Public service re-organisation is never far from conversation in Wales, particularly given the future mergers proposed for local government. One public body that has already dealt with a significant amount of change is Natural Resources Wales (NRW).
The Welsh Government created NRW on 1 April 2013, replacing three legacy bodies – the Countryside Council for Wales, Environment Agency Wales and the Forestry Commission Wales – as well as incorporating certain Welsh Government functions. From 1 April 2015, NRW also took on the functions of the three Internal Drainage Boards operating in Wales; and it has a range of new statutory responsibilities resulting from the Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act and the Environment (Wales) Bill. NRW is by far the largest Welsh Government sponsored body with an annual budget for 2015-16 of £187 million and around 2,000 staff throughout Wales.
Given this level of change, and the overall scale and range of NRW’s functions, we examined whether NRW has in place, or is developing, effective governance arrangements that support delivery of its key priorities and outcomes. Our report found that NRW had adopted a sound approach to developing the organisation and had a solid platform for further transformation and for tackling future challenges.
Some of the key factors contributing to this conclusion were a well-structured transition programme for moving from the pre-existing arrangements to a new single body; recognising limitations within its approach; and being pro-active in learning from its experience.
Is the future green?
Although the report found that NRW is largely on track in achieving its intended benefits, including financial savings from efficiency improvements; the impact of the continuing climate of austerity upon NRW is uncertain. The Welsh Government has reduced its core funding to NRW in 2015-16 and 2016-17. The level of funding beyond this point is currently unknown but NRW is likely to face pressure to deliver on all its priorities within the financial constraints imposed by existing savings commitments and decreasing funding while also taking on new responsibilities.
I expect these issues sound familiar to many public bodies. While local government reorganisation will aim to make savings and reduce costs, organisational change is never an easy ride. NRW is already engaging with our own Good Practice Exchange team to facilitate sharing of its knowledge and experience, including taking part in a recent seminar. For other public bodies, gaining experience from earlier examples will help them learn lessons, and enable them to be in a better position to weather further storms.
About the Author
Sophie Knott is a Performance Auditor at the Wales Audit Office, working on national value for money studies. She has worked at the WAO for two years, having previously qualified as an accountant and worked in financial audit at KPMG LLP.