Progress being made but pace of public services change ‘still too slow’

17 Dec 2015 - 10:48am

Auditor General urges public services to increase the scale and pace of transformation

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Welsh public services need to expand their horizons, take well-managed risks to innovate, and be realistic if they are to respond more effectively to the challenges they face. They also need to focus on measuring the things that matter and work together to manage the impacts of reductions in levels of services. The Auditor General for Wales sets out these key messages in his latest report A Picture of Public Services 2015.

Today’s report reinforces the Auditor General’s message that public services need to radically change if they are to meet the challenges they face now and in the future. It shows that the Welsh Government, and other public service providers, have expended considerable efforts to lay the foundations for transforming public services. But the pace of change on the ground has been slow. Public services still haven’t developed the long-term and radical change that is needed to respond effectively to the pressures they have and will continue to face.

The last five years has seen the longest period of sustained real terms spending cuts since the development of the modern welfare state after World War Two. Wales has seen a £1.2 billion real terms cut (7%) to funding for devolved services between 2010-11 and  2014-15 and the report notes that in managing this cut Wales has made some different spending choices to other parts of the UK. Further real terms cuts set out in the UK Government’s November spending review take the total reduction to £1.8 billion (11%) by 2019-20. Alongside these spending reductions, public services continue to face rising demand from a growing and ageing population. 

Auditor General for Wales, Huw Vaughan Thomas said today:

No part of the Welsh public service has escaped the financial pressures that have resulted from austerity.  It is therefore positive to be able to report that despite these pressures, I am seeing improvement across some areas of well-being, service performance and financial management.  But I am also concerned that there are signs of strain in some key areas. 

With further cuts expected it is encouraging to see that the Welsh Government has set a clearer direction and is placing a particular emphasis on involving the public more in designing and providing services. But, there are still many obstacles to overcome before the wholesale transformation that is needed to put public services on a sustainable footing is a reality. 

Despite these pressures, the Auditor General identifies some areas of improvement in well-being and service performance. The report finds that the NHS has improved against its key measures of public health and service quality and cancer survival rates are improving. Educational attainment results have improved, albeit from a low base in some areas. And some measures of population wellbeing have improved.  However, there are some areas of concern. Against a context of rising demand and activity in some areas, notably cancer care, performance against measures of NHS waiting times - for elective care, emergency care and cancer care - have deteriorated. And looking more broadly, levels of poverty remain stubbornly high in Wales and the amount of greenhouse gas emissions has been increasing.  

The Auditor General reports that, overall, financial management has improved across Welsh public services but remains too focused on short-term pressures. Public service leaders report having made savings that mostly from improved efficiency combined with some reduction in service levels. Looking forwards, they expect that balance to shift, with more savings coming from reducing service levels.  The Auditor General reports that public services’ approach to understanding and managing the impacts of reductions to service levels so far has not been sufficiently robust. 

The Auditor General’s report recognises that Welsh Government legislation and an updated vision for public service reform set a clearer direction for public services into the future. The challenge now for the Welsh Government and public bodies is to put those ideas into practice and address the issues that have hampered change in the past. The report points to some key areas that offer an opportunity and challenge: new tax-raising powers and legislation; technological change; demographic change; and the reconfiguration of local government. For example, if applied well, the Wellbeing of Future Generations (Wales) Act should embed important principles for long-term planning, prevention, collaboration, integration and engagement into the governance framework of public services.