Improving the wellbeing of future generations in a resource-rich cash-poor Wales

Prof Tony Bovaird is Director of Governance International, a nonprofit which works throughout Europe on outcome-based public policy and citizen co-production, and Emeritus Professor of Public Management and Governance at Birmingham University.  In his contribution to the The Future of Governance Seminars in July,  Tony shared his strong beliefs on the need for public bodies to get real about the weak state of collaboration in public service commissioning and delivery, the lack of commitment to clear outcomes and the highly variable performance in engagement citizens in co-commissioning, co-design, co-deliveyr and co-assessment – and how the Wellbeing of Future Generations Act could help on all these front. In this blog he picks up one aspect of co-production – how Wales can make better use of its hugely valuable resources, even in a period when budgets are severely constrained. 

A photo of Tony Bovaird of Governance InternationalThe Governance workshops in July, hosted by the Wales Audit Office and the Good Practice Exchange, provided an opportunity to reflect on the key issues which will determine how the Wellbeing of Future Generations Act can be implemented effectively in Wales. A key issue which was raised at different junctures during the discussions was how resources have become much scarcer in the aftermath of the sharp economic recession after 2008 and the continuing financial austerity budgets of the UK government since 2010.

People

However, I argued at the end of both workshops that this fixation on budgets is misplaced. Yes, cash is scarce in public services. However, this is not the whole of the story –  cash in our budgets represents only one resource.

In particular, Wales is not short of the key resources of capable people, valuable buildings and equipment, or state-of-the-art ICT. However, these are not being used to maximum effect.

Let’s look at the fantastic people resource in Wales. The most common headline statistic is the unemployment rate but the real resource waste is NOT commonly headlined each month – the number of fit, active and willing people who are not registered as being in the workforce.  In 2016, this amounts to just short of a million people in Wales, about half of whom are between 16 – 64 years of age, and the other half are 65+.

The most talked about group amongst these million adults in Wales who are not ‘economically active’ is the over-65 group. We do not, however, talk about the fact that they are the largest group of experienced, educated and, for the most part, fit and healthy people that Wales has ever had on tap, as a ‘reserve army of the under-appreciated’ to do socially and economically useful things to improve their own wellbeing and that of their fellow citizens. No, not at all – we tend rather to talk about them as one of the ‘jaws of doom’, threatening to swallow up all our public sector resources, as they grow older, unhealthier and more needy. Are we actively seeking to help them to maximize their quality of life outcomes, and the way they help others to improve their quality of life? After all, research shows that people who are active, whether seeking the improvement of their own wellbeing or that of others, tend to have far more positive quality of life outcomes. The lack of a co-ordinated approach to this challenge is perhaps the biggest waste of resources in our modern resource-rich, ideas-poor society.

Buildings

We don’t just underuse our resource of people. Our housing is one third under-occupied (and a high proportion of these homes have only one resident, often lonely and isolated, quite often depressed).

Over 20% of our shops are empty, the floors above shops are very often empty, and our public buildings are often only partly occupied. Our leisure centres are largely empty in the mornings, our community centres are often empty in the afternoons and most of our schools are empty in the evenings, at weekends and during the holiday weeks. Our cars tend to empty all day (parked at work) and our public transport is largely empty most evenings.

Isn’t this inevitable? Aren’t these assets generally owned by someone who sees no reason to make them available to those who would most benefit from using them? Well, let’s start with the public sector – is there really any excuse for under-use of public assets when others are desperately looking for venues for events, rooms for meetings, addresses out of which to run their voluntary organisations, facilities for small scale printing jobs, etc? Let’s shift our gaze to the third sector – is there any justification for giving public grants or contracts to an organization which isn’t prepared to share its underused facilities (and volunteers) with others who are doing similar activities? And in the private sector, why not give tax relief to firms which can show a record of sharing staff and facilities with public or third sector organisations?

Assets

However, such approaches are only the tip of the iceberg of what could be done. More important than this organizational sharing is the potential for matching of citizens’ capabilities to potential users in the community. This is the dream ‘app’. For the moment, we only record the ‘needs’ which citizens bring to the public sector – not the capabilities they have and the strengths and resources they are willing to share. This is the greatest challenge facing public bodies as they address the issue of improving wellbeing in Wales.  Of course, co-production with citizens needs co-ordination by public bodies – this will need some spending, but it promises to liberate hugely more resource that it uses up.

In summary, the Wellbeing of Future Generations in Wales depends critically on getting the most out of our existing resources, and ensuring their future development and expansion. A resource-rich country where most of the resources are underused and decent people are wasting huge amounts of time in scrambling over small (and declining) cash budgets and grants is a sign of wrong government priorities. A fundamental rethink of how to match our abundant resources to the needs of the citizens of Wales is an urgent priority.

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