Shaping local government policy
15 October 2013
Urgent action is needed to create user-friendly performance data about local councils and more needs to be done to join up public services in Wales at both local and national levels.
Those are two of the messages emerging from a major independent assessment of the Welsh Government's local government policy, led by Professor Steve Martin from Cardiff Business School's Centre for Local & Regional Government Research.
The five year study examines the performance of Welsh local councils and the implementation and impact of the three themes which provided the guiding thread for the Welsh Government's 2007 Local Government Statement: collaboration, citizen engagement and central-local relations.
The study found:
· Local authorities are collaborating – with each other and with other agencies - however, partnership working has not yet transformed the ways in which services are designed and delivered;
· Councils do engage with citizens, but not in ways which really strengthen local accountability or ensure that services are sufficiently responsive to their needs;
· Some parts of the Welsh Government have worked in partnership with local authorities, but others have taken a more prescriptive, top-down approach. Moreover, it does not always get the balance between these different ways of working right;
· Most services lack reliable data to make international comparisons. The result is that Wales has lacked 'early warning signs' when authorities are struggling and there has been insufficient challenge, support or capacity for early intervention.
Professor Martin said: "We believe the question for policy-makers is whether the approach set out in the 2007 Local Government Statement is the best way to respond to current conditions and challenges. On the basis of the evidence collected in the course of our study, the answer is 'no'.
"Our evidence study suggests that the Welsh Government needs to choose which policy instruments it believes offer the best hope of securing more effective and efficient local services. If citizen engagement is going to be the main driver of these changes, it follows that powers and funding need to be devolved down to neighbourhoods.
"If, on the other hand, the best way to improve services and make better use of the available resources is through regional or even national consortia, then Government needs to continue to encourage partnership working between authorities, or to reorganise local government in order to create larger councils and, perhaps, consider whether the current division of responsibilities between local and central government is right."
Among the report's recommendations are:
· The Welsh Government and local councils need actively to seek out ways of achieving greater integration in order to make more efficient use of resources and greater effectiveness in addressing 'cross-cutting' issues;
· Policy makers should decide which services, if any, are best delivered at regional level, how they should be governed, and what data needs to be collected to monitor the performance of regional partnerships;
· Councils need, as a matter of some urgency, to work out and make explicit how they interpret the notion of a 'citizen-centred' approach and its implications across different services.
Professor Martin said: "We're not suggesting that ministers should jettison the three imperatives that currently underpin its policies for local government, but the Government needs to put in place mechanisms to ensure its own policies are co-ordinated effectively so that all its departments are pulling in the same direction. Working closely with local government, it needs to determine the best ways to deliver the multitude of different services for which local government is currently responsible, and then ensure that the size, form and financing of the local authorities of the future is commensurate with the tasks that they are expected to fulfil."
The research team's report Learning to Improve: An Independent Assessment of the Welsh Government's Policies for Local Government, 2007-2011 is based on in-depth analysis of existing data and a large volume of new evidence collected in the course of the study. This includes policy documents, national performance indicators, inspection reports, and the results of the Living in Wales survey; two comprehensive surveys of senior local authority officers and councillors from all 22 unitary authorities; interviews with 24 senior civil servants and Welsh Local Government Association (WLGA) officers with oversight of the main local government services; and eight case studies of the impact in key policy areas of the three themes which underpinned the Government's policies for local government.