Public Sector Reform in Wales: The Leadership Challenge

Dan Bristow

I attended the IWA debate on Tuesday night, and was treated to a thoughtful and wide-ranging speech from Leighton Andrews, the Minister for Public Services.

He talked about the Welsh Government’s plans for public sector reform, and set out a vision for a new cadre of public sector leaders in Wales.

Name-checking Matthew Taylor (Chief Executive of the RSA), the Minister talked about how the public sector needs ‘systems leaders’. Leaders that see the larger system in which they are operating, are able to reflect and foster reflection, and can shift the conversation from reactive problem-solving to co-creating the future.

As we have argued in a forthcoming paper on prudent healthcare, a fundamental change in public services is necessary if Wales is to achieve and sustain a commitment to equity and fairness. The rising complexity of the public service landscape, limited or declining resources, and rising demand for services all mean that a new collaborative approach to service design and delivery is needed.

A crucial part of making this happen will be leadership at all levels, and it was encouraging to hear the Minister talking in similar terms; setting out what he thinks needs to happen for this new type of leadership to emerge.

But as I listened to this ambitious agenda, I started to reflect on something that Sir Paul Williams then articulated in the discussion afterwards. While Wales is good at analysis and ambition, in too many cases implementation has been poor, and the ambition hasn’t been realised.

Although he was talking about policy and public services generally, this is true of public sector reform in particular. And has been true of public sector reform internationally, not just in Wales.

Talk of the need for services to be ‘joined-up’ and ‘responsive to need’ has a long history; as does the call for local level innovation, and spreading of best practice. In that sense, the public sector reform agenda hasn’t shifted hugely. But there has been a growing realisation that achieving reform is going to require new approaches.

Which is why the Minister’s focus on leadership is to be welcomed. And why he is right to identify the need for political leadership (as well as executive and non-executive leadership).

But it will require more than leadership. Reform of the kind the Minister set out will require systemic change across the Welsh public sector. This is no easy task. But Wales is not alone in thinking about how to achieve this.

There is a growing evidence base about ‘what works’ in public services reform, and examples of effective and inspirational leadership. And there are lessons which we, in Wales, can draw on, and we need to be better at identifying and spreading good practice from around the world.

This is something that the PPIW is trying to do through its work with the Welsh Government and in its role as part of the UK’s What Works Network (as the Minister was kind enough to acknowledge). But this has to be embedded across the public sector in Wales.

The Minister has set out an ambitious vision for public services in Wales, and he is right that it will take leadership, and at all levels. Wales should also see this as an opportunity to learn from, and contribute to, a debate that reaches well beyond its borders.

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