Many of the “wicked” issues that we need to address are pretty immune to short term solutions delivered within one, two or even three terms of an electoral cycle. Democracy for all its strengths can lead to a focus on the short term, as new Governments and new Ministers bring in their own ideas and sweep away the policies of previous administrations. There is very little national focus on what would be seen to be our long term measures of progress – the annual publication of the Sustainable Development Indicators for Wales receives very little notice whether it be in the media or in the deliberations of policy makers.
Improving our governance for the long term must be a key objective for the planned Sustainable development Bill – with the introduction of a sustainable development duty and a new statutory sustainable development body. The responses to the initial consultation on the Bill suggest that we need to give much more thought to the nature of the new statutory body.
Firstly particularly given the current economic climate it will be important to have clear value of money arguments on establishing a new public body. This issue is further highlighted by other proposals to establish new entities – e.g. the Public Policy Research Institute, an independent planning body. I am sure there is an important role for a new body but there must be a political issue, particularly at this time of economic austerity, over establishing a new public body with associated costs.
It therefore may be worth formally assessing other options, but critically these must deliver the same results as a new independent body. Equally if the new body is established it will need to be substantive and therefore it is worth considering integrating functions with existing/proposed bodies. There are plenty of models we can learn from with research being undertaken by the Stakeholder Forum (www.stakeholderforum.org) identifying over 70 independent National Councils for Sustainable Development.
Indeed it is important to emphasise that Wales is not alone in this process of improving our focus on the long term goals for sustainable development. The United Nations has embarked on the postRio+20 process of establishing long term Global Sustainable Development Goals which nations will commit to as common objectives with clear measures of progress. Our Sustainable Development Bill should lead to the same process at a national level setting clear long term goals and measures of progress
The new body must become the guardian of these national sustainable development goals, with a duty to be responsible for the “long term measures of progress” – or what we currently call the Sustainable Development indicators. This role would include consulting, reviewing, securing “national” ownership across all sectors and ensuring that the policies of public bodies contribute to these long term goals or outcomes, so that they become a common framework, commonly owned and reported against. It would be these goals and measure of progress that would will make sustainable development real
So what would be the key functions?
The nature of Sustainable Development means that the body cannot be an “expert” across the range of issues. However it can be an important convening point across sectors and used to convene processes that can inform and shape the independent advice provided by the new body. This could best be initiated through:
Advice will be effective if:
The new body will become a national focal point – an independent champion – for sustainable development and will need to play a key advocacy role across the public, private and third sectors. The new body will need a strong public profile if it is to fulfil its function. This will require effective resourcing to enable the communication and engagement function with appropriate expertise relating to media, social media, events etc.
The Sustainable Development Charter should be a key voluntary means of extending the principles inherent in the Bill across the private and voluntary sectors. The new body should be responsible for the development and credibility of the Charter and support for the associated network of companies.
3. Review / Scrutiny
The SD Bill envisages that the Wales Audit Office (and possibly other audit bodies such as Estyn) would have the responsibility for scrutinising compliance with the Bill. However there is a strong view from external stakeholders that the new body must have some capacity for scrutiny – a view that is not reflected in the current plans
It will therefore be important that there is a formal relationship set out in the Bill between the new body and WAO in order to provide advice and capacity for the audit function. An ideal approach would be for the new body to have a duty to collaborate with the WAO (and for this to be reciprocated). The collaboration would include referring concerns of non-compliance to WAO for investigation, and WAO referring public bodies to work with the new body to improve performance.
The new body should have responsibility for producing:
There should also be an important “release valve” function in that certain issues could be reviewed independently. It is worth highlighting that WAO only audit the processes of making decisions about public policy, and the implementation of public policy, and not the merit of the policy issue.
At a minimum level the new body could be set up within another agency. The Quebec model has based a Commission for Sustainable Development within their Audit Office function, so reducing overhead costs, establishing operating efficiencies and avoiding the “new quango” argument. This might be seen to impair the independence of the office of the AGW,
If a new body is established then there should be an involvement from the National Assembly as it will have a role in supporting the long term governance of Wales. Mark Drakeford suggests that there should be involvement of the Assembly (possibly through the Sustainability Committee) in the design and the appointments to the new body. There is also a strong argument that the new body should be accountable to the National Assembly rather than the Government
There are a number of models for the new body, but experience of others suggests:
The role of the Climate Change Commission needs to be considered. It could be integrated and established as a specific “standing committee” of the new body – either chaired by the Commissioner or by one of the members of the Commission. As climate change is our greatest long term challenge it would be appropriate for the new body to have a clear focus on the issue. The new body could also decide to establish other key longer term streams of work led by Commission members
In summary the new body would work to ensure that public authorities consider how their decisions could impact on future generations, and not take decisions that could have significant effects on the ability of future generations to provide for their own needs. It would sit alongside our other Commissioner functions – Children’s, Older Person’s and Welsh Language – with a responsibility to future generations for ensuring we deliver the long term changes required for a sustainable future.