Devolution at 16 – What now for Wales?

In the following blog post Mike Usher, reflecting on his recent speech at the Devolution Wales conference, looks at what’s next for Wales with devolution now in its teens. Mike looks back over the key audit findings of the last few years and addresses both the forward challenges we face and the requirement that brings for transformational change within the Welsh public sector.

Since 1999, Wales has been on a journey.

Devolution started off with baby steps, of course. But now – at just over 16 years old – in one sense at least, the Welsh Government and National Assembly of Wales are now well into their teenage years and are coming of age.

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The draft Wales Bill, which was published last October, potentially sets Wales on a new phase in its constitutional maturity.  If passed, and of course we await sight of the final Bill itself at the end of next month, Wales will be able to make its own laws in other areas – such as energy, transport, local government, and take direct responsibility for more of its own functions – like Assembly elections and determining the number of AMs.

But, to slightly mis-quote Spiderman: “with more power, comes more responsibility”.

Wales is experiencing its own set of challenges and opportunities right now.

Austerity is affecting the whole of the UK, but both Local Government Reform and the Wellbeing of Future Generations Act will also bring some unique changes – and challenges – to Wales over the next few years.

So, what do we auditors have to say about how our public services in Wales are facing these challenging times? Our recent report ‘A Picture of Public Services’ looks at the journey of the last five years and examines the challenges we are facing, what the future may look like and what the public sector needs to do to survive and thrive in the next few years.

Our report is set against the backdrop of unprecedented cuts to public spending in Wales, with a 7% reduction between 2010-11 and 2014-15 – a total reduction in real terms of £1.2 billion.  While the size of the funding cake is decided in Westminster, some of the Welsh Government’s spending decisions and priorities have, understandably, been different from those in other parts of the UK.

If we cast our minds back to 2010, the Welsh Government initially planned similar funding cuts across the two largest sectors – the NHS and local government.  However, in practice, pressures on NHS services across Wales meant that real-terms spending on health has increased, and in parallel the cuts to local government were larger than originally expected.

In terms of population outcomes, we found that people are generally satisfied with their own well-being, they are living longer and the Welsh economy is catching up to the rest of the UK but, on the flip-side, relatively high rates of poverty are still a concern.

It’s a mixed bag too for service performance. Overall public satisfaction is good but while there are improvements in public health, people are generally waiting longer for their NHS treatment. Councils are improving too, in particular in education – albeit from a relatively low base – but there are also concerns in some quarters about whether the right things are being measured.

Importantly we found that while public services are adapting, the pace of change is too slow and that those isolated examples of small-scale service transformation need to lead to big reinventions of the ways that public services are offered and provided.

So what does the future hold? Well, we know that the challenges that Welsh public services have been facing over the past five years are not going away soon and there are new challenges and opportunities to manage as well.

With further funding cuts to at least 2019-20, austerity is not yet over. Changes to local government structures should not be allowed to become a distraction whilst public bodies across Wales grapple with the challenge of providing services to our ageing population.  The Well-being of Future Generations Act requires careful consideration of the long-term impact of policy and investment decisions.  And of course the new tax-raising powers coming to Wales from 2018 will complicate both the Welsh Government’s own financial planning and the National Assembly’s scrutiny of annual budget proposals.

All this will require some genuinely transformative change, including: transferring attention from narrow performance targets towards enabling outcomes; encouraging co-production; shifting the balance of activity and resource towards prevention; and a sharper focus on overcoming the practical barriers to the Welsh Government’s stated desire for ‘one public service’ for the people of Wales.

Yes, Wales is on its own journey, and as it continues to mature beyond the awkward teen-years of devolution it needs to find its own solutions if it is to thrive and mature in these challenging times.

About the Author:

Mike Usher iMike Usher photos a member of the Wales Audit Office’s senior leadership team and is our Sector Lead for Health & Central Government.  He has over 25 years’ experience in public sector external audit.

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