11 November 2005
Rhodri Morgan is every bit as evangelical as Tony Blair when it comes to improving public services. But Wales is taking a very different route from Westminster. Steve Davies reports on public sector reform, Welsh-style
Public service reform dominates political discussion in Wales as much as it does in England. Welsh First Minister Rhodri Morgan and Tony Blair are both fond of invoking the ever-growing expectations of the public and the need to make the most of limited resources.
But that's where the resemblance ends. The language used to conduct the debate in Cardiff and Westminster couldn't be more different. While competition, choice and consumerism are the watchwords for Blair, Morgan prefers collaboration, co-ordination and citizenship and is keen to emphasise the 'clear red water' that exists between Wales and England.
Schemes such as free breakfasts for primary school children, free prescriptions for all and Assembly Learning Grants for higher and further education students from low-income families are proof of his determination to do things differently.
Public service reform is no exception. Morgan argues that there are particular circumstances in Wales that militate against the use of the market option to improve services. The fact that Wales is a small country made up, in the main, of relatively small communities, its collectivist traditions, values, attitudes, sense of ownership of public services, even its geography, are all pressed into service to justify what Morgan describes as a reform programme Made in Wales.
But he acknowledges that, while there are advantages in small-scale approaches to public services in terms of accessibility and responsiveness, there are also disadvantages through the loss of economies of scale. Rejecting both the market option adopted in England and yet another restructuring of local government and NHS Wales, the Welsh Assembly Government claims that effective collaboration is 'a successful alternative'.
In June, the WAG published Delivering the connections: from vision to action, a five-year 'action plan' that explains how it intends to achieve the collaborative public services first outlined in the October 2004 document Making the connections.
Finance Minister Sue Essex describes the plan as 'a unique and distinctive public services agenda for Wales that is about putting people and communities at the heart of public services'. It aims to do this by strengthening the voice of citizens in the design and delivery of services, joining up Welsh public services and making efficiency gains. A key focus will be reshaping local services.
In July, Morgan revealed that Sir Jeremy Beecham, vice-chair of the Local Government Association in England, would lead a review of local service provision. Last week, the terms of reference for the inquiry were sent to public bodies across the principality and other stakeholders with an invitation for submissions of evidence.
Beecham and his small review team of Dame Gillian Morgan, chief executive of the NHS Confederation, and Sir Adrian Webb, former vice-chancellor of the University of Glamorgan, are expecting a good response. Cardiff University's Professor Steve Martin has also been lined up as an adviser.
The Beecham review is intended to 'identify improvements in the arrangements for local service delivery which are as radical and innovative as necessary' and 'examine how existing arrangements for accountability can be used, developed and adapted to support this innovation'. It is due to report back to ministers in July 2006.
The scope of the review is very broad, scrutinising all local public services rather than just those provided or funded by the Assembly. That means not just local government and health but services provided by the police and fire authorities, Whitehall departments, and even those outsourced to the voluntary and independent sectors.
Beecham and his team will examine how to encourage, fund and manage effective collaborative working between different parts of the public services. His review will consider whether the role of local organisations needs to change in terms of community leadership, commissioning and service provision. It will also scrutinise the mechanisms for both cross-functional and geographical collaboration, and the balance between centralised specialist expertise and local access. The WAG's leadership role will also come under the microscope.
One of the many potentially contentious areas to be considered is that of political management and accountability, including: the relationship between local elected representatives and appointed bodies; the planning, design and quality measurement of services; and the involvement of users and other stakeholders. This will also cover the provision of information to the public, including proposals for change and the quality and effectiveness of what is already in place.
Another possible point of tension will be the review's examination of the workforce changes needed and how to involve staff in the improvement process.
The Beecham review constitutes a major programme of work in itself, but is just one of a huge number of actions planned in Delivering the connections, which are gathered under four broad strands: Citizen centre-stage; Working together as the Welsh public service; Making the most of our resources; Engaging the workforce. The plan also contains the Assembly's top ten commitments. These are rather broad but include pledges to measure people's experiences of public services and to set core standards of both performance and public participation in service planning and delivery.
Better use of resources – both human and financial – is a key element of the strategy. The government has undertaken to work with unions to ensure that staff have the necessary skills and support. Public Service Management Wales (PSMW) is a leadership centre that has been set up to help develop the skills, knowledge and understanding needed by public service managers for working together across traditional public service boundaries.
Efficiency targets have been in place under Making the connections since April 2005, and cover the five years to 2010. The WAG is aiming for gains of £300m a year by 2008, rising to £600m a year by the end of the five years, equivalent to a cumulative 1% a year for public bodies directly funded by the Assembly. Delivering the connections contains a pledge that savings will be ploughed back into services: 'This is about using resources more effectively, not service cuts.'
The Assembly's internal change programme covers the absorption of former quangos such as the Welsh Development Agency and the Wales Tourist Board. This is expected to increase efficiency, improve accountability, integrate services and expand capacity.
The WAG also aims to expand the use of e-government, thereby reducing costs and creating easier access to public services.
An example of the new approach is Value Wales, a procurement support body created for the Welsh public sector. A result of merging the Welsh Local Government Procurement Support Unit and the Assembly's Welsh Procurement Initiative Team, Value Wales provides advice, guidance and support on best practice across the public sector and is also involved in negotiating all-Wales contracts in certain areas.
Audit, regulation and inspection are seen as an 'engine for change', particularly with the creation of the Wales Audit Office through the merging of the Audit Commission in Wales and the National Audit Office in Wales.
Similarly, the opportunity for complaint and redress (and consequent service improvement) is emphasised and made more straightforward by the reform of the ombudsman service in Wales, merging three bodies into one Ombudsman Service for Wales.
Altogether, Delivering the connections lists 107 separate actions with completion dates and outcomes or outputs. It is a very ambitious vision, not least because it runs against the prevailing wisdom in Whitehall and Westminster. But it holds out a real possibility of a different and successful route to improved services – if it can overcome the tensions and problems along the way. Likely hurdles include capacity, workforce, costs and benefits and political will.
A small country like Wales faces a chronic lack of capacity. This is the case even in contrast with Scotland, where the pre-devolution Scottish Office had far more experience of policy development than the Welsh Office because of its separate traditions in areas such as education and the judicial system.
The WAG is attempting to grapple with the lack of capacity, and one of the strengths of the Making the connections programme is that implementing collaborative working across the public services should multiply the capacity available – the sum being greater than the parts.
With sufficient resources, the leadership centre PSMW could not only train a new leadership cadre but also begin to open up career paths across the different public services.
Managers would be able to develop expertise while working in a variety of contexts, with likely improvements to services. This should also make Wales a more attractive option for senior public service managers.
The public sector plays a big part in Welsh life. It is the most important employer and biggest spender in Wales. A higher proportion of the population works for or relies on public services than in many other parts of the UK.
All the more important then that Morgan succeeds in getting the workforce on board for the reform programme. The good news is that the trade unions are broadly supportive.
Derek Walker of the Wales Trades Union Congress welcomes the programme, saying that it 'offers us an opportunity in Wales to develop a new model of industrial relations across the Welsh public service that can deliver high quality and better value services'.
A new liaison group, the Public Services Workforce Forum Wales, has been set up to bring together the various parties to work through some of the issues involved.
Jeff Evans of the Public and Commercial Services union says it is 'engaging in partnership working as never before' and that although there are still disagreements, the union is pleased with the relationship.
Unsurprisingly, however, the unions are concerned about efficiency cuts leading to job losses and are pushing for agreements on avoiding compulsory redundancies, redeployment, secondments and retraining.
Paul O'Shea, Unison's Wales secretary, argues that even if structures change and provision of service is reorganised, staffing levels will still need to be maintained if frontline services are to improve.
In fact, the change programme might initially cost more than it saves. As the Lyons review in England noted in relation to relocation, the management of change is always expensive and problems are inevitable unless this is recognised.
The temptation to look for financial shortcuts can lead to difficulties in other areas. The benefits might take longer to arrive than predicted and then only after costs are incurred to ease the way forward. The understandable urge to go for 'quick wins' might result in long-term failure.
Essex is open about the challenge: 'Serious change on the ground will not happen by waving a magic wand. This is a five-year programme that will require sustained commitment from all those involved, including public service leaders, stakeholders and the workforce.'
The problem for the ministers is that there needs to be the will to drive such an ambitious programme through at all levels, not just among their own ranks. Within the civil service, throughout the 22 local authorities and across NHS Wales, there must be a commitment to the goals and methods of the programme. It is certainly a tall order.
But it is not impossible, and good old-fashioned self-preservation and the desire to avoid worse alternatives means it should be feasible to bring the bulk of the Welsh public services on board. It will require politicians to have a steady nerve at a time when the government is in a minority in the Assembly and is currently trying to get its budget approved. It also faces an election in the middle of the plan's five-year timetable.
But ministers are cautiously optimistic. The reform programme is still only part way through the first year but the WAG is already highlighting some early successes. These include the framework contracts established by Value Wales on behalf of the public service for computers, stationery and vehicle hire, and the work on developing shared services.
At the same time, the NHS has just launched a project to share human resources and finance and procurement services in North Wales. In addition, the WAG has recently commissioned a pilot project on modernising recruitment across public service bodies, and is developing a further project to procure a common information and communications technology network across the public sector.
Russell Roberts, the Welsh Local Government Association's spokesman on improvement and procurement and leader of Rhondda Cynon Taff County Borough Council, also points to signs of progress at the regional level. 'Welsh local government is seeking to develop regional structures, supported by Regional Partnership Boards, which will facilitate joint working and deliver practical projects in key areas such as waste management, school buildings and back-office functions.'
The big question is whether this joint approach becomes routine across public services in Wales. If it does, the connections agenda will have a lasting impact on the future shape of Welsh public services. The challenge for Morgan and his ministers is making sure that the rhetoric of reform is matched by the reality.
Steve Davies is senior research fellow at Cardiff University's School of Social Sciences. CIPFA in Wales's Annual Conference is being held on November 17 & 18 at the Holland House Hotel, Cardiff