From grand ambitions to tangible outcomes?

Chris Johnes talks of how a bill with grand ambitions has now retreated into familiar territory, but in doing so can focus on areas where beneficial change can be achieved.

Chris Johnes is Director of Egino, a Community Interest Company that supports organisations and communities to deliver sustainable wellbeing

*This article was written before the latest amendments to the Well-being of Future Generations Bill*

Modern day, bona fide law making in Wales by a Welsh legislature is a very recent development. And of the small number of pieces of legislation the Senedd has debated so far, the Well-being of Future Generations Bill has the potential to be the most significant.

This week on Click on Wales

The Wellbeing of Future Generations Bill was discussed by the full assembly on Tuesday after the environment committee voted to drop large parts of the bill but rejected sections intended to replace them in February.

This week on Click on Wales we are running a series of articles on the Wellbeing of Future Generations Bill looking at what we’ve got and how it can be improved.

The draft legislation, proudly announced as a Sustainable Development Bill back in 2011, has been through a long and winding journey to reach its current stage: it has been subject to unprecedented public consultation (grandly termed a “National Conversation” on “the Wales we want”); a highly critical Scrutiny Committee report; and a series of significant changes since its inception.

Subtly, but critically, it has changed from putting sustainable development at the heart of Government decision making to focusing on how public policy maximises wellbeing. In other words, it is now primarily concerned with the outcomes of operating in a sustainable way rather than with achieving a sustainable development path for Wales.

The Bill has faced two main types of criticism for the way it has done this, both spotlighting a narrowness of approach or intent. It makes almost no mention of the impacts of actions in Wales beyond our borders, especially regarding how our activities contribute towards climate change. And while the outcomes it seeks to achieve cover all three of the strands of sustainable development – economic, social and environmental – it is very heavily weighted towards the social: four of the six wellbeing goals set out in the Bill cover social aspects of sustainable development.

The focus is thus very much on the areas over which the Welsh public sector has most control. Depending on your taste this is either a pragmatic focus on where the most difference can be made or a retreat to the Welsh public service’s comfort zone.

And, make no mistake, this is largely a bill about the Welsh public service. Its main impact will be to force the Welsh public service, especially at local level, to operate in a different way. Or rather to operate in a way in which it should in theory have been operating over most of the last ten years but only fitfully succeeded in doing. Because what the Bill does is compel public services to collaborate towards achieving a set of common goals. Goals that are based on results that make sense to real people rather than service planners. In other words, to work together towards agreed common objectives and to think long term, not short term.

It’s hard to argue that these are not much needed changes. Not only has public service reform in Wales made slow progress over the past decade or so but the combination of an ageing and relatively poor population with further and deeper austerity makes a new approach to public services vital. In particular what is essential is a focus on what people need rather than what it is convenient to provide them.

Although the Bill does not, at least yet, produce a balanced approach to promoting sustainability it does offer mechanisms for substantially improving the effectiveness of public services at a time when growing need and diminishing resources so desperately call out for such a shift. And in doing so its recipe for action can offer key ingredients for improving individuals’ wellbeing.

But of course passing legislation is the easy part of driving change. Legislation enforces procedures and it prohibits certain activities, but it can have little direct impact on behaviors and attitudes; those come from incentives, beliefs in changing priorities and, in this context, a willingness to innovate born of a recognition of the size of the challenges.

For this legislation to unleash something meaningful I’d suggest there are four major challenges.

  • If organisations are to be asked to plan for the future, thinking long term needs to become engrained. This requires a mix of having some degree of confidence that you understand what issues you will face, what the wider environment will look like and what resources may be available.
  • Health and social care issues will be among the most pressing; how secondary care, is able to work better with community based approaches will have a major impact on how we get “more for less”.
  • Promoting wellbeing works best when responsibilities are shared by all those with a stake in them. This requires much greater interaction between services and citizens both on a general level when difficult decisions are made and on an individual level concerning how they access and use particular services. This is especially tough at a time when faith in government is seemingly falling and the scale of cuts is putting some public servants very much on the defensive.
  • Finally, joining up services, consulting with the public and thinking long term make old fashioned top down decision making much more difficult, indeed potentially deeply counterproductive. For politicians and very senior public service managers the implications are quite marked: they can still set strategy and allocate resources but they will be less and less able to pull levers and see instant results or change direction on a whim whilst retaining credibility.

A bill that started out with grand ambitions has now apparently retreated in its vision and scope to familiar territory. But in doing so it now focuses on areas where great beneficial change can be achieved – if there is a sufficiently ambitious agenda for properly implementing the Bill’s key proposals and a refusal to accept mediocrity in their delivery.

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