Delivering for future generations: what are the barriers to implementing the world’s first Well-being of Future Generations Act?

Published 19/11/2021   |   Reading Time minutes

We hope that what Wales is doing today the world will do tomorrow. Action, more than words, is the hope for our current and future generations.

Those were the words of Nikhil Seth, the then Head of Sustainable Development at the United Nations, on a visit to Wales following the Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act 2015 coming into force. Wales remains the only country in the world in which the need to protect future generations is embedded in law. But this approach is not without significant challenge. The Act demands culture change across the whole public sector. Every policy, action, initiative and piece of legislation must be designed and delivered through the lens of the sustainable development principle and seven well-being goals enshrined in the Act.

At the time the legislation was introduced concerns were raised about whether it had the clarity it needed to drive change on the ground. So just how successfully has the Act been implemented over the past five years, and what are the challenges it faces?

In 2020, the Senedd’s Public Accounts Committee (PAC) embarked upon a piece of work exploring the barriers to implementing the Act, and looking at whether it has delivered the transformative change it heralded when it was introduced over five years ago. This work coincided with, and was shaped by, the publication of the Future Generations Commissioner’s first Future Generations Report and the Auditor General for Wales’ examination of public bodies under the Act. Set against the context of the coronavirus pandemic, the Committee’s inquiry explored the levels of understanding and awareness about the Act; the resources available to public bodies for implementation; the support and leadership provided by the Welsh Government and the Future Generations Commissioner; and what needs to be done to ensure the Act is implemented successfully in the future.

The Senedd will debate the Committee’s report on Wednesday 24 November. The Welsh Government responded to the report in October, and there was a statement in Plenary on implementation of the Act in early November. The Committee also received responses from the Future Generations Commissioner, Auditor General for Wales and the Senedd’s Business Committee.

Has culture changed?

It’s a mixed picture. The Committee found that public bodies across Wales have not done enough to change their organisational cultures to align with the principles of the Act. Nor have they done enough to build awareness and understanding amongst their service users about the shift to sustainable development across public services.

The Welsh Government has a crucial dual role. Not only is it one of the 44 public bodies listed under the Act, it also has a leadership role. It is responsible for promoting the sustainable development principle, setting a positive example for other public bodies, and developing aspects of the Act, such as the national indicators and milestones.

The Committee concluded that, in the years immediately after the Act was passed, the Welsh Government was too slow to implement it internally. It also didn’t make clear to public bodies that it expected them to do so too. This is evidenced, in part, by the annual remit letters issued to public bodies not being set within the framework of the Act – an issue recognised by the Welsh Government, and one it is aiming to address imminently. The impact of this slow start is still evident across the public sector today, and has been a fundamental barrier to implementation.

However, in recent years there appears to have been a redoubling of effort. A recent Welsh Government statement set out an accelerated roadmap for delivery, including changes to the national indicators, and publication of the long-awaited milestones. This, alongside a renewed commitment from the Future Generations Commissioner to focus on support for public bodies (other than the Welsh Government), presents an opportunity for implementation of the Act to increase in scale and pace in the coming years.

All about the money?

The Act challenges public bodies to do things differently. Whilst the Committee heard calls for additional funding to resource culture change and support implementation of the Act, it concluded that the absence of additional funding should not be a barrier to implementation. However, it did recommend that the Welsh Government should carry out a review of how it can provide longer-term financial security to public bodies that are subject to the Act to support longer term planning. It also suggested a review of how Public Service Boards (PSBs) work is funded, as current inconsistent funding arrangements present challenges for delivering their work.

An overcomplicated landscape?

Wales is home to a plethora of partnership bodies. In January 2014, a commission tasked with examining all aspects of governance and delivery in the devolved public sector in Wales stated that:

…collaboration between public-sector organisations has been the defining theme of Welsh public-sector management since devolution. In part this reflects a principled choice in favour of co-operation rather than competition in service provision.

However, the report went on to state that “the ways in which partnership structures had developed and grown was burdensome and over-elaborate”.

Since then, other legislation and policy has further complicated the partnership landscape. These include the establishment of Regional Partnership Boards (under the Social Services and Well-being (Wales) Act 2014); PSBs established under the Future Generations Act, and; informal partnership boards created to make decisions on funding from City and Growth Deals. Furthermore, the Local Government and Elections (Wales) Act 2021 will create Corporate Joint Committees.

The Committee considered whether the partnership landscape acts as a barrier to implementation of the Act. It concluded:

The complex and bureaucratic landscape of partnership bodies and plethora of legislative and reporting requirements has made it more difficult for public bodies to adopt this Act and has, at times, actively disincentivised it.

It recommended that the Welsh Government must not create any new partnership or collaborative structures to fulfil any functions unless it has fully explored whether:

  • Existing partnership structures could undertake those functions instead;
  • The new structure could replace existing ones;
  • The functions can be carried out by existing public bodies; and
  • After consultation with public bodies affected by the proposed changes, it can demonstrate support for the new structures from a majority of public bodies affected by them.

Looking to the future

Amongst its other recommendations, the Committee advocated post-legislative scrutiny of the Act. It also called on the Welsh Government to carry out a review of the public bodies subject to the Act, chiming with a recommendation from the Auditor General for Wales.

The coronavirus pandemic has meant that public bodies have had to work collaboratively to address collective challenges. Echoing calls from the Future Generations Commissioner, the Committee called for recovery from the pandemic to be shaped by the Act, ensuring good practice isn’t lost in the shift back to long term planning and prevention.

The successful implementation of the Act depends on all public bodies across Wales embracing and embedding the sustainable development principle, five ways of working, and seven well-being goals in everything that they do. Only then will we see the aimed-for transformative change across the public sector, and beyond, in Wales.

Article by Chloe Corbyn, Senedd Research, Welsh Parliament