Conference news Mike Thatcher reports on mergers, morale and monitoring at the CIPFA in Wales conference

25 Nov 04
The 'bonfire of the quangos' in Wales is likely to weaken staff morale and could affect performance during the transition period, according to the chair of one of the bodies facing abolition.

26 November 2004

Abolition of quangos must be 'more than a political exercise'

The 'bonfire of the quangos' in Wales is likely to weaken staff morale and could affect performance during the transition period, according to the chair of one of the bodies facing abolition.

Sheila Drury, chair of Education and Learning in Wales (Elwa), said that maintaining morale at her organisation would be a 'very real challenge'. Elwa, along with the Welsh Development Agency (WDA) and the Wales Tourist Board, will cease to be independent bodies in April 2006 and will come under the direct control of the Welsh Assembly.

'It is very difficult to maintain the enthusiasm and forward movement of your staff while at the same time dealing with a situation of change and great uncertainty,' Drury told delegates at the CIPFA in Wales conference last week.

She said that Elwa's 400 employees were concerned about becoming civil servants. 'People have a mental picture of what a civil servant is like. Sir Humphrey is a caricature, I know, but staff have uncertainties, and as long as you have staff with uncertainties you are going to have an impact on performance, potentially during the transition period,' she said.

Elwa, which has been heavily criticised for poor financial controls by the National Audit Office, has responsibility for funding post-16 education and training in Wales for both individuals and businesses. It has a budget of £500m a year and covers 350,000 learners.

Drury said that the 'merger' of the quangos into the Assembly could bring some benefits if it shortened the lines of decision-making and improved the links between education and economic development. She called on Elwa's customers, including the Assembly, to articulate the improvements they would like to see.

'If these mergers are to be more than a political exercise, the world out there has to get a better service. The organisations shouldn't fold into government and be lost in a black hole never to be seen again.'

But Roger Jones, chair of the WDA, denied that morale had suffered at his organisation. Speaking at the conference later, he told delegates that it was 'business as usual', despite the resignation of the WDA's chief executive the day after the abolition announcement.

'I am not aware of any mass exodus from the WDA. Morale is amazingly good,' he told Public Finance.

No need to panic over audit merger

Welsh public sector bodies should not be concerned about an increased level of inspection following the merger of the Audit Commission and National Audit Office in Wales next year.

Julian Kingzett, project manager for the Wales Audit Office integration programme, told delegates that the new body would take an incremental approach.

'Don't panic — it's not going to change overnight,' he said. 'You will have the same appointed auditor, the same people coming through the doors doing pretty much the same things they have always been doing.'

The Wales Audit Office will bring together the Audit Commission's 200 staff in Wales with the NAO's 50. It will mean that one audit body has responsibility for local and central government in the principality.

Kingzett said that they had not rushed into making decisions in terms of structures and were awaiting input from Jeremy Colman, who will become the auditor general for Wales next April.

'We have learnt from Audit Scotland, which went through this process a few years ago. It had to unpick a number of decisions and change its organisational structure on the arrival of a new auditor general,' he said.

Kingzett admitted that it would take some time to overcome traditional loyalties and create a new culture. 'Culture is something that you can't change overnight — it will take years to happen and there should be a gradual evolution.'

Shortridge calls time on 'upsetting' levels of sickness absence

The permanent secretary of the Welsh Assembly described the level of sickness absence in the Welsh public sector as 'upsetting' and called for a 'collective attack' to address the situation.

Sir Jon Shortridge told delegates that the average public sector employee took between 12 and 15 days off sick each year.

An attack on 'sickies' could contribute to the efficiency savings that the Welsh Assembly government is seeking, he claimed.

'Sickness absence has been with us at these levels for too long,' he told PF. 'It has been far too much of an invisible problem. The first way of addressing this is to create visibility for it.'

Shortridge said that he was seeking to address the problem at his own workplace, the Welsh Assembly, by improving management information. He said that he was monitoring sickness absence figures on a monthly basis and an Assembly board would 'drill down and probe why we have the manifestations of it that we do'.


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