A Wales where everyone can flourish

IWA Director Lee Waters looks back at 2015

Over 100,000 different people have visited the IWA’s sites this year. In a fragmenting media environment, where long-form discussion about policy and performance in Wales may not be seen by editors as promising material for click-bait, we feel that we have a role to play in creating a platform for intelligent debate. As well as providing a digital space our magazine, the welsh agenda, is one of the few places in print where you can read serious material about Wales in the English language.

Why do I mention this? Because in 2015 the IWA clarified its strategic direction and even though these activities do not generate a profit we are committed to keeping them at the heart of what the IWA does. In fact we will be launching our new website early in the new year which will merge Click on Wales with the main IWA site to bring comment into the heart of our digital presence.

“Our vision is to help create a Wales where everyone can flourish. Our mission is to act as a catalyst for change. We bring people together so that ideas can collide and solutions can be forged”.

This is our new strategic statement. In common with other organisations that spend time developing strategies we spent a lot of effort writing on wipeable surfaces trying to distill what we are about – the dreaded ‘elevator pitch’. The IWA has done lots of different things over recent years and trying to sum that up pithily to the majority of people who have never heard of us has been tricky. So here is what we’ve come up with:

“We are an independent think tank working to make Wales better. We come up with practical ideas to improve the economy, education governance and health”.

Some things that we’ve done – like organise awards ceremonies – don’t fit with that description so we’ve dropped them. We no longer see ourselves as a conference organising business. Bringing people together to share information and network will still be part of what we do, but only when it is linked to a project we are running or our it is linked to our core strategic focus. As a charity we cannot justify the huge ticket prices that commercial companies charge, and with just four full-time staff we simply cannot keep churning out barely profitable events without paying too high an opportunity cost and losing our strategic focus. We’d rather be a policy forum for Wales rather than just call ourselves one.

As a think-tank our primary purpose must be to generate ideas. We have set-up policy groups on the economy, education, health & social care, governance and the media. In each area we are bringing together experts and practitioners to analyse current performance and suggest practical ideas for long-term change. And it is already beginning to bear fruit. This year we have produced substantial pieces of work in three of our four priority areas. Each of the reports were critical and challenging of current performance, and each of them set out practical ideas to improve things in keeping with our intention of being a ‘critical friend’.

Our economy report, led by economist Gerald Holtham, set out a searing analysis of Wales’ economic performance which pulled no punches, and set out practical proposals for an ambitious stimulus package. We are now following-up several of the ideas including the ambition to make Wales a net exporter of renewable energy.

Our ‘Crowd-sourced Constitutional Convention’ was equally ambitious and was provoked by the lively debate which stirred Scotland in the run up to  its independence referendum. Thanks to dozens of small donations from across Wales, and the support of the UK’s Changing Union project, we were able to engage 12,000 people in an eight-week experiment in deliberative democracy.

The conclusions of both exercises were strikingly similar – Wales has not made the most of devolution to date, and if we are to create a Wales in which everyone has a chance to flourish we must seize all the levers available to fulfil our potential.

Over the summer we refined our ‘crowd sourcing’ approach with an innovative project looking at first hand experiences of cancer sufferers and their families. Working with Tenovus Cancer Care we asked for a good experience of cancer are in Wales, a bad experience and a suggestion for improvement. The conclusion of the 6 week conversation was surprising, rather than focus on the availability of high-cost drugs and waiting times (as we anticipated) ‘the crowd’ called for a focus on the simple things – improving the experience of patients, and better communications. We’re now following this up with a project to unpick what is stopping these common sense reforms being implemented in the NHS.

As well as trailing new approaches to policy development we’ve also maintained the traditional approach. Our Wales Media Audit involved a comprehensive trawl of statistics to paint a picture of the current media landscape (though we couldn’t resit trying something new and we published the whole report in draft online and invited criticism, with the final version being significantly revised in parts in response). Led by voluntary effort from our distinguished Media Policy Group the report found that Wales is becoming harder to see and hear through the media, and it set out 37 recommendations for change. The group has given evidence on their findings to the inquiries being held by the UK Parliament, the National Assembly and a variety of reviews being held into the future of the BBC. Quite simply had we not done this work there would be very little informed thinking about the future of the media in Wales feeding into any of these important debates. Our media group will be following this work up and in particular hope to work with the Welsh Universities active in this area.

Each of these projects was accompanied by an event – from a wacky Open Space discussion in an abandoned bus drivers canteen for the Constitutional Convention – to a full-day Media Summit with a distinguished line-up of speakers for the Audit launch. We’ve also held events in Swansea, Aberystwyth and Wrexham this year. Our Eisteddfod lecture is now a staple of the Maes and this year’s in Meifod saw Beti George speak about her personal experience of dementia care and set out some policy recommendations. And our Senedd Paper launch in the Assembly witnessed a stimulating discussion of Kevin Morgan’s important Good Food for All manifesto which advocated using our approach to food to tackle a battery of ills.  We also hosted a debate on the future leadership of Welsh public services as part the IWA Debates (sponsored this year by Abersytwyth University and switching to support from Cardiff University next year).

As well as opening up our activities digitally – broadcasting the keynote of our Media Summit on Periscope and making it available free on AudioBoom. All our publications are now available to download for free.

In fact making ideas to improve Wales freely available, and encouraging them to be contested and strengthened, is at the core of what we’re about. Our new branding sums it up – IWA: Making Wales Better.

We are delighted that you are one of the 100,000 who have visited our site this year. It is a free resource to use, but not to provide. If you support our vision of making Wales better please consider making a donation or, better still, becoming an IWA member.

Wales can flourish, but we all need critical friends to help us reach our potential.

Lee Waters is Director of the IWA.

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