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Written Statement - Public Services

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Carl Sargeant, Minister for Local Government and Communities

I would like to update Members on my progress with driving forward this Government’s public service reform agenda.  The reason for giving Members a further update on my statement of 21 June is that I will be having very important discussions with local government and others at the Local Government Partnership Council on 21 July.  I wanted to brief Members on the direction of those discussions before the Recess.

I will cover three key issues: simplifying and streamlining partnerships, creating regional coherence for public service reform, and taking forward work on efficiency and innovation.

Effective plans and partnerships

As I said in my earlier statement, my aim is to remove bureaucratic burdens to the delivery and improvement of public services and to simplify wherever we can. 

I have heard colleagues across the public service bemoan the number of partnerships and the substantial cost of servicing them.  We can have too much of a good thing and having listened to these views, I am now doing something about it.

Working in partnership is essential to improving services, but we must keep the focus on delivery.  Too much time and money is spent on meetings and strategy production.  This must stop, and we must build on the good work of a number of Local Service Boards and regional partnerships who are already cutting through the complexity.  I am making my expectations clear.  There need be one integrated planning process for each area, with one ‘needs assessment’ and one evidence base.  There must be clear accountability for outcomes and for delivering statutory duties, with strengthened local democratic scrutiny, and joined up leadership through the Local Service Board.

This is not a tidying up exercise.  It is about setting clear and common priorities locally, with clear and shared delivery commitments.  It is about clarity of accountability on who is doing what at local level to achieve better outcomes for individuals and communities across Wales.

Promoting regional coherence

The debate about local government reorganisation continues and is as pointless today as it was last week and the week before.  I have made my views on this matter clear. 

However, having spoken to the WLGA two weeks ago, and had a continual dialogue with public service partners, I have heard loud and clear that there is a call – even a demand in some quarters – for the Welsh Government to provide some clarity on how we see local services being organised for collaboration. 

I have listened and I will be responding at the Partnership Council.  As things stand, collaboration is organised on a number of different geographies according to service specific arrangements.  In some parts of Wales, these arrangements are out of synch with the structures of the police and Local Health Boards who are major partners in local delivery.  This complexity adds unnecessary costs and can slow the pace of change. It does not serve the interests of the public, nor make it easy to see who is accountable for delivering good services.

We must look to the future. There is a powerful case for collaboration across current boundaries and services in order to strengthen capacity, increase efficiency and improve delivery.  Services must be designed and delivered around the needs of people not organisations. We must avoid making that more difficult by adding further complexity to governance arrangements.

Local government partners have asked for clarity on this issue, and I will be responding at the Partnership Council by confirming the Welsh Government’s intent to move towards a common structure for the alignment of public service collaboration, built up from the Local Health Board and police boundaries. This means standardising on regions where there is already significant service alignment on a sustainable basis, achieving economies of scale.

It will take time to achieve alignment. I am not advocating unpicking existing arrangements where this will be costly or undermine delivery.  Where existing arrangements afford clear accountability, are robustly constituted and already working effectively towards improved delivery and greater efficiency, they must continue with pace and vigour. 

But where work is at a more formative stage, and there are opportunities to move towards this common structure, that opportunity should be taken. This will accelerate progress towards collaborative service delivery, and provide the clarity of regional leadership needed to underpin the strengthened national arrangements led by the Partnership Council.  

This approach goes with the grain of progress on the ground, for example: the close working between the Rhondda Cynon Taf and Merthyr Local Service Boards, the recent senior joint appointments which are underway or planned, for example between Powys and Ceredigion, and Caerphilly and Blaenau Gwent, and between local authorities and the Local Health Boards in west Wales and Gwent. It builds on the strong collaborative regional leadership in north Wales, and in Gwent where the frail elderly project is an innovative example of translating cross-public sector leadership to delivery.

The Welsh Government will look for opportunities to support this alignment through our own activities. This is not local government re-organisation by stealth.  It is a better and quicker approach designed to put collaboration on a more stable, long term footing, so that partners can get on with the job of joining up services to meet the needs of individuals and communities across Wales.  It also gives us a clear, workable structure which will allow us to move forward rapidly to deliver the Simpson agenda on which I reported in my earlier statement.

Efficiency and innovation

In my earlier statement, I said that I would be meeting those who provided leadership to the Efficiency and Innovation programme to discuss how we shape this work now to support implementation of the major public service reforms.

We met last week, and their clear message was to underline the importance of engaging with local leadership if we are to create and deliver a single vision for public service reform in Wales.  I agree with that and will respond.

I intend to take this forward in two ways.

First, I will be seeking to put the leadership and governance arrangements for reform on a firmer footing by locating it clearly with the Partnership Council.  The Council is the national statutory forum which brings together, at the highest level, the political leadership of the Welsh government and local government.  I would like to widen its membership to welcome other partner organisations too. I believe this is the right forum to drive forward our ambitious programme of reform.

Second, I will be establishing a strong link between the Partnership Council and regional delivery of public service reform.  Strengthening the links between good local and regional leadership and national service reform is critical.  We have seen some very significant developments driven through local leadership.  There is scope to move further and faster by removing barriers and empowering local ambition.

As I’ve mentioned, the work currently underway in north Wales and Gwent, where public service leaders are collaborating on ambitious change projects, is demonstrating the way forward.  This strong regional implementation must be strongly connected to the national political leadership.  The changes I am proposing are designed to achieve this, and I will be discussing the detailed arrangements with local government partners in next week’s Partnership Council meeting.

Conclusion

I will be discussing in detail with partners how we put in place the practical arrangements to ensure effective delivery of our public service reform programme.  I am today responding to very clear requests for leadership and direction.  I will continue to listen and to provide that direction as we move forward.  I understand that will not be welcome to all, and sometimes uncomfortable for a few, but the Welsh Government intends to be an active partner in public service improvement and will tackle head-on the problems that need tackling.

I remind Members that in Wales we have our own distinctive public service reform programme.