Williams denounces Collaborators

A myth is widespread that the collaboration thing was tried in Wales but it did not work. It must therefore be inevitably too complex, unaccountable and dispensed with. This is the subtext of the Williams report: we must double the size of local authorities so that there is no further need for collaboration – good old fashioned command and control can replace any need for trust and negotiation between organisations. The Williams Commission regards collaborators just as De Gaulle regarded the Vichy Government. 

It is one of the wholly uncelebrated facts of Wales that we have a good record of effective collaboration. I did a 10,000 word research report for the Williams Commission on ‘shared services’ which pointed to that success. It can be found on http://wales.gov.uk/topics/improvingservices/public-service-governance-and-delivery/evidence-received/?lang=en. Tellingly, the Williams Report did not make a single reference to that research – perhaps because the research did not support the ideological premises of the Commission: an ideology that makes a virtue of centralised bureaucracy over markets or negotiated networks.

The research indicates that there is much very successful collaboration between Welsh local authorities. Working in clusters they are currently procuring regional energy from waste plants and in so doing are achieving what is one the biggest investment programmes in the history of the Welsh economy. It is estimated that 70% of social care is commissioned from voluntary and business organisations and Welsh local authorities have for some time been procuring high cost care on a collaborative basis. Since 2012 four education improvement consortia have been in place to ensure that each local authority can access expert support in managing the performance of their schools. In a wide range of services such as libraries, trading standards, food standards sophisticated arrangements are in place to share specialist expertise, procurement and information. Highways professionals have been developing far reaching plans for the sharing of systems and expertise but these plans may not survive the Williams Report. For decades here has been successful collaboration in the development and implementation of regional transport plans; unfortunately last year Welsh Government nationalised the production of regional transport plans. 

Collaboration is a way of life in local government systems throughout Europe which consistently operate on a smaller scale than in Wales. It is normal and undertaken whenever necessary on a business like basis with clear agreements of intended outputs. We are getting there in Wales but the intention of Williams is to put a stop to all such malarkey.






From the Cutting Edge to the Backwaters

Last week Nick Pearce of the IPPR was invited by the University of South Wales to come to the Norwegian Church in Cardiff to talk about ‘The Relational State’ – a ‘new’ approach to public service delivery. 

His theme is that we cannot rely on either markets or hierarchies to achieve all that is necessary from our public services. We need also to develop relationships, networks, between citizens and deliverers and between different deliverers. 

It sounded so much like Welsh Government’s ‘Making the Connections’ programme of public service reform of a decade ago. We were going to have a citizen centred public service. We were going to work across organisational boundaries to create seamless and integrated public services. We were not relying entirely on markets or on centralised bureaucracy, we were going to create agile and responsive networks across a range of public, private and voluntary organisations. Pivotal to the modal was the role for community based local authorities offering active community leadership in the local management of networks. 

The London based think tanks have now escaped the limitations of New Labour’s agenda for markets, choice and contestability. They are now in the same place as Wales was a decade ago. Unfortunately the Williams report has rejected the pioneering agenda set out in ‘Making the Connections’. Williams rejects both markets and networks and puts its total reliance on new centralising bureaucracies. In seeking simplicity over complexity, centralisms over localism, direction over participation – Williams places Wales back into the Morrisonian orthodoxies of 1945.


Is the Williams Report the end Progressive Politics in Wales?

It has long been held that Wales remains a bastion of progressive politics. As other parts of the world marketise each and every social relationship, Wales, it is said, hangs on to values of community and solidarity – a belief that through a diversity of associations including democratic government we can achieve more together than we can apart.

 One important reason that Wales has retained trust in ‘government’ is that our forms of government have retained a basis in community. If the Williams recommendation of just 10 local authorities is implemented, our most local unit of government will have an average population of over 300,000 people. The distance between community and government will be bigger in Wales than in any other part of Europe.

 Our government will become more hierarchical, more top-down, more statist – less attached to community interaction, less engaged with and empowering of citizens. Trust in government will diminish, resentment of the state will increase. Our attachment to progressive politics will decrease. We will become more attracted to individualism and markets. The stakes are high.


Can Welsh Government learn from Welsh Rugby

Scratch a Welsh international rugby player and invariably you find a village boy or girl who learned their craft in such community clubs as Beddau, Abercraf or Trebanos. The rugby club caricature of boozey blazers has been displaced in recent generations by large and complex community networks of volunteer coaches and organisers. My own village club of Pontyclun has 350 players each week – all ages above seven years with teams for men and women – all supported by parents, friends and community activists. 

A decade ago we ‘regionalised’ Welsh rugby, creating professional structures based largely on our coastal cities. The regions have proved unsustainable, lacking the support once generated by their former constituent clubs – expenditure far exceeds income. The answer of the Welsh Rugby Union is now to move from regionalisation to nationalisation with elite players being contracted to the national team. 

Is this the prescription of the Williams Report on Welsh public services? Ignore our communities, first regionalise, then nationalise. It will be a nation with no roots, no ability to nurture talent or engagement. It will wither.


Learning from Denmark

The Williams Commission refers approvingly of Denmark, noting that it has reformed its local government system in the last decade and asserting that Denmark has acted in accord with the principles set out by the Commission. So let’s look at the reformed system of local government in Denmark. 

Since the Danish reform, which took a decade of intense negotiation to achieve,  the 5.6 million people of Denmark have been served by 98 municipal authorities with an average population of 56,000 and a minimum population of 20,000. This means that Wales’ smallest authority, Merthyr Tydfil, would be the average local authority in Denmark. 

Danish municipal authorities are responsible for everything a Welsh unitary authority is responsible for apart from secondary schools which in Denmark are a central government function. They are responsible for social services, primary health care, primary schools, planning, highways and transport, environmental services and in addition they have responsibility for ensuring local supplies of water, gas and electricity. Over 90% of their funding is through local taxation including local income taxes and local corporation tax. Equalisation of resources according to need is achieved through a central grant of just 10% of total income. 

The Danish hospital system is provided by 5 elected regional authorities. 

Wales should not seek to mimic Denmark but we can certainly learn from this successful small country. We would learn that success is achieved by maintaining far more decentralisation than Williams recommends.