Williams Commission: not just lines on the map

It often comes up that I, and my colleagues in the media, are obsessed about lines on the map when it comes to reform of the public sector.

What they mean by that is local government reorganisation.

The Welsh government put together a panel to look at how to improve public services.

It was headed up by the former chief executive of the Welsh NHS, Paul Williams, and he and others came up with 62 recommendations, only 4 of which related to proposals to halve the existing 22 councils through a series of mergers.

Regular readers of my blog should be aware of the issues, as I've written about them before (not sure if that makes me obsessed).

Anyway, since the report was published at the beginning of the year, it's the subject which has dominated the coverage.

Damning verdict

So to satisfy those who want more written about everything else included in the Williams Commission, here are some of my thoughts on matters other than lines on the map.

The Welsh government came up with its official response to the commission this week.

It's made up of around 30 pages which it says also makes up its vision for the future of public services.

It came out on the day that the Environment Minister Alun Davies was sacked so, unsurprisingly, it didn't get much attention.

Before we look at the response, let me remind you what was in the report.

The overwhelming theme of the commission was a damning verdict on the public sector.

It didn't blame individuals, instead it blamed the system and structures.

'No gain'

The area which comes in for most flak is the attempt by different public sector organisations to collaborate with each other.

The report said that not only have these partnerships failed to deliver the expected improvements, but have actually made things worse as the public sector becomes more complex.

In one case it outlined how an unnamed council chief executive admitted to spending 60% of his time on these collaboration projects.

It described it as "a significant burden for no great gain". That, in my book, is saying that some of the most highly paid public sector workers are wasting their time for large chunks of the day.

Here's another damning extract: "This has created a situation in which public bodies spend far too much of their time managing the system and relationships that exist within it, rather than improving services."

The system of awarding grants also took a hammering.

The report said it has become an industry in itself, with estimated administration costs amounting to 10% of the overall value of a grant.

In the case of revenue grants for councils that amounts to £76m a year in administration costs, or the cost of one bit of the public sector talking to another bit.

There was also plenty of fascinating information and stats.

It estimated that there are 935 public sector organisations in Wales, with 736 being town and community councils.

There is one public body for approximately every 3,200 people, in comparison in Scotland it is one for every 3,900 people.

And to get an idea of the huge challenges facing many bodies, it said the population aged over 75 is predicted to increase by 25% from its 2008 level by 2020.


The Welsh government began its response this week by suggesting clearly that it agreed with most of the conclusions, including of course the ones relating to council mergers.

What then followed was a series of statements which I think, frankly, most people would find difficult to disagree with.

It talked about reducing complexity with more streamlined funding, stronger leadership of local services and focusing on the outcomes of public services rather than how much cash has been spent or how many policies have been created. How can anyone argue with that?

Reform of the public sector can be a remarkably controversial subject, and these recommendations were remarkably uncontroversial.

The real question is how to deliver them and I suspect that will become the controversial part in the future.

Many in the public sector talk about the hard yards of managing expectations of the public, declining budgets and changing the mindset of staff.

I'm not making a judgement on whether the Welsh government's response to Williams can or can't achieve any of the reforms. Those judgements will have to be made in the future, and probably not in the short term either, although the report says timetables will be set so we can expect something specific.

Ideological war

One final thought: there are some interesting points about the responsibility of the public. The Welsh government's paper sets out how people should think about their own health, their children's education at home and things such as littering the streets.

It says the right way to respond to the age of austerity is not to withdraw public services but to reshape them, and clearly some old-fashioned personal responsibility, rather than nanny state, is something we'll be hearing a lot more of in the future.

It's the kind of language you could hear quite easily from Conservative ministers, rather than Labour ones.

And there's me thinking there was an ideological Labour versus Tory war raging either side of Offa's Dyke.