Since devolution in 1999, The National Assembly for Wales has been the democratically elected body that is responsible for making many of the decisions that affect all of us. They do this through policy and laws that aim to improve the lives of everyone in Wales, and they deliver their actions through the civil servants that make up the Welsh Government.
Welsh Government Civil Service has grown from a department serving the Secretary of State in Westminster, into an organisation of more than 5,300 employees serving Welsh Ministers based in Cardiff Bay from offices throughout Wales.
Between 2006 and 2010, the Welsh Government opened large new offices in Merthyr Tydfil, Aberystwyth and Llandudno Junction as part of the location strategy which is designed to decentralise services from Cardiff and bring their work closer to the people of Wales.
Our report, this week, asks whether the Welsh Government has successfully delivered the location strategy programme since 2002. This is important because the strategy has cost about £91m and the Welsh Government needs to show that they have spent public money wisely.
We were not surprised to find that such a complicated programme of work that extended over almost ten years encountered some problems. Not only did politicians decide that three new offices should be built, but the plans also required staff to relocate into these new offices. We found that in the early stages of the programmeit lacked necessary governance controls and scrutiny.
The Welsh Government should also have periodically checked that building new offices was the best and most cost-efficient option given the benefits they expected, and kept a tighter rein on budgets.
Relocating people is always going to be difficult, and this proved to be the case with less employees relocating than the Welsh Government wished. Circumstances at the time affected their plans, including departmental restructuring and the inclusion of 1,400 additional employees from Assembly Sponsored Public Bodies.
The effects of recession also led to the voluntary severance of almost 1,100 employees, with many of these employees due to locate to the new offices. Plans needed to be flexible to cope with these changes, and this took some time to get right.
But the location strategy programme has delivered its objectives. There are lessons to learn for the Welsh Government and to share more widely about programme management and governance, and particularly to put in place measures to be able to demonstrate whether programmes represent good value for money.
There are clearly many immediate benefits to those relocating and to the local area of the new offices, also in providing opportunities to reduce and make the Welsh Governments estate more cost-efficient. The full economic benefit of this strategy is rather more speculative, although Bangor University calculated a net benefit of about £150m to Wales, and we have suggested that the Welsh Government needs to monitor the wider impacts of the location strategy as longer-term benefits are realised.
I was part of the team working on this latest audit project and found it really interesting. There are clear lessons in the report which public bodies across Wales can learn from when managing programmes and projects that involve buildings and people.
Our good practice guide on Buildings Management is also a useful reference – packed with practical advice and tools on topics like options appraisals, performance measurement, and how the public sector can rationalise its estate and increase its cost-efficiency and environmental performance.
About the Author:
Andy Phillips is a manager in the Wales Audit Office national studies team with a particular specialisation in environmental issues. Before moving into auditing in 2002, Andy worked as an Environmental Health Officer in several Welsh local authorities and as an environmental protection specialist for Environment Agency Wales.