Williams is about more than just local government re-organisation

Michael Trickey, Director of the Wales Public Services 2025 programme, discusses the response to the report of Paul Williams’ Commission on Public Service Governance and Delivery.

As the debate around whether or not the number of local authorities in Wales should be halved builds up steam, there is a real danger that the bigger issue of improving the way public services deliver services is being lost.

Out of the 62 recommendations in the report, 4 are about merging local authorities and 1 is on community councils. The remaining 57 recommendations deal with how to de-clutter the whole system, make it better aligned, more accountable, effective and efficient. The 57 have been scarcely noted in the debate so far but contain the basis of a far-reaching change programme which goes to the heart of improving the effectiveness of our public services.

These recommendations are not dependent on local government re-organisation and the agenda they set out will be essential whatever the number of councils. It is understandable, even inevitable, that the local government re-organisation should capture the headlines but it would a sore waste if the rest were simply side-lined or forgotten.

Just to remind ourselves…

We are barely halfway through a decade-long squeeze on public spending. The Chancellor has referred to £25 billion cuts in the next Parliament and the shadow chancellor is committed to balancing the books and delivering a current account surplus by 2020. Whichever party or parties form the next UK Government, the pressure on public service finances looks set to grow. New ways of delivering public services are not just desirable but unavoidable.

Many of the messages in the Commission’s report are not new and the feel is more reformist than radical; they none-the-less need to be heard and followed up. Themes such as health and social care integration have been in the ether for many years. The wake-up call on digital services is more than timely but is not new. Early intervention and prevention is a well-recognised part of the mix. There are good examples in Wales of action in all these areas, but they have not translated into the public service transformation which is needed. The report should provide fresh impetus and urgency to things we have long known need doing.

But behind the emphasis on accountability to the public and the espousal of ‘co-production’ lies the challenge of forging a new relationship between public services and the public. This is where the radical message lies and it may turn out to be one of the most important legacies of the report.

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