Thursday 29 March 2012

Time for reform - A follow up to "Enough's Enough"

Judging by the "robust" reaction to my last blog, it's fair to post a proper follow up. Just adding another comment wouldn't do the reponse I've received justice.

It's depressing, but it doesn't surprise me, that one of my most popular blogposts has been overtly critical of the Welsh Government, civil service and probably extends to devolution itself. Believe me when I say it was the toned down version.

It's sad that a month that started with an optimistic vision of the future has to end like this, but that's what living in Wales sometimes does to you. It's a frustrating love-hate relationship.

I'm going to sound like a pompous arse saying this, but I don't care. From a nationalist perspective, Wales probably needs a "reformer" like Lech Walesa or Vaclav Havel before we can have our Alex Salmond. And no, I don't think Welsh Labour and the civil service are an "evil empire", they're just a well-meaning, but passive, managerial blob.

Maybe that's the problem. We're all waiting for someone utterly brilliant who's going to sort everything out to ride to the rescue.

Well I'm not hearing any trumpets heralding the arrival of Y Mab Darogan. Are you?

With rubbish like this, independence moves another two or three decades further away and general prosperity (including within the union, for those who might cheer at that independence prospect) - light years away. This could be a rare case of "separatists" and ultra-unionists actually having some common ground. Ultimately though, both sides are still rabbles.

I'm not the sort who rants without offering some opinion on a way out. My ego might've been stroked by the reaction, but it's pissing into the wind ultimately.  There's the chance that somebody, somewhere, with the ability to make a change, read the last post - and the reaction - and can do something. That includes sitting AMs and Welsh Government ministers.

I'd be more than happy for that person (or persons) to be from Welsh Labour. However I suspect, like AWEMA, they want this swept under the carpet as quickly as possible, or forgotten until the next bungle - whether that bungle will be by the Welsh Government themselves or the civil service.

The questions that need answers

Andrew Davies (Con, South Wales Central) asked during First Minister's Questions about the bid, and he got an apology from Carwyn Jones. Fair enough. I would've mentioned it in the last post had I realised that had happened. However, I don't think we would've got anything from Carwyn had the question not been asked.

What disappoints me is that they both decided to delve into childish, macho posturing over grammar. Despite stronger statements elsewhere, they laughed this off, and that's the problem here. Andrew had an open goal and I'm surprised the Conservatives didn't react as strongly as I, and many others, have.

Simon Thomas AM (Plaid, Mid & West Wales) and Jonathan Edwards MP were also critical on Twitter. I think it was a simple case of the Conservatives having the first question that prevented Plaid, or indeed the Lib Dems, from sticking the boot in if they had the chance.

As I've said, the Welsh Government would be pleased to let this be brushed under the carpet, but anyone and everyone needs to keep chipping away – on this and indeed on things like AWEMA - for the bigger reasons I mentioned. They're not a cat with nine lives, and they shouldn't be seen as invincible, however much they seem to be able to get away with practically anything.

It's for those reasons that other questions need to be asked. I'm not talking about a full blown inquiry or anything like that regarding this GIB bid - it doesn't warrant it. Many would probably prefer it to get tied up in something like that. It's time for the committees in the Assembly to play their role – and the traditional media need to get stuck in to this too. We need to know more about the Welsh Government and civil service thinking behind this bid.
  • Did they know or suspect, beforehand, that Cardiff was unlikely to be chosen? If so, what gave them this impression?
  • How was the bid process decided in government and the civil service, who was involved, and what were the timescales?
  • The bid has been described as "robust", what gave civil servants or ministers that impression?
  • Was the bid "rushed"?
  • Why were Cardiff's comparatively low wages described as a "compelling proposition"? Has this term ever been used in any other bids similar to this? If so, why?
  • Why didn't/Did anybody proof-read the bid before presenting it?
  • Did any of the companies mentioned, universities or people quoted in testimonials read the bid before it was submitted? What were their opinions of it?

Welsh Wanderers FC – A club in crisis
Daily Star eat your heart out.
I don't buy that political discussion always has to be "Westminster" highbrow and verbose. It can be fun, sometimes. I enjoy frivolous and whimsical analogies as much as ranting, and if we're going to have our government reduced to the equivalent of supporting a team, then I think that's a fair place to start.

Welcome to Welsh Wanderers FC, nicknamed "The Dragons" - unofficial nickname "The Woobies". The club has been languishing around mid table for decades, occasionally going on a decent cup run or flirting with relegation, but it keeps plugging away nonetheless.

Each club is funded by the league's central governing body, usually making up losses for weaker than expected ticket or merchandising sales. It helps provide a guaranteed income but there's a danger that some clubs are becoming reliant on this, instead of developing a long-term, sustainable business model that includes better performances on the pitch.

Currently, the league imposes strict rules on what clubs can or cannot do - it heavily influences squad depth, playing positions, formations, wages and makes some decisions as to how teams are organised and run themselves. There's lots of collective bargaining, joint arrangements on things like marketing at home and abroad. Sometimes it favours one club over another, but at least it's run professionally. If one club becomes more successful than another, that position can become entrenched over time. People will always pay to watch a successful team, and referee decisions will be seen to go in their favour more often. In 2011, a few minor restrictions were lifted on Welsh Wanderers, that very few people understood, but it should've made life a little bit easier.

Some people are unhappy with the teams performance. They want Welsh Wanderers to withdraw from the league halfway through the season and merge with the very successful neighbouring team. Welsh Wanderers would act as a feeder, or would fold, but at least one or two local lads or ladies will make it to the top that way. Unfortunately though, it'll only help those players, not the rest of us. The Wanderers ground will be abandoned and left to rot and rust.

A few think that because the club spends a few pence extra on stationary, that that's the reason the club isn't performing on the pitch. Yeah, OK.

Some are calling for a change of management. The current management team has a cult-like following - a true living legend (think Brian Clough). They've been there for decades, becoming part of the furniture. It's obvious to many they are running the club into the ground, sticking with an outdated 4-5-1 and hoof-and-hope football. They've become complacent, and although every now and again they'll scrape out a win, more often than not, they'll make the wrong call.

The backroom staff keep bringing in journeymen on a Bosman, because they're cheap or have some experience at a higher level - but there's a reason they were let go. Younger, more talented staff and players, aren't given the chance to rise up, get frustrated and leave, usually becoming successful elsewhere. Every decision the management or backroom staff makes seems like patching over problems now, instead of building for something better in the future. There's no use of advanced diets like elsewhere, it's still a bit "magic sponge". There's a constant state of panic, and morale is at an all time low.

Many people can't bare to pull the trigger, some simply don't want to because they're happy with the performance – they think other fans should stop moaning and back the team. Others are worried about the prospective replacements for the manager, and can't think of anyone else being in charge, even though one day it's inevitable it'll happen. Even if there were a change of management though, the rules would stay the same. The underlying problems would remain. It would probably need a change of backroom staff too, but that would cause upheaval.

A few would prefer a new contract with the league: with more power to the clubs, more control over finances, merchandise deals and more freedom over squad selection and squad formations. This sounds sensible on paper, but many argue that the clubs can't run themselves very well as is, or that it doesn't even go far enough to enable a club like Welsh Wanderers to rise up the table. They worry about what the current management or backroom staff would do with the new powers, if they even used them at all, but at least they would be under more pressure to perform.

Others want  fan ownership of the club - and for each club to be autonomous of the league. The club could become the next Barcelona or Real Madrid, or it could flop. The clubs would have complete freedom to decide their own affairs – and if they brought in the right manager or backroom staff, with innovative formations and training methods - it could turn things around. They'll be able to take part in more competitions outside of the league, but they would also lose the funding from the centre. That prospect terrifies many fans who don't even want to consider it. However, the league itself is in a lot of financial trouble.

It would be a big gamble, probably needing heavy investment in the club at the start. However, they haven't got the personality, or the business case, to make yet – but one day they might. Sometimes the minority or the unpopular position is the right one, but that can equally go for those who want to wind the club up.

Perhaps though, the best place to start is to bring through better local talent - in the backroom, the boardroom and on the pitch. Welsh Wanderers - above probably all else - needs a new academy.

The Bigger Picture – Tackling problems & promoting excellence

A full and frank public inquiry

Wales needs a large, formal public inquiry or tribunal into the culture and practices of the civil service – yes it probably would be a "Welsh Leveson". We need to know, in the clearest possible terms:

National Level

  • How the civil service operates at a national level, honestly – the real story, not the flow charts. It should also allow anonymous whistle blowing.
  • How has the civil service managed the move from administrative to legislative devolution?
  • The handling of the "Bonfire of the Quangos", in particular the WDA.
  • How and why are people appointed to senior positions? What are the qualifications for the job?
  • How has the Welsh Government and civil service handled investment since 2006?
  • The relationship between Welsh ministers, political parties and the third sector - Don't think I'm aiming that at Labour because of AWEMA, it would likely be uncomfortable for other parties as well.

Local Level

  • The handling of Local Development Plans, population projections and housing forecasts
  • The handling of local authority amalgamation and shared services
  • The relationship and trust between the Welsh Government, civil service and local authorities
  • The relationship between local authorities, local councillors and the public – in particular handling public criticism
  • The actual role and influence of local councillors in decision making
  • How political parties operate at a local level, including the selection of candidates
  • The demographics of local government and the civil service in general – what can be done to encourage younger people, those with full-time jobs and women to stand for local office?
  • Personal interests and local councillors – how are they recorded and reported? Are there examples of abuse or conflict of interest?


  • The pay and conditions of senior local authority executives and senior civil servants
  • What does the civil service do well? What do they handle badly?
  • The culture – is there any bullying? Are there any examples of incompetence? Are there any examples of excellence?
  • How the Assembly and local authorities handled job re-evaluation
  • The use of outside consultants – how are they chosen? Under what criteria?

You might think it'll undermine devolution by suggesting this, but if anything it could strengthen it.

Those who opposed devolution, or have changed their minds, need to remember that the same people would be there – Assembly or no Assembly. The Assembly, as it was from 1999-2006, was just the Welsh Office with the Welsh Secretary's functions passed to AMs - eventually forming a separate government post-2006.

Devolution is now a settled will - it's time to own mistakes
as well as successes.
(Pic : Guardian)
At least with devolution we have the ability to hold them to account properly as long as someone takes the opportunity to do so. Until we air our dirty washing, we'll never get anywhere. We need that bit of tough love - sooner rather than later.

All of it could feed suggestions into the Welsh Government's new "Institute of Public Policy" of course. It could start the process of turning things around for the good of everybody.

A New Welsh Civil Service Compact

Complete Apoliticisation - Anyone appointed above a certain pay grade in the civil service, or a body like a health board, shouldn't be a member of, fund-raise for, or make donations to, a political party. It should probably extend to not being members of unions who donate to political parties. They already can't stand for election but they are, of course, entitled to political beliefs.

At the very least memberships (past and present) of political parties should be declared, and it should extend to "Independents" too. It should be blanked out information available on request, but obviously there's no gain by lying about it.

Promotion and relegation - There should be an easier way for talent to rise through the ranks. It shouldn't be down to simple years of service. If you're good enough, you're old enough. Some volatility within the civil service might be a good thing for performance, but I could understand how it might be bad for morale. It doesn't always mean the "right thing" will be done at all times either.There should be, and probably is, some kind of "appraisal", where performance is judged over the year. Those who are slipping should be demoted, or sent for extra training in relevant areas to make sure their weaknesses are worked on. Those who show talent or consistency should be promoted.

No punitive measures, but no toleration of failure - The people at the bottom shouldn't pay for the mistakes of the people above them – that's why I'm not, personally, in favour of performance related pay or anything like that. However bonuses should only be limited to "exceptional performances" only. Nobody handling the Welsh economy for the last 20 years would really deserve a bonus, for example. There should, however, only be limited chances to make "major bungles" in the same manner as the GIB bid. That's fair - to us as members of the public and voters, and them as public servants. They should still be allowed to make errors, but not get away with the big ones.

Transparency - It's a buzzword - but it's something we need now. The Assembly, as a legislature, has a fairly good track record, but the Welsh Government and Civil Service don't in my opinion. It's not that the information isn't out there. The Welsh Government has a fairly comprehensive publication scheme, but I'm not sure if that's enough.

We need to know about lobbying. For the record, I think it's great that there are people and organisations out there that ensure that Welsh groups have good access to our politicians, I'm not complaining there. It's a good thing.

We need to know, and have open access to, everything the civil service does (barring things that could genuinely be deemed classified). We should be able to see all the reports, all the meeting minutes and know what's being done. The job of a civil servant is probably incredibly boring, but if the public knew a bit more about what they did, they'll appear more human to us, rather than pin cushions, They might avoid being the subject of rants like my last one in the future.

With one or two exceptions, senior civil servants are effectively anonymous. Ultimately, it'll be ministers who carry the can when things go wrong - perhaps even when they don't deserve to - but the people around them can walk away from the fire. That's a big problem here.

Improved Delegation & use of expertise – Someone working with an economic brief should be a qualified economist etc. It doesn't mean they'll be good at their job of course, and I'm sure there are people already there who have, on paper, the right skills, but for whatever reason don't apply them effectively. Actually that's an even more depressing thought....

Ambition – The GIB bid is an example, but I'm sure there are others. Cardiff and Wales might well not be the centre of the universe, and it's not always appropriate to bid for certain things. However if you're going to, at least do so thinking you have a chance of winning.

A National Civil Service Academy

Wales needs to promote the right level of skills
if we want a sustainable, well-functioning, civil service in the future.
(Pic: E-architect)

If we want the best, we're going to have to train and recruit the best.

There should be a formal structure in place to bring through people, who have a clear understanding of their brief, and can specialise within a role. It should also enable those who are struggling within the existing civil service to get extra training.

It could be a combination of the University of Glamorgan's Public Services & Public Management degrees with UWIC's School of Management. Like the suggestion in The Collective Entrepreneur that there should be a "Masters of Social Business Administration", anyone with ambitions of getting high up the ladder in the civil service should be expected to have a "Masters of Public Administration." It should be extremely challenging and include:

  • A firm grounding in economics and project management - as good as you would expect for a private business.
  • Marketing, accountancy and presentation
  • A firm grounding in Welsh politics, devolution in the UK and contemporary Welsh law
  • Specialised modules covering areas such as planning, health & education
  • Hands-on experience/shadowing existing civil service personnel across the Welsh public sector
  • Individual projects based on possible past and future scenarios, for example - marketing a Welsh town or city to host a major sporting event, handling a coalition between two ideologically opposed parties, the devolution on extra powers to the Assembly and the use of EU funding in infrastructure projects.

There's no shame in bringing people in "from the outside" if they stand out. It shouldn't start and stop at the UK though. I'm sure there are examples in America of people turning around cities or states, similarly parts of mainland Europe. The Welsh Government has partially gone down this route with the "sector panels" in business, stemming from the Economic Renewal Report. That's fine, but it has to produce results.

If we improve the quality of the civil service, it'll have wider impacts. For nationalists, it would improve the civil scaffolding needed for "nation building". For those on the right, it could lead to a better economic understanding within the civil service - hopefully improving investment and other economic functions overtime. For all parties - but in particular Labour - it could lead to improved performance in essential public services, hopefully opening the door to more innovation, better management and leadership from the top.

None of that would be guaranteed of course.

1 comment:

  1. I ryddid neu i'r bedd!29 March 2012 at 20:10

    Brilliant post. I like your ideas regarding a National Civil Service Academy.