In Wales, we do committees and commissions well. But we don’t always do them quickly. It is therefore pleasing that the work of the Williams Commission on public services in Wales has been completed so efficiently and in a timely fashion.
It’s been so effective that its work has almost passed by unnoticed. With all the media and discussion focus having been on the Silk Commission and its reports on the funding and powers of the National Assembly, many have not seen that an equally significant – if not even more significant – panel has been established and has been working at the same time.
The Williams Commission was established by First Minister Carwyn Jones in April 2013 to look both “thoroughly and objectively” at the way public services are governed and delivered in Wales. This was a huge remit especially since the Commission was asked to consider all devolved public services. It was also tasked with making recommendations on how they might be improved – and this is where the work of Williams is most keenly awaited.
It is a tribute to Sir Paul Williams and the cross-party Commission he has headed that such a broad and vast canvas appears to have been sketched out over such a relatively short space of time. The First Minister asked for a report by December and it is due now to be made public later today. To have delivered such a major appraisal in such a quick timeframe is the first surprise here.
The second surprise will probably become apparent when the report is visible, and that will of course be the content. Nobody other then the Commission itself and the First Minister knows the content of the report, though many have speculated on what it might say, as did the Western Mail on its front page last week in predicting the reduction in number of councils from 22 to 11.
The report is therefore likely to say a great deal about the number of local authorities in Wales and recommend mergers. But it is much too easy to see the public service debate in Wales solely through the prism of the number of delivery agents. It is as important to look at what and how the deliverers are expected to do as it is to focus on the number of those contracted to deliver.
When re-elected in May 2011, the First Minister made delivery the key indicator by which his Welsh Government should be measured. The entire Programme of Government is based around delivery improvements. Indeed, if you examine where the Welsh Government legislative programme is aimed, then its intentions are to change behaviour and priorities in Welsh local government.
Legislation as diverse as the Bye-laws Bill and the Control of Horses Bill which have passed, to the Housing Bill and Social Services Bill which are tabled, to the Planning Bill and the Domestic Violence Bill expected next year all have one thing in common: they are aimed at ensuring local government achieves its statutory obligations more effectively and efficiently.
It is with this sense of critical importance that the Williams Commission report should be viewed. We will all be looking at the content with a great deal of focus in January because its recommendations are not just game changers for both national and local government, but for everyone that works on public service delivery in Wales.
And the private sector realizes this. A cornerstone of the work that Capita carries out is the partnerships that we form with local authorities in order to deliver value for taxpayers. Such partnerships can deliver significant savings in areas such as managing property portfolios; designing and maintaining highway infrastructure; administering regulatory services; regenerating communities; and strategic transformation of the way parts of local authorities are run. But the key word here is “partnership” - pooling intelligence and ideas are critical in improving delivery. By combining local authority insights with our shared knowledge and expertise we create unique solutions that cut costs, increase efficiencies and provide better experiences for service users.
In Wales there is already a history of local authorities outsourcing some services, such as our 15-year joint venture with Rhondda Cynon Taf, Merthyr Tydfil and Bridgend County Borough Councils to provide advice and design related to highways, as well as a similar previous arrangement we held with a number of local authorities in Gwent.
But there is an even greater opportunity to deliver savings for the people of Wales to build innovative long-term partnerships. In North Tyneside and the London Borough of Barnet there are millions of pounds of guaranteed savings written into our contracts. These partnerships cover services as diverse as engineering, planning, regeneration, property, building control and even cemeteries and crematoriums.
As Williams is published it does so against an austere backdrop. There is increased pressure on local authorities to deliver value-for-money services against a backdrop of increased service demand and reduced revenues. The local government funding settlement for the coming year is harder and more demanding than any that has gone before since devolution began.
The private sector can complement changes in public sector practice. Working together we are also helping our partners to open up revenue streams through by accessing mutually beneficial relationships with developers; optimizing use of council-owned land; and maximizing advertising revenue using highly visible assets such as roundabouts.
All of which creates a climate which requires radical change. As that change is brought about, it is not just the public sector which has a role to play in improving public service delivery in Wales.
Liam Ryan is a Director at Capita
This article first appeared in the Western Mail
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