What do I think about Wales? My apologies for putting it so bluntly.
I hope that Patrick Hannan, whose outstanding achievements as a journalist and life-member of the awkward squad this lecture honours, would have approved the question’s directness, though not perhaps its elegance.
It’s certainly true that if your trade, like mine and like Patrick’s, is analysis and public comment, this is the kind question you get asked. What DO you think about Welsh politics, the economy, the language question? The Silk Commission? The state of Welsh Rugby? The Severn Barrage? The tax on plastic bags? Local Government in Anglesey?
Sometimes the question comes in a more formal manner.
As when I was asked three years ago by the Deputy First Minister Ieuan Wyn Jones to review Wales’ policies towards the creative industries. I will say something about Wales and its creative economy later in this talk. I will also get to the internet, education, politics and the economy.
My assessment is that of the immigrant: of one of the 20 per cent of people living in Wales who weren’t born here.
I grew up in industrial East Lancashire. My grandparents worked in cotton mills and coal mines. My father worked all his life for a brewery. My mother had a tripe shop. I must have been aged six or seven when our family first went to Wales: by steam train from Burnley to Colwyn Bay.
It was our first family holiday beyond the Costa del Sol of its day: the Blackpool sea front. It was also our first taste of the plastic modernity of the Holiday Camp: Vorin Hall, Colwyn Bay: 1957 or was it 58?
I thought about Vorin Hall when we walked our dog a few weekends ago out from Barry Bay across the site of the old Butlins Holiday Camp. I suppose it will be in the hands of Cadw before long, an ancient monument with a mobile visitor soundtrack. Wakey, wakey! Good morning campers!
I still have a photograph from this Colwyn Bay holiday. It shows a short, fair-haired boy wearing over his head and shoulders and reaching down to his ankles a brown cardboard box. On his head is a hat made from stiff paper, with a bit of wire sticking out of the top.
Yes, you guessed correctly, that’s me dressed up as a television set at the Vorin Hall Fancy Dress competition. We had our first telly a few years earlier, in the wake of the Queen’s coronation. You can see the picture on the Radio Wales website. The Sheikh and the pirate alongside me are my brothers.
So that’s where my media career started. In Colwyn Bay.
We must have liked it because we came back. Pwhelli and Rhyl. Vast estuarial beaches! Castles! A real mountain! An incomprehensible tongue. Horizons sang.
One summer, we got as far as the balmy shores of Pembrokeshire, where they had jelly fish and where our family posed beneath the great stones of Pentre Ifan, the neolithic burial chamber. Pembrokeshire! It was as exotic to me as the olive groves of Tuscany.
As a teenager, I did voluntary work with Down’s Syndrome people and this involved residential summer holidays in north Wales. I was there when the Beatles released their first single on the Apple label, with Paul McCartney’s Hey Jude on the A-side and John Lennon’s Revolution on the B. That dates the memory quite precisely: August 30, 1968. At over seven minutes Hey Jude, was the longest single in British pop music history. It was, however, the B-side that I liked best. You say you want a revolution, we-ell you know, we all wanna change the world.
From this platform of ironic evangelism, anything looked possible.
I fell briefly in love, with the raven-haired and slightly severe Bethan, who wore a pin brooch with three deep green enamelled triangles, the emblem, she explained, of Plaid Cymru, a political cabal to which admission was not open to the likes of me; and which therefore, by definition, demanded thorough exploration.
In receipt of my inquiries, Bethan promptly suggested, I thought in a rather bureaucratic manner, that I transfer my personal affections to her best friend Dilys, but she had got me started.
Soon, I was championing in my school debating society the political claims of all non-English nations, whilst drawing the sharpest of distinctions between the benign version of nationalism embraced by the exploited and the unattractive imperial form deployed by the bossy English or the genocidal Adolf Hitler, to whose defeat my father had given seven, unbroken years of military service.
In the mind of a Burnley teenager, with experience of international affairs acquired through extensive travel in Colwyn Bay, Prestatyn and St Davids, the answer to most issues in the world was by now increasingly self-evident, from Prices and Incomes Policy to the Cold War. Among the abundant sources of inspiration, I particularly recall: Small is Beautiful, E. F. Schumacher’s book, subtitled: Economics as if People Mattered. More ironic evangelism with a direct line into Wales.
But if this was a love affair between myself and Wales, it was, I’m sorry to say, followed by a long period of benign neglect.
I went to university, discovered journalism and worked first in Yorkshire, and then all over the world, most memorably in New York, where I was the Financial Times New York Correspondent when Ronald Reagan displaced Jimmy Carter.
I loved this job, but during the summer of 1981 we drove from New York to Los Angeles through Virginia, Tennessee, Texas and Arizona. As we travelled, cutting from one music station into another, the skimpy news summaries were astonishingly dominated by news from home.
Charles was marrying Diana. So what – where shall we camp tonight? Brixton is in flames. What? Brixton? Brixton in London? Who can tell me more?
When my boss asked whether I would like to move from New York to Washington, I said that I wanted to be back in Britain. What on earth was Margaret Thatcher up to?
I got back just in time for the Falklands War. In my new job, I sometimes visited Wales, usually to witness some downward twist in the fate of the coal or the steel industry or to understand what was really going on in the miners’ strike. Then other jobs and other journeys took me to the end of the century.
As we approached the new Millennium, my perspective again shifted towards Wales for family reasons. My wife’s parents, in semi-retirement from Ministry in a London Baptist Church, had found themselves a home in the hills near Llanwrda in Carmarthenshire.
Here was a wondrous place to think, talk and write about the promised politics of the Blair era for our new, centre left think tank, Demos. Here we would reconcile the optimism, authenticity and fairness of communitarianism – the intrinsic beauty of the Small – with the ambition and determination to do well in the Big; the globalised economy which lay before us following the Thatcher and Reagan years.
In these circumstances, devolution for Wales, if the people of Wales wanted it, would be a no-brainer.
Then, in one of those serendipities that change lives, a job came up at the Cardiff University Journalism School, which gave me the chance to think and write about journalism, re-balance work and family and pursue a freelance life in print and broadcasting.
One of these freelance projects, with my friends at the TV production company Presentable here in Cardiff, was a documentary for Channel 4, called Enter The Dragon. Its argument was that England had a whole lot to learn from Wales, not the other way around.
The untransmitted highlight was a scene shot in Cardiff’s main shopping street, where I walked and talked with First Minister Rhodri Morgan as a way of demonstrating the pleasing informality of Welsh public life – one of the things England should learn from Wales … you get the point.
As we walked a small group of youths hailed us and Rhodri, never one to miss a chance with voters, loped towards them, handshake at the ready. “Hey, one of them said: you’re that Ron Davies aren’t you”. The programme got top ratings in those Welsh homes then capable of receiving Channel 4 broadcasts; so far as I can tell it wasn’t watched by a soul in England.
But that is what I really, really like about Wales. Its lack of pomposity; its disregard for the new new thing, its unassuming modesty. Beautiful and liveable -a place where you are happy to raise children.
Its values, to be sure, are sometimes in tension with the roaring affairs of the planet at large and perhaps this is, in some part, what nourishes the Welsh creative genius: rooted but not parochial.
I love the memorial in Cathays Park in Cardiff to the Spanish Civil War. As a teenager, I got to know the work of the poet R.S. Thomas and his peasant farmer, Iago Prytherch, he who “pens a few sheep in a gap of cloud”. Note the grace of transfiguration in simple, monosyllabic meter. It was also Thomas, I think, who talked about the uncorrupted language of the birds, contrasting it with the political distortions evident in human language.
But you probably didn’t come here this evening to hear me talk about R.S. Thomas. I owe you some politics and disputation.
The fact that I’m fond of Wales doesn’t mean that I don’t every now and then rage against the dying of enlightenment. Let’s face it, Wales since devolution has been a disappointment. Hasn’t it?
Just look at the three undisputed top priority items in any country’s politics: economy, education and health.
The Welsh economy since devolution has gone from bad to worse to barely better. Economic valued added per head has fallen from 77 per cent of the UK average in 1999 to 75 per cent. By this same measure, West Wales and the Valleys run at 65 per cent of UK average: a pretty desperate state of affairs.
Structurally, the Welsh economy has not recovered from the short era of plentiful natural resources and associated heavy industry. It is, for reasons which are not agreed, stuck in yesterday.
Today, the public sector accounts for roughly two thirds of economic activity in Wales, which at times makes it feel closer to the monoculture of a late Soviet era satellite state, than a diverse modern economy operating in a global marketplace. Export performance is narrowly based; inward investment rates are fragile and there is an anaemic level of new business births.
In the next few years, as the public sector suffers further cutbacks in the cause of the UK as a whole maintaining credibility in financial markets, the Welsh public sector will shrink and more jobs will be lost.
From the first stages of devolution, politicians here have, of course, recognised the urgent importance of improving this situation. Patrick was always jubilantly sceptical about the chances of Wales out-performing other areas of the UK sufficiently to diminish the economic gap.
In a book published in 2002, Patrick Hannan ran his eye over Rhodri Morgan’s economic development strategy and applied what he called “the first rule of government plans: the likelihood of them being achieved is in inverse proportion to the number of adjectives used to describe the objectives”. Noting the First Minister’s belief that Wales could romp along in the tracks of the Irish Celtic Tiger, Patrick tersely noted the substantial differences between the two and concluded: “Not for the first time many people wonder what Rhodri knows that they don’t”.
Ten years ago, I thought Patrick was too pessimistic, but he was right. So far.
If you ask most economists what to do about an economy which has structural problems as severe as those which Wales displays, they will tell you that the long term, strategic answer is investment in education, the vital source of the skills enhancement needed to enable people and institutions to respond to economic change through innovation and entrepreneurship, which are the engine of jobs growth in the private sector.
Now Wales, supposedly, has an exceptionally strong cultural attachment to the virtues of education. We all know stories, like the one which saw Richard Burton’s elevation to greatness under the care of a super-teacher. But we also have to face the fact that Wales’ performance in education is nowhere near as good as it should be.
The so-called PISA rankings, produced by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development and as close as you ever get to accepted comparisons across national boundaries, show that Wales currently ranks 38th among 67 countries in the world for reading, 40th for maths and 30th for science. Within the UK, Wales lags Scotland, England and Northern Ireland.
The picture in health and social care is even grimmer. We all know that a great Welshman invented the National Health Service. We also know that there has been no improvement in Wales’ key health metrics since devolution; Wales has a worse record on public health issues than almost anywhere else in the UK.
According to the most recent official survey of health in Wales more than half all adults are on regular, prescribed medication and a third of us report that we had attended the outpatient department of a hospital in the last year. Physical activity rates have been static for a decade. Nearly 60 per cent of adults are overweight or obese. And pressures on the health service in Wales will get much more intense, as the number of people living beyond 75 is due to double by mid century. As Dr Chris Jones, Medical Director of the NHS in Wales, has said, starkly: “If we don’t change we will be overwhelmed.”
It is, of course, a good deal easier to name these problems than to solve them. But it is also essential to avoid drifting on a tide of fatalism, where we start to think that nothing can change.
Those of a fatalistic disposition should look at countries as small or smaller than Wales on the opposite flank of Europe: countries which following the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 have had to deal with economic, social and cultural difficulties which exceed those faced here in Wales; countries which were indeed mono cultural Soviet satellites.
A good example is Estonia. It’s at the top right hand corner of the map of Europe and has a population of 1.3 million, which is less than half that of Wales. Or its larger next door neighbour, Latvia, which has 2.2 million people.
The story of Estonia is one which has combined radical policy thinking, such as the country’s flat rate income tax; with an exceptionally strong commitment to digital technologies: I-pads are replacing physical text books in schools as well as in Cabinet meetings and internet access is better than the UK.
Like all European countries, Estonia was battered by the 2008 banking crisis, but in the years before that its growth rate averaged 8 per cent a year and by 2010 it had already recovered to today’s growth rate of around 3 per cent a year. Latvia has also hit bumps, but it is now vying with Estonia as liveliest of the Baltic Tiger economies, both liberal in outlook and successfully responsive to change.
Estonia, I should add, is way ahead of Wales in the PISA education rankings, though it trails its neighbour to the north, Finland, which is Europe’s top performer.
The journalist and academic Anne Applebaum, an American who is married to a Polish politician, has written brilliantly about the end of the old Eastern Europe and the inspirational instructiveness of these political and economic stories. Applebaum spends some time working in North Africa and says that since the Arab spring, there’s much more interest in the stories of Latvia, Poland, Slovakia and Estonia than France, Italy, Portugal or Greece. Or, she might have added, Wales. What serious effort is Wales making to learn from these countries?
In a recent article in Prospect Magazine, Applebaum asks herself what is the single most important factor in determining whether a given post-communist country succeeded or failed in its transition to liberal capitalism. This is how she answers her own question:
“I would point to the existence, or absence, of an alternative elite. And by alternative elite I mean something specific. Not just a few economists, but a larger class or group of people who had worked together in the past, who had adopted an alternative set of values and who, by 1989 or 1990, were at least somewhat prepared for Government.”
It is, no doubt, an exaggeration to compare the political and economic momentum occasioned by the end of the Cold War with the tide of events that made devolution a reality for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. But it is worth reflecting upon these questions of motivation and readiness. Or, at least, recognising that when we discuss faults and potential solutions, we should look first and foremost, if not first and last, to ourselves.
When I discuss with friends in Wales the decade and a bit since devolution, I often hear it said that the level of energy and optimism in and about Wales has diminished rather than grown. People sometimes then add that this reflects an anxiety among politicians and others not to create waves which might damage or undermine Wales’ fragile new political institutions, which opinion polls suggest have, in a quiet way, gained wider public acceptance following the hair’s breadth Yes vote in the devolution referendum.
Andrew Davies, the former Labour Cabinet Minister, has used the term “captive state” to describe the unwillingness of people in public life to speak out strongly on the issues as they see them: to avoid rocking the boat.
Which brings me to the main point I would like to make this evening. Given a choice between doing something in a way which is open, transparent and contestable or in a way which prioritises privacy, obscured authority or even secrecy, we should never be in any doubt:
Or, as the point is often put in debates about information and the Internet, we should set the default switch to open and then mitigate the risks of being open, rather than first and foremost worrying about loss of control. And we should use these open channels to design solutions around the expressed and researched preferences of users of services – of citizens.
With open also comes plurality – healthy competition between individuals and institutions. The opposite course tends towards the concentration of information and power in the hands of a few: a real danger here in Wales.
So, we should be open to
- Competition from wherever competition stems.
- New ideas and innovation, even where change is painful.
- The movement of people, ideas and culture in the confident belief that strong cultures learn quickly and become stronger as a result.
This open versus closed argument has run through our economic and political life in the last century. It informed every breath of the great economic arguments of the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, when a politics based upon unrealisable protection against the consequences of economic change was overwhelmed not so much by an alternative politics, but by an alternative world. We re-visited some of this debate on the occasion of Margaret Thatcher’s death. We also still hear it, here in Wales, in Labour Party reflections upon the Blair legacy.
Let me be clear where I stand on this. Tony Blair, in my view rightly, told the Labour Party that it must choose open for its approach to the economy, casting aside controls in favour of viable regulation of an economy rooted in market information and market transactions. Only this would protect the funding of what needs to remain public and enable us to address other questions of fairness.
That zone of reasonable regulation is where we need to build our confidence in addressing issues that the market cannot address, from climate change to constructive honesty in banking. But capitalism’s shortcomings do not alter the need to set the default switch to open; rather they reinforce it.
Tony Blair, however, was only half open. To his great credit, he delivered the 2005 Freedom of Information Act, which gave citizens the right to access much more data and information about life inside government. Here, alas, is what Blair wrote in his memoir, published in 2010:
“Freedom of Information. Three harmless words. I look at those words as I write them and feel like shaking my head till it drops off my shoulders. You idiot. You naive, foolish, irresponsible nincompoop. There is really no description of stupidity, no matter how vivid, that is adequate. I quake at the imbecility of it.”
Several fulminating paragraphs later, Blair’s source of regret is clear: he thinks that he gave something away to journalists, rather than to the people, and that this has made it harder to govern well. Wrong on both counts.
Journalism, for all its current travails, exists to serve people and that includes challenging politicians. Strong and empowered news media make good politicians better and help us dispose of bad ones.
And, in the still unfolding age of the Internet, open data has enhanced value, because of the ease with which we can organise and distribute it. But let me give you a more congenial example, where Wales has done a great job, compared with, say, Scotland, in choosing open versus closed: football.
For those who don’t follow the sport (I know it’s second fiddle in Wales) Scotland has its own premier league, in which Scottish teams play Scottish teams, as a result of which a Scottish team always wins the championship. Fry the haggis whole!
Wales, by contrast, is part of the, dominantly English, premier league, which is a global market leader and so, rich, because of the value of its television rights. Even if you don’t follow football, you will know that Swansea secured promotion to the premier league in 2011 and that Cardiff City have just secured the right to join Swansea in the coming season, after a 51-year exile from the top flight.
Both clubs, but especially Swansea, have made progress by taking a very open and cosmopolitan view of talent recruitment. Swansea are managed by a Dane, who admits that he can get better value talent by shopping outside the UK. Cardiff are managed by a Scot, who Cardiff City fans like me are hoping will be as good at this aspect of his job as Swansea’s Michael Laudrup.
It is also true, however, that setting the default to open in Welsh football involves discomfort. For years, Wales had no club in the top tier. Some argue that the arrangement also weakened the structures of football within Wales – there is a similar argument in Welsh rugby.
Cardiff’s success in the last two years has depended upon risky and high profile foreign direct investment from Vincent Tan, a Malaysian businessman, who has angered many loyal fans by changing the team’s colours from blue to red; awkward if you’re known as ‘the Bluebirds’, but apparently rational if you are thinking about the marketing potential for Cardiff City in Asia.
Half way through this last and eventually triumphant season, Bristol City came to the Cardiff City stadium, occupying the small wedge of seating reserved for away fans. They brandished their St George’s Cross flags and taunted the home fans with songs about human-sheep interaction. Then, when a reference to Malaysia was shown on the stadium’s big screen, they jabbed their fingers in jeering unison with a line which we’ll translate roughly as: “what the hell is that?”
I wanted to go over and have a little chat with them about how Bristol’s greatness and prosperity have grown from centuries of global trade and open-ness and that south Wales will be very happy to show Bristol the way from now on, starting with the construction of the River Severn tidal energy barrage.
Or, if I were delivering this homily today, starting with the fact that Cardiff, as a result of Mr Tan’s investment, are now promoted from the Championship, just as Bristol City are relegated to the tier below.
Having taken appropriate health and safety advice, you will understand that I did not actually deliver this lecture to the Bristol fans, but I’m sure they’ll be listening to the broadcast of this talk on Radio Wales.
So, what might setting the default to open mean for Welsh politics, the economy, health and education?
It would mean that information about every area of Welsh public life is as open as is consistent with reasonable defences against breach of personal privacy. It would also mean that Government ensures that not only is the information and data needed to form judgments about policy and other matters available, it is also there in a form which makes it readily usable.
This is the only way to ensure that the evidence used to justify policy decisions and political thinking is of the best possible quality. It is also the only way to deploy the insight of those outside government, from the individual citizen to big business, in designing solutions to policy problems.
In the world of digital communications, where I spend much of my time, people talk about this Big Data being “the crude oil of the new economy.” That is why the likes of Google, Facebook and Apple are leading the gold-rush, if you will excuse the mixing of metaphors from different extractive industries.
The Government of Wales needs urgently to ensure that it is an outstanding player in this game, along with the rest of the Welsh public sector, and that Welsh technology companies, small and large, are well positioned and encouraged to take advantage. As they are in Estonia.
In education, we have seen too many political jitters about the case for putting information openly in the public domain. School league tables are an obvious case in point; the debate about school banding is another. The current Education and Skills Minister has, in my view correctly, made strong use of the PISA international comparisons, but he has encountered considerable resistance, from teachers’ unions and from the kind of public sector managers who simply don’t want others to be able to debate the quality of what they do.
So let’s take another example, this time from health. Professor Brian Jarman is an exemplary and stubborn academic, who worked out more than a decade ago that mortality data, that is death rates, adjusted for variables like demographics and time patterns, could be used to provide an early warning system against the risk of life-endangering underperformance by individual hospitals. His work was largely unknown and, he says, deliberately sidelined, until the scandal of the Mid-Staffordshire NHS Foundation drew attention to it. Professor Jarman has argued that 20,000 lives were lost that might have been saved had his research been deployed when it was first available.
How does Wales today stand with regard to Professor Jarman’s risk-adjusted standardised mortality data and its deployment in the interests of high standards in the Welsh NHS? Well, according to data released last month the Wales figures are not good in two senses: first they appear to indicate what an un-named official in a BBC news report termed a “fire alarm” by showing that 11 out of 17 district general hospitals in Wales have higher death rates than the norm; but that this conclusion has to be qualified because of the poor quality of the data collected for Welsh hospitals.
I very much hope the new Health Minister will put the collection, maintenance and publication of quality performance NHS data high on his list of priorities.
In the economy, absence of openly disputable evidence is also, very frequently, a problem. When I investigated Wales’ creative industries in 2009, the job was made harder by the absence at the time of anything resembling an up to date map of what was actually happening on the ground. I also drew attention to what I felt were weaknesses in the transparency of governance applying to some areas of public investment. Business is currently lobbying the Welsh Government to provide the quarterly economic growth data which is available for Scotland and England, but not for Wales.
All of that, however, is small beer compared with the calamity of the Technium business incubation centres, initially the brainchild of the Welsh Development Agency and its academic advisers. This has cost Wales an estimated £100 million since the programme started. Six of the ten Techniums, in Aberystwyth, Baglan, Bangor, Pembroke Dock, Llanelli and Bridgend, were axed in 2010. Ministers have blamed civil servants for not telling them what was going on and others have blamed the Ministers.
My colleague at Cardiff University, Professor Kevin Morgan, has studied the matter in detail and sums up as follows:
“The failure to calibrate supply and demand, the lax administration of grant aid, the inability to learn from mistakes and the hubris of ambitious politicians who rolled out the centres before they had been properly evaluated all played their part.”
Lack of the right evidence, evaluated in the right way at the right time, plus a disinclination to be open about what evidence there was cost – £100 million.
Setting the information default switch to open would not, in itself, of course, guarantee a better outcome, but it would stimulate informed discussion and analysis. From this, errors can be corrected and new paths explored.
Professor Morgan has pointed to this affair as a lesson on a wider front: the approach to innovation in the Welsh economy, where what is needed is a well-informed, active state working creatively with an ambitious and entrepreneurial private sector. Such a vision cannot be pursued without an open approach to well constructed and reliable data.
The same argument applies in the public sector: innovation is the only way that we will protect and extend the quality of services in the harsh conditions which lie ahead. That means lessons – and collaboration – must reach with greater determination across the great divide of public and private.
A more open approach will also lead to greater plurality and diversity of institutions because it promotes informed discussion about competitive competence.
And a greater diversity of institutions, from the public, private and social sectors, enables Government to concentrate upon the things that only it can do, for example to invest in the infrastructure needed to open up the arteries of the Welsh economy: rail, road, air and the best possible broadband and mobile communications network.
Well planned infrastructure investment of this type makes any economy and society more open and so more prosperous.
In education, quality data, maintained and nurtured carefully and consistently over time is also vital, for example if we are going to be able to compare Welsh schools and universities with those in England and Scotland. One of devolution’s unnecessary risks is that we lose the ability to make these neighbourly comparisons and so blunt our ability to learn from nearby.
Maybe there is no case in Wales for greater diversity of school institutional structures – the academy debate – but let those who make the argument on both sides deal openly with the evidence.
Institutional diversity can also be provided by social sector institutions like Code Club, which is active throughout the UK in teaching children software coding; and Teach First, which encourages very bright young graduates to spend a short time teaching before setting their long-range career course. Teach First has been a great success in England, but Wales has so far been wary. I hope Teach First will be active in Wales before the year is out.
On the university front, massive open online courses (MOOCs) which enable students in Wales to experience lectures live, online from the world’s greatest universities may or may not threaten existing Welsh universities, but the right thing to do is to welcome the competition and to respond with our own ideas.
When it comes to health, the need for openly available comparable evidence about relative performance is even greater, because there is no sensible shape for the NHS in Wales that avoids direct collaboration of service provision with NHS providers on the English side of Wales’s long, landside border.
The only way to win permission for the far-reaching re-configuration needed in health, from hospital-centred to community-centred, is to explain the case consistently and clearly and to build in user perceptions and requirements to product and service design, as is routinely the case in the development of digital era products and services.
Let me make just two final points about openness and data.
The first is that the treasure trove of data opened up and distributable through digital technologies calls for some expertise in its mediation. Journalists call this ‘data journalism’ which is growing everywhere. However, it is happening at a time when journalism itself, as an occupation and an industry, is being severely disrupted by the Internet, which has transferred advertising revenues from newspapers to the likes of Google.
If you look at the number of professional journalists in Wales, it is comparatively low. Wales has 5 per cent of the UK’s population and only 2 per cent of its journalists. We have seen serious and worrying cutbacks of staff and other resources among Welsh newspapers and even among Welsh broadcasters.
What we also see emerging, however, is a new generation of local, sometimes called ‘hyperlocal’ journalists, most of whom are not full-time professionals and many of whom would not claim any kind of professional status. They are helped by the fact that when it comes to uptake of social media platforms like Facebook, Wales is not a laggard at all: half of the adults of Wales are signed up to Facebook, the same level as across the UK as a whole.
These new community journalists or hyperlocals are, along with experts from other parts of society, including universities, the people to whom we will have increasingly to look to gather and distribute news, to provide independent comment and to make Big Data accessible to ordinary people in ways that are relevant to their needs. This is a meaty challenge and it’s why at Cardiff University we have just set up a Centre for Community Journalism, which aims to help build capacity among these new citizen journalists. It’s an important piece of work.
My final point on the openness agenda arises from the objection which says: this may be OK for England or Estonia, but it’s not OK for Wales. We’re different. We don’t want the private sector to compete for service delivery with the public sector; we don’t even want the social sector to get too big for its boots. We trust and prefer the State, Big or Little.
When I hear this type of argument I reach for my search engine.
For example, I have been told countless times that one reason for the weakness of the Welsh private sector is that people in Wales don’t care about money; their religious and cultural heritage predisposes them to suspect competition and financial motivation. Dog eat Dog is OK for London and the South East but don’t try hauling the Dog Show across the Welsh border.
This is one of those arguments which it is difficult to settle. I almost did a television documentary this year in which I imagined myself filming on a roundabout in Haverfordwest, with the rather splendid Pembrokeshire County Council offices on one side and Morrisons and Halfords on the other. I wanted to ask passers by questions about the relative pay levels of jobs carrying similar responsibility in Morrisons and County Hall: to find out whether Welsh people are, as I’m often told they are, anti private business, anti-profit.
Alas, I didn’t do the research. But my Cardiff University colleague Rob Huggins has done much better research than this, in which he (with a colleague) computes indices which measure the ‘business culture’ of different regions of the UK. This isn’t the place to explain the fine detail of Rob’s methodology, but at the top level, his figures unsurprisingly show that on a scale where the UK average is 100, London is tops for business culture (with 127) and the South East of England is strong (with 105).
Where would you expect Wales to be on this scale? Bottom of the pile? Not so. At almost 93, Wales is ahead of Scotland and the West Midlands, as well as the North East and North West of England.
And the all-Wales figure, as you would expect, includes a balance of returns by locality.
So, next question: which parts of Wales would you expect to see running above the UK average for business culture? No, it’s not the Vale of Glamorgan: that comes just under the average, perhaps because of all those people like me who live there – comfortable public sector workers with a considerable interest in not shaking things up through the disruptions of open data and more competition.
No, the stand-out performers for business culture in Wales are, please take a bow: Conwy, Denbighsire, Flintshire, Gwynedd, Monmouthshire and Pembrokeshire.
So when I ask myself what I think about Wales, I want to think beyond the stereotypes, especially the one that says change is beyond us. If we get the facts out for debate and if we look everywhere we can for ideas and lessons, we can change things.
Another way of putting that, in the language of policy-makers and business schools, is to say that Wales needs a systematic approach to innovation, which brings together the right approach to infrastructure, taxes, education, research and development and leadership of anchor institutions, such as universities and other public sector bodies.
I’ve just published, along with two colleagues from Nesta, the National Endowment for Science Technology and the Arts, a Manifesto – for the UK Creative Economy. It has plenty of lessons for Wales, where the creative economy must continue to be a priority and where investment in digital and deployment of its opportunities needs to push on to the next level.
Wales, small and beautiful, is perfectly sized to be a laboratory for innovation, especially in the public sector. So, that’s the Wales I’d like to see. In Rhodri Morgan’s phrase: A small, clever country.
But more than that: a small, beautiful, clever and OPEN country.
Thank you. Diolch yn Fawr.
While you’re here, we’ve got something to ask you: will you join us?
We’re working every day to bring the right people together and generate the ideas to make Wales a world-leading force.
We’re independent of government and political parties. We provide a much-needed space for open, transparent debate about the ideas that can make Wales better.
To continue to do this, we need people like you to join us.
Join us today and you’ll be supporting vital work that’s making our country better than ever.