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.