Tossing Stones and Birds – An Allegory for Welsh Governance

I have in my hand a stone and I would like it be at point X some 50 meters away. Advised by the Williams Report, I take a mechanistic approach to most things so I calculate the force and the trajectory needed and as sure as night follows day the stone lands in the intended spot.

I have a bird in my hand and I would like it to be in the same spot some 50 meters away. In the same mechanistic way, I throw the bird with the correct force and trajectory but such is the nature of live animals as soon as it leaves my hand it flaps its wings and chooses its own direction.

I find my answer. For the sake of argument let us call my answer “White Paper: Reforming Welsh Local Government”. I am going to tie my bird to the stone. I recalculate and toss the stone with bird. Success! It lands as required. Upon investigation, I find the bird on landing has become as dead as a dodo.

Public service delivery organisations, such as local authorities, are full of living persons with lively intelligence and creative potential. Assuming mechanical control of their actions bears little fruit. Creating active partnerships that aligns their motivations with yours; managing complex inter-relationships which can be messy and difficult bear more fruit.

Welsh Government is much concerned with trying to ensure that when it wants something to happen, it does happen. The Williams Report and the Welsh Government’s recent White Paper take the mechanistic approach of tying the bird to the stone

Agents or Partners

In modern, agile systems of governance we expect local authorities, or any other deliverer of public services, to be effective in a complex web of partnerships. They need to manage multiple accountabilities as they continuously re-create their relationships with local people and local communities, business and voluntary organisations active in their area, other public service organisations including the health service and, of course, the Welsh Government and the UK Government.

For the Williams Report and its adopters, this partnership model is all too complex and unpredictable. In its recent White Paper the Welsh Government asserts that for 90% of its budget (education, social services, waste, planning) a local authority must adopt the hierarchical simplicity of being an agent of the Welsh Government.

In this agency relationship the goal is uniform service provision across Wales: “Welsh Government sets the standards and monitors performance. Where standards are not met, Local Government must be held to account and the public expect the Welsh Ministers to intervene to put things right and to do so swiftly and decisively”

In this agency model all wisdom is held by the Welsh Government. All control comes from the Welsh Government. All accountability is to the Welsh Government.

The problem with this model is that it creates uniformity rather than diversity, control rather than innovation, suppression rather than participation. It deadens the soul of communities and will ultimately undermine the affection that Wales has had for public services.

A significant question is: if it is right and proper for a local authority to be the agent of Welsh Government, should Welsh Government be the agent of the UK Government? The right answer may be that we should resist agency in all such relationships; but it would be illogical to assert agency in one relationship but not the other.

A Tale of Two Cities

We are rightly told that city regions are an essential part of business success. In any successful region we will find a range of contributions from its constituent geographical areas: centres of manufacture, centres of distribution, a diversity of tourism opportunities, city centre leisure amenity alongside a diverse pattern of attractive localities, high value business services, high quality university research, residential patterns which serve the different needs of different groups. The key is to plan and deliver the connectivity across a region so that the whole regional package is productive and attractive to investors; and to achieve this in ways which allow diverse communities to thrive and share control over their own destinies.

Look at successful city regions like Vancouver or Stuttgart and we find networks of local authorities linked to businesses, universities and regional governments. Leadership is distributed. Success is based on a recognition of shared interests. This is the model which informs the local government leaders in South East Wales who are exploring connections with the Bristol region to create a collaborative region of over 2 million people capable of competing in the global economy.

There are those with a different tale of city and regional development – top down and imposed, hierarchical rather than collaborative. It is difficult to find the successful application of this model anywhere else in the world.

In Defence of Politics

There has been much comment in recent days about the cost of politics. Let’s remember the benefits. When communities are politically active they explore their differences, test their varied opinions and values, find innovative resolutions to conflicting interests.

I am one of two RCT councillors representing the 10,000 residents and 5,000 electors of Pontyclun. Together we cost the taxpayer £26,000 a year. Our role is to expand local politics by ever widening representation and participation. Just in the last few months we have worked with local people to

– harness the energy of the community council, volunteers and businesses to replace the Day Centre which RCT Council closed because it could not afford the annual cost of £54,000. We now run a Day Centre with more diners and more social activities at an annual cost to the community council of less than £5000;
– contest the proposal of highway engineers to spend £200,000 on a mini roundabout that would serve little useful purpose; and worked with residents to find more effective solutions to the problems that they face;
– prepare a £250,000 grant application to the ‘Quarry Fund’ for new play and environment facilities – coordinating all the partner organisations, undertaking the public consultation and the procurement procedures;
– develop, Clochemerle style, a contentious model for alternative provision of public toilets, saving £5,000 annually

All such project work is in addition to the daily tasks of challenging bureaucracies to respond to the needs of vulnerable people, report un-emptied bines, examine potholes. Going to council meetings is a tiny part of our workload. We know that we are no different to many hundreds of other councillors in Wales.

Should we be abolished, the community will lose its bridge into public bureaucracies. It may not sound a lot; but the net effect is that the community may well resort to a UKIP style rejection of all things public.