Ceri Davies explains why the Well-being of Future Generations Act needs critical friendship.
Wales is a hard place to take the role of critical friend, especially when commenting on one of our seemingly sacred cows.
Will Hayward, Welsh Affairs Editor at WalesOnline, talking recently about his new book, Independent Nation, said: ‘One of my frustrations speaking to many people who support independence is their total unwillingness to criticise the Welsh Government.’
But it’s that critical friend position, often so absent in Wales, that is so needed.
For me, it’s not that people don’t criticise the Welsh Government, it’s that – for a variety of often understandable reasons – they don’t want to be seen to do it publicly. It is therefore with some trepidation that I write about the Well-being and Future Generations Act.
I think the Act is the highlight piece of devolved legislation, but also that the Commissioner’s office needs that critical friend.
Identifying areas for improvement should not be seen as failures of the Act, but as a process of learning and developing
Our role as custodians for the coming generations is incredibly important. I have always found it sad that we have needed such legislation to ensure this is the case, but my experiences working in many different sectors leaves me convinced that the principles the Future Generations Act looks to embed, as outlined by Minister Carl Sargeant in his introduction in 2014, are necessary through legislation:
the Bill puts sustainable development at the heart of public service government in Wales […] it enshrines in legislation our shared commitment […] to make sustainability central to everything that we and the wider public sector do.
After our summer of heatwaves, droughts and sewage discharges, we have seen that, from an environmental sustainability perspective it has never been clearer how important this principle really is.
But the fact we are still experiencing these environmental crises with insufficient attention given to it, or resources allocated to manage the inevitable impact from past generational impact, is a concerning sign about the decisions made on prioritisation and implementation of the Act that needs scrutiny.
Two recent reports – one from the Public Accounts Committee (PAC), Delivering for Future Generations: The story so far (2021) and one from the work of the Wales Audit Office, So, what’s different? Findings from the Auditor General’s Sustainable Development Principle Examinations (2020) – both find a lot of work still to do for the Act to deliver on its aims.
The PAC found that public bodies across Wales have not done enough to change their organisational cultures to align with the principles of the Act. It also found that they have not done enough to build awareness and understanding amongst their service users about the shift to sustainable development across public services.
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The committee also concluded that in the years immediately after the Act was passed, the Welsh Government was too slow to implement it internally. This is disappointing. The PAC also highlights the annual remit letters issued to public bodies not being set within the framework of the Act and the need for them to implement the Act internally also.
The Wales Audit Office made the following recommendations in its report:
- The Senedd and the Welsh Government should give post-legislative consideration to the Act to explore: a. how the barriers to successful implementation described in this report, and that of the Commissioner, can be overcome; and b. how Wales can remain at the forefront of actions to improve well-being.
- The Welsh Government considers whether additional public bodies should be designated by Order to be subject to the Act
I agree with these findings and believe what is needed is a formal review of the legislation and the Commissioner’s role. The ‘Green Book’ – HM Treasury guidance on how to appraise and evaluate policies, projects and programmes – suggests that after five years such a review should be undertaken.
Wales has not been the best at such practices, but as we approach the end of the first commissioners’ term and the search for the next is underway, and given the paramount importance of the Future Generations Act, it is an opportune time to undertake such a review to give the new Commissioner a clear approach for what is needed next.
Identifying areas for improvement should not be seen as failures of the Act, but as a process of learning and developing, something our political arena finds so hard to do. We so often want immediate results and fail to realise how long things take to change, especially when combatting entrenched cultural factors. Spending time developing policy, evaluating it and refining it is such an important activity that we need to dedicate much more time to and take it far more seriously.
The basic presentation of information about decisions made by the 44 bodies who must make recourse to the Future Generations Act generally remains clouded in secrecy
Any review should also include the relation of the Act to the people of Wales. Senedd Member Rhys ab Owen recently wrote for the welsh agenda online, highlighting several attempts to use the Act to protect various community assets – unsuccessful as the Act is not fit for this purpose. In development of the Act, campaigners and third sector organisations wanted it to have a role of supporting influence and for communities to be able to hold decisions and decision-makers to account. This was lost in the development of the Bill, but still feels like where the major flaw in the Act remains.
It does seem that the lack of ‘teeth’ – whether through enforcement or ability to act meaningfully – drives much of the comment on the legislation and the role of the Commissioner.
If enforcement is not an option, then perhaps at least we can begin to see the Act’s principles contained in decision-making structures and for that rationale to be made publicly available and transparent?
I want to understand the rationale for decisions our public bodies make and how the Act is considered in making those decisions. This is something I would imagine the Commissioner would also like to see. For example, as the exemplar public body in Wales, if anyone can look at the decision report page of the Welsh Government website and understand anything other than the very basic position you are given, then you will have my admiration. A page that could be so informative to the public at large is a wasted opportunity, and frankly one I am surprised the Commissioner hasn’t asked to at least reference the Act and how it is considered in those decisions.
Public bodies below the Government level are in my experience equally frustrating for anybody attempting to find decisions and/or how they have considered and mitigated the provisions of the Act, let alone any other legislation. For an Act that was heralded as putting citizens at the heart of decision-making, the basic presentation of information about decisions made by the 44 bodies who must make recourse to the Future Generations Act generally remains clouded in secrecy.
The Commissioner’s Office can provide an opinion that isn’t currently binding, but for me that opinion would carry a heavy weight with the public bodies under the Act. In areas I campaign in this would make a huge difference. I know the campaigners for example of the Save the Northern Meadows development in Cardiff would find such an opinion invaluable, even if it differs to their own. If the public can’t get a view on such a controversial development, the Act really isn’t working.
It is also worth remembering that the Act embraces all aspects of sustainability and is not just confined to environmental decisions. For example, housing, equal pay and mental health are included in the national indicators, and the health aspects of the Northern Meadows campaign that numerous physicians have commented on deserve recognition from the Act.
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We have seen a number of external shocks since the Act’s implementation, Brexit and Covid most notably, but enter this autumn with a looming cost of living crisis. If the Act had been implemented more strongly, if it was truly at the centre of all legislative development and public decision making, I wonder whether we could have been more resilient to these external shocks. This is, after all, the stated goal of the legislation. What would Wales, and our public sector look like, if we really embraced it?
In my engagement on one campaign, I was advised there was not enough resource within the Office, and to lobby the Welsh Government for greater support. Resource does seem to be a theme in what is needed to implement the Act. In the Audit Wales So What’s Different report of May 2020 the Future Generations Commissioner also says:
The Welsh Government has not sufficiently resourced the implementation of the Wellbeing of Future Generations (Wales) Act in terms of leadership development, support for transformational change and delivering the infrastructure required by the Act; both within their own organisation and the organisations they sponsor.
The Act remains a starting point. In Wales it is in the public consciousness and is developing a cultural change around public sector decision making. Outside of Wales, the Act continues to make waves. England continues to progress work towards their own approach, Scotland commits to enshrine future generation legislation, and the Irish Foreign Minister, Simon Coveney, spoke in November 2021 on his hopes to replicate the Act in Ireland.
I hoped – and still hope – that the short termism of decisions driven by the need for electoral success will be something the Act eventually seeks to mitigate.
Today it is not doing that, and the call for ‘teeth’ and a greater enforcement aspect may well be what’s needed to address those decisions that we see in Wales that often seem to run contrary to the Act.
The next Commissioner has one of the biggest jobs in the public sphere in Wales and I think it’s fair to say the success or failure – or rather learning – of our world-leading Act may well be in their hands over the next six years.
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