, pensions and support of Assembly Members. Professor McAllister was saddened, even if not surprised, that the total focus in recent days was on the proposed new salary figure for AMs. There was no mention, she said, of the proposals that would see AMs contributing more to their pensions or of plans for “more effective group support for AMs.”

Most good businesses want to ensure that their staff are trained and developed properly. Perversely, we are extraordinarily casual about this issue in relation to our elected representatives, especially at a time when new powers are going to make wholly new demands upon them. Where the sporting bodies have developed ‘performance lifestyle support’ programmes, perhaps what we need is political performance lifestyle support. Despite “the lengthy and forensic research” that the Remuneration Board undertook, there seems to be no public appetite for creating the conditions for success. Perhaps it confirms that while Remuneration Boards are obliged to adopt a rational, forensic approach, politics contains a strong element of emotional, even if not irrational response.

The governmental machine in Wales faces some big tests in the coming months. To be fair they are tests that it has set itself: full hearted implementation of the Donaldson report on the curriculum, making a working reality of the Swansea and Cardiff city regions, reorganising local government, realising the Metro rail scheme for south east Wales, building the Swansea Bay tidal lagoon. On some of these one can already sense in government a nervousness and an instinct to indulge the habit of delay.

The question that Laura McAllister’s thesis prompts is this: is that nervousness – in both politicians and civil servants – a matter of confidence, or, in some cases, a lack of the right skills, expertise and experience to jump the big hurdles. One some of these issues we will know whether government has passed or failed the test within the next 12 months.

There is no doubt that she is also right about the danger of plateauing on the equality agenda and on the key point that any small country cannot afford to waste a single ounce of talent, whether male or female. She also pinpointed the persistence of ‘a soft(ish) under-belly of some conscious, but mostly unconscious, bias towards males.’  Wales, she said, needed diverse leaders who are brave, with bold ambitions and thick skins.’

Much of the debate that will follow her speech has already begun to focus on her statistically impeccable judgement that, in terms of profile, it was more important for Wales to qualify for the European soccer championships than to win the rugby world cup. It will be a shame if that becomes the only focus.

She is concerned about the invisibility of Wales, and thinks we need to shout louder. If she had been at Hay the previous night she would have heard the First Minister of the Welsh Government say, under questioning, that he did not know the current candidates for the Labour leadership well enough to give a view of them. Professor McAllister might have said, I rest my case.

Geraint Talfan Davies is former Chair of the IWA. He is Chairman of the Welsh National Opera and former Controller of BBC Wales.

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