The Williams Commission – it’s not just about redrawing boundaries

Wales’ public services face an unprecedented squeeze between spending cuts and growing demand.  I recently worked with Wales Public Services (WPS) 2025 – on a secondment – to examine the long term pressures facing Welsh public services and the potential responses.  These issues have recently been picked up in the proposals that have been made by the Commission on Public Service Governance and Delivery (the Williams Commission).

Almost all of the public discussion about the Commission’s report has focused on the proposal to reduce the number of councils.  But that is just part of the story. The Williams Commission also makes much broader and far reaching proposals to radically re-shape the delivery of public services in Wales.  I’d urge anybody with an interest in public services in general, not just local government, to read the report.

I was personally pleased to see that the Commission drew on the WPS 2025 analysis across its report.  It used our key findings that, as a result of spending cuts and rising demand, Welsh public services face a real terms funding gap of £2.6 billion by 2025.  If spending on health, social care and education rose to meet projected demand, the amount left for other public services would fall from just over £5 billion to less than £3 billion.  This is our reasonably optimistic ‘base case’ scenario; it is plausible that the picture could be considerably worse.

The “funding gap” between projected          Funding left for ‘other’ services
funding and cost pressures

Funding Gap GraphFunding Gap Graph

Source: Wales Public Services 2025

The Commission makes a case for reducing the number of councils on the grounds of the risks to capacity and resilience that smaller organisations face.  It also makes the financial case – estimating upfront costs of £80 to £100 million in order to realise direct savings of £60 to £80 million a year, although the WLGA contests these figures.  These savings are not to be scoffed at, but they are dwarfed by the scale of the financial challenges.  Even if the estimates were exceeded and we got £100 million savings, it would reduce the funding gap from £2.6 billion to £2.5 billion.

The bigger challenge is to act on the proposals for fundamental reform of service delivery that the Commission proposes.  Like our WPS 2025 report, the Commission endorses an approach involving more preventative services and focusing more on what matters to service users : a model where citizens and communities are actively involved in the design and delivery of services.  If implemented, these reforms would require nothing less than a fundamental re-shaping of the relationship between citizens, communities and the state in Wales.

Such radical reform requires strong leadership across Welsh civil society.  The Commission and WPS 2025 reports set out some of the technical models and approaches.  But these can only be delivered if supported by a clear big picture ‘story’ to explain to a sceptical public why services must change and how they will look different.  Not a technical narrative of the mechanics of reform. Not one that is just about spending cuts.  What would help is a personal, political and emotional narrative explaining how radical reform can make people’s lives better and how it fits with the history, culture and political climate in Wales.

Creating the space to discuss and shape that narrative while avoiding getting lost in the immediate controversies about local government re-organisation will perhaps be the greatest challenge of all.

The Wales Public Services 2025 report is available at http://www.walespublicservices2025.org.uk/papers/

About the author

Mark Jeffs

Mark Jeffs is a performance specialist with the Wales Audit Office. Between April and September 2013 he was seconded to Wales Public Services 2025 to carry out an analysis of the financial and demand pressures facing Welsh public services. Wales Public Services 2025 is an independent think tank. Mark’s recent and current work for the Wales Audit Office covers Health Finances report, our Picture of Public Services reports and he is currently working on a review of waiting times in the NHS.

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