Williams Commission: fostering change for the better?

South Wales Evening Post - 28 January 2014

If any of Wales's 22 council chief executives consulted a fortune-teller this week, they'd likely be told that they're going on a long journey. In many cases, a short pier could also be involved.

Such has been the impact of the Williams Commission, a body created by the Welsh government to look at how our public services can be remodeled and refocused to better effect.

Having waded through their findings, I'm struck by a remarkable similarity in style and approach to management consultant reports I've read over the years urging 'cultural change'. I don't for a moment think that this is accidental.

A prevailing view at Cardiff Bay and elsewhere is that public services in Wales are administered by an excessive number of organisations that need to be made to work together.

The Commission's recommendations therefore held few surprises. I've heard some reservations expressed that there are no actual examples of what reconfigured services will mean in practical terms.

Nor is there much discussion about the mismatch between revised local government groupings and newly-formed city regions.

Ministers however have welcomed the Commission's proposals despite these minor niggles. I'm sure they will also be encouraged by the pragmatic response given to the report by most local government leaders.

Among these is Swansea's David Phillips who is unequivocal in his view that public services should be delivered more cost-effectively and to a better quality, irrespective of any redrawn lines on a map.

is reorganisation just a matter of long journeys and short piers? 

Of course, the writing has been on the wall for some time. Yet this constructive reaction is in stark contrast to what happened nearly two decades ago when councils saw engagement as turkeys discussing the Christmas menu.

Getting consensus among those on the receiving end that big changes are needed is one thing. What observers, including myself, are now trying to do is assess how many recommendations in the 347-page report will actually translate into legislation. That could prove tricky.

Usually the clues come from government statements. But Wales currently has a government that lacks an outright majority.

In the same way that getting a budget approved needs inter-party negotiation, then Senedd approval for a reconfiguration of public services will doubtlessly involve similar horse-trading.

Liberal Democrats have already made mention of wanting voting reform. Elections for fewer councils using proportional representation could produce some very interesting results to say the least.

My initial view was that legislation would have to come after the 2016 Assembly elections but the things now seem to have a new impetus.

The Williams Commission says it wants talks on voluntary merger between local authorities to be happening by Easter. They're just as uncompromising in calling for ministerial action if better integration between social services and Welsh NHS fails to come about this year.

Everyone will be affected by these changes and everyone has an opinion.

Both the CBI and Federation of Small Businesses say they like the idea of less local authorities. I wonder though if these bodies have thought through how procurement spending will be affected. Bigger councils equates to bigger purchasing clout and consequent pressure on prices. Will this be good news?

From a community perspective there's the more mundane, but nonetheless important issue about service levels. For instance, would a new council have weekly or fortnightly refuse collections and a limit on the number of bags?

There is still a way to go in determining the final shape of public service in Wales. None of the changes will happen in a vacuum if only because more than a decade of devolution has made this a very different place than it was eighteen years ago. There are new challenges and possibly new opportunities as well.

My view is that the driver behind public service reform has to be about delivering sustainable improvements. No community or individual should become disadvantaged because they end up living on one side of a new boundary line instead of the other.

Let's hope that those steering the changes make sure that this is never allowed to happen.