When your day job is driven by an unforgiving political and media timetable, it can be difficult to find the time and space to learn from colleagues, make connections across policy boundaries and explore difficult issues.
Which is why the revival of the Welsh Government’s ‘Policy Focus Week’ is to be welcomed. This week will see a range of seminars and panel sessions – some organised by the PPIW – covering issues like evaluation, evidence use, innovation and the future of public services, among many others.
Welsh civil servants will be discussing the challenges and opportunities facing Wales with experts from across the UK.
Carving out time for events like this is essential. The civil service are a very significant part of what Jonathan Shepard calls the evidence ecosystem. Their ability to identify, understand and utilise evidence heavily influences the success or otherwise of a government programme.
But we are at a particularly important moment because the role of the civil service is set to change.
At one of the PPIW sessions yesterday, Ben Lucas painted a stark picture. Regardless of the outcome of the upcoming Westminster election, budget cuts will continue to shape the landscape over the next parliament. The scope for further traditional ‘efficiency savings’ is limited. And this is in a context of rising demand for public services.
Ben argued that the answer lies in pursuing ‘demand management’ strategies. Many of these have already gained currency in policy debate – early intervention / prevention, co-production, integrating services around the ‘user’; and changing the relationship between citizen and state.
At the core of this vision for the future of public services is an argument for local solutions to local problems.
Services have to be responsive to needs – Ben had a striking example of a lady in Plymouth who was given a chair lift that she had no intention of using. Despite a ‘needs assessment’ determining that she qualified to receive one, as far as she was concerned she didn’t need it and wouldn’t use it.
Understanding the needs of the communities receiving public services, and designing services to meet those needs sounds pretty basic, but actually requires a fundamental shift away from the long-standing model of process-driven public services, where there is a clear division between producer and consumer.
In practice this has to mean that services need to be designed and delivered locally. And achieving this will mean a big change in the role of the ‘centre’.
It is possible to talk about what this might look like in the abstract – allowing for local control, while maintaining service standards; focusing on creating conditions that enable innovation; co-ordinating collaboration; encouraging the spread of good ideas – and to recognise that this means that the civil service will need a different skill set.
But translating these abstract statements into concrete actions is the real challenge. And it is one that the PPIW is keen to try to address in its work going forward.
What is clear though, is that events like Policy Focus Week will continue to play a crucial role in helping the civil service to prepare for, and respond to, what lies ahead.
About the author: Dan Bristow is the Deputy Director of PPIW.