“Action more than words is the hope for our future generations”

Sophie Howe, Future Generations Commissioner for Wales, has spoken many times before on why the Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act 2015 is an opportunity for us all to measure what matters, not merely what can be counted. Sophie blogs ahead of the ‘Moving from outputs to outcomes’ GPX webinar…

The title of this blog is the latter half of a now well-quoted sentence said by Nikhil Seth, United Nations, on the passing of the Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act as law in 2015. I use it often in speeches and presentations, as the full quote suggests that Wales is world-leading in adopting such pioneering legislation. But it is “action more than words is the hope for our future generations” that really strikes a chord with me.

For decades, we have been stuck in ‘reaction’ mode, dealing with crises in the here and now. At the sharp end of providing public services, this is understandable in keeping people and organisations safe. It has followed that we measure what we have done – count the people seen, record the number of people dealt with, and place arbitrary timescales and pressures on ourselves – if only to make things happen…to create action. But is it time we question if these actions have been the right ones to take?

People often tell me that the Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act has given them permission to question what we have always done. Placing the sustainable development principle at the heart of what we do as a public sector in Wales means thinking differently and acting in a way that allows current generations to meet their needs, without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs. To do this, we must think long-term, considering the impact of what we do now on future generations, working together in a joined up way as we seek to prevent problems from occurring or getting worse and involving people in our communities in working towards the seven national goals.

Measuring our impact in a traditional way is not going to allow us to do this. In order to do things differently, we must measure different things. Traditional performance measures are often what are imposed on public bodies by others and rarely reflect the nub of the issue or help us to understand how to prevent the issue from occurring in the first place. Behind the measures to provide a statutory assessment within 5 days, to respond quicker to a call or to deal with an issue in a month’s timescale are real people, just like us and our families. We have lives intertwined with many public services, we have several factors influencing our well-being and too often, we face a confusing negotiation of complicated thresholds and conditions to access services. Many of which are driven by the measures public services have set themselves. Rarely do we ask ‘What matters to you?’ Or ‘What would help you the most?’ Rarely do we measure how well we have done in improving someone’s well-being.

In my recent report, Well-being in Wales: the journey so far, I have given my reflections on how public bodies are moving from doing simple things to leading the way in sustainable development. The guidance to the Act says sustainable development must shape what you do, how you do it and how you communicate (via reporting) the difference you are making. In reviewing the first well-being statements published in April 2017, it is not yet clear how organisations are making sense of their duties and how this relates to other legislation, their corporate objectives, business planning and day-to-day business. An annual report should be integral to the work of the organisation and the sustainable development principle should not be ‘bolted on’.

Communicating this change is important. In annual reports and future well-being statements, public bodies must explain how far they have taken steps to meet their objectives, how effective these steps have been, how they are tracking progress and how they are adopting or adapting new ways of demonstrating progress. Outsiders to organisations, like you and I, need to understand what have they done so far? What does it mean for me? Where do they want to be on this issue in the next 5, 10, 25 years and beyond? How are they going to get there? How will I see improvement in my local area or life?

Many public bodies and public services boards (made up of Chief Executives and leaders of the local public sector collaborating together) are now considering how they communicate the change they are making. This will take time, but I am encouraged to see an exploration of different way to define impact and monitor progress. Action definitely speaks louder than words and my advice would be to measure what matters, not merely what can be counted.

The Future Generations Commissioner for Wales has published ‘Well-being in Wales: the journey so far‘ to complement the Auditor General for Wales’ report ‘Reflecting on year one: how are public bodies implementing the Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act 2015?

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