Reforming Local Government

Comments from ACCA Cymru/Wales to the Welsh Government
September 2014


ACCA Cymru/Wales welcomes the opportunity to respond to the Welsh Government’s above-cited White Paper. ACCA acknowledges the debate surrounding the report by the Williams Commission as an overdue opportunity to assess the effectiveness of public services in Wales and the structures which underpin the delivery of those services.

We support the overall direction of the White Paper and the findings of the Commission on Public Service Governance and Delivery. We are living in a resource-constrained environment that is set to continue for the foreseeable future. The challenges placed on public services are not unique to Wales as financial stability continues to be an issue for a number of local authorities in England. The Audit Commission in its report ‘Tough Times’ pointed to 10% of local authorities being at risk of not balancing their budget in 2011.

It is becoming increasingly clear that we cannot continue to deliver local public services in the in the same way as we have done in the past. The reshaping of local government for Wales provides an opportunity for a radical rethink on how local services are delivered and how well they are governed and scrutinized.

In our assessment, it is important that any change to public services focus on value-for-money, cost-conscious delivery which is responsive to the needs of citizens but backed up by robust and appropriate governance arrangements.

However, implementation is critical and every opportunity should be taken to learn the lessons from previous local authority restructures within the UK. Structural changes to local government in England were in acted in April 2009 that had the result of creating a number of unitary authorities. For example, Shropshire merged 5 districts and the County Council to become a unitary authority. Clearly there are lessons to be learnt from previous restructures in terms of how the challenges were overcome and performance improved. It took some time for the new authorities and new ways of working to embed.

Overall, we believe that whilst restructuring local authorities can result in longer-term efficiencies, it does not necessarily follow that there will be improved performance. It will be critical that there is investment in change management and the redesign of the way local services are delivered.

More specifically and in relation to improving and strengthening scrutiny we believe that scrutiny arrangements for local authorities have a valuable role to play in continuous service improvement. Effective scrutiny arrangements should be underpinned by six key principles and these should apply irrespective of structure or form. They include:

  • Co-ordinate – scrutiny should be co-ordinated with other corporate activities by using known consultation engagement processes and it should involve existing area groups
  • Create confidence – publicizing scrutiny and review processes
  • Clarify- the scrutiny review processes by explaining the clearly the cycle of review and how people can get involved
  • Avoid confusion – by not calling it ‘scrutiny’ Terms such as ‘checking’, ‘reviewing’ can have more resonance with the public
  • Communicate - both internally and externally about the processes and benefits
  • Confirm improvement– any changes by letting the public know that scrutiny has made a difference. 

We believe that public and stakeholder engagement is part of the culture of a strong performing local authority. The stronger the voice, it is more likely that there will be better services for communities. In terms of giving communities a more effective voice we have identified some golden rules that local authorities should follow. Consultation and engagement should include: 

  • Engaging with the public as part of a planned and coherent approach
  • Providing adequate resources for the public engagement process
  • Approaching the right audience with relevant questions
  • Considering the diversity of group with which a local authority seeks to engage
  • Considering how to reach marginalized groups.

There are a number of tried and tested methods for engaging with the public and stakeholders more widely in many aspects of a local authority’s work. If the above golden rules are employed on the ground then there is every chance of success for effective public engagement.

The Welsh Government will want to consider some of the medium-term impacts of reorganisation. There is concern within ACCA membership about an inability to enter into long-term contracts for services because of the uncertainty of change for instance. In the medium-term, this is likely to represent an additional cost to the public purse.

The Government should also consider the impact of prolonged reorganisation on the people within the organisations. Although change will inevitably impact on the human resource of organisations, the need to retain the talent required to successfully transition is crucial. Investment in training, leadership and strategic planning is a necessary part of any transition.

ACCA supports the drive of both the Commission report and the White Paper to engendering collaboration between public sector organisations.

There has been an agenda of collaboration encouraged by the Welsh Government for some years now. However, while there are some instances of successes, some ACCA members have indicated that there is little evidence of widespread and consistent successful arrangements. If these arrangements haven’t delivered to-date, we would welcome a view from Welsh Government more specifically as to how it can embed successful collaboration.

In conversation with ACCA members, there is concern that any future collaboration needs to be underpinned by formal arrangements to support decision making and accountability. It is to be hoped that these arrangements are informed by the consultation process around the White Paper.

Within any future collaborative arrangements, there needs to be clarity of the role of lead local authorities in accounting for risk. Given the different tax treatment of various public sector organisations such as universities versus local government, budgeting becomes very much more complex and would have to take account of this different treatment posing a challenge for organisations.

We welcome the Williams Commission’s focus on the potential opportunity posed by the development of shared service functions. The development of such functions certainly represents some opportunity for local government to create leaner structures with appropriate economies of scale for the delivery and support of services.

Although we note the Commission’s recommendation of a single shared service function in Wales in the vein of the NHS Wales Shared Service function, some ACCA members commented on the logistical challenge of this and suggested a more regionally-focussed approach. There may be merit in investigating this.

Welsh Government may want to consider that some local authorities will have made significant investment in structural and process change in recent years and with a move to a shared service approach, this investment may well have to be written off representing concerns about the value for the public purse.