The Office of the Future Generations Commissioner for Wales has recently celebrated its first anniversary. This newsletter edition is dedicated to this important milestone.
Sophie Howe, Future Generations Commissioner for Wales, reflects on her first year in office.
The United Nations has said, “What Wales is doing today, we hope the world will do tomorrow – action more than words is the hope for our future generations”.
Listening and involving people in shaping and informing the focus of my work has been central to my way of working as the first Future Generations Commissioner for Wales.
Since taking up office in April 2016, one of my main priorities has been to get out and listen to people – whether they are the professionals with responsibility under the new legislation or other partners such as voluntary organisations and local communities.
During my first six months in office I met all 44 public bodies and frontline professionals in Wales – to listen and identify opportunities for promoting the the sustainable Development principle and the five ways of working in the Wellbeing of Future Generations (Wales) Act.
I have also contributed to more than 640 public engagements and meetings with ministers, voluntary sector leaders and experts. I have also spoken at national events including the Hay Festival and Royal Welsh Show to champion the Well-being of Future Generations Act and present the challenges and opportunities the act brings.
Throughout the many conversations, we have used the opportunity to test out innovative and collaborative methods to further develop our approach to public engagement.
For example, working with the Wales Audit Office and the Cynefin Centre, we created a survey for people to tell us about the issues they feel are important to them and their community, and to identify how they can help achieve our seven well-being goals. We received nearly 1,000 responses.
I have worked with the New Economics Foundation (NEF) to develop a ‘Future Generations Framework’ to show how organisations can make better decisions using five ways of working to maximise their contribution to the well-being goals set out in the act. While this was initially developed for infrastructure projects, we are testing the approach on other work to see if it can also support decision-makers apply the sustainable development principle. The framework can also be used to help the public promote the principle and challenge decision-making.
We have also worked with the Auditor General for Wales and Wales Audit Office to help drive the changes needed. If we work in partnership at an early stage, this will increase the positive impact of our statutory duties by providing a consistent approach to public bodies and public services boards.
We also set up a joint project with the Children’s Commissioner for Wales to help public bodies think about how they embed rights and sustainable development in their work to fulfil their obligations under the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child and the Well-being of Future Generations Act.
One of the main challenges in setting up my office has been the need to put sustainability into practice and be an example of how we are changing our ways of working to align with the act.
I initially focused on how my office could be sustainable and energy efficient. I was offered a shared space with the Welsh Language Commissioner which aligned with the collaborative approach to working as well as being cost effective.
The space needed to be refurbished. Allowing for the limitations of the existing infrastructure, our aim was to keep costs to a minimum and where possible build in energy efficiency into the redesign. So we upcycled fixtures, fittings and furniture from Welsh government stores, and we repurposed and repositioned existing partitions. We also put thermostatically-controlled valves on all the radiators, fitted energy-saving light bulbs, and installed some movement-sensitive lighting.
We have also been given access to free space within Bangor University and use of their video conferencing equipment which allows my North Wales-based staff to come together and avoid unnecessary travel to South Wales.
We are now bringing all our work together with an evidence base on the key issues, challenges and opportunities facing Wales. The next stage of the journey will be priority setting and creating a movement for change that will benefit people now and in the future.
Find out more about the work of the commissioner on the official website.
What role did WWF Cymru play in establishing the commissioner?
WWF and other members of the Sustainable Development Alliance worked hard to lobby for a commissioner with independence from government – one who could champion the needs of future generations. We also pushed to amend initial drafts of the Well-being of Future Generations Act to strengthen the commissioner’s powers. We ensured she has broad powers to undertake research or review of any matters relating to the act.
What role do organisations like WWF play in the commissioner’s work?
Most commissioners in the UK have a much narrower remit than the Future Generations Commissioner. They only focus on single issues or groups, for example the Children’s Commissioner. A remit on sustainable development covers a very broad range of subject areas. It is very unlikely that any one person would have in-depth knowledge of all relevant issues. So organisations such as WWF support the commissioner by providing expertise on matters such as climate change, biodiversity, or the health of ecosystems (our life support systems). We can also advise on actions to tackle the drivers of loss of these natural resources, such as looking at more sustainable production methods or how public bodies can encourage these through their procurement practices. As a global organisation, WWF can not only advise on the international impacts of Wales’ actions but can also share examples from around the world of good practice, providing benchmarks for progress.
How open is the commissioner to the views from civil society groups and the broader public? (One of the four priority areas on which the commissioner is consulting is “public engagement”).
The commissioner has worked hard to ensure she hears the public voice through her engagement events. She has been very open to listening to, and using input from, civil society. That said, there is a need to further recognise and use civil society as experts alongside academic input.
Do you think the commissioner is setting the right priorities?
The commissioner is still developing her priorities, so it’s something we’ll be watching closely in the coming months. What I would say now is that it is essential that she makes sure that public bodies focus on the areas where they can have the biggest impact on wellbeing and drive transformational change. They will also need to tackle the risks and opportunities that arise with that focus.
What have been the main challenges for the commissioner in the first year?
Simply establishing a new function such as this, explaining its role and prioritising activities are major challenges. Beyond this, we have a newly elected National Assembly for Wales with a new intake of politicians who were not involved in the passage of the Act. We have also had a new Welsh Government, which has chosen different political priorities and has had to respond to both austerity and the political agenda post-Brexit. This constant political renewal, and tendency to focus on the short term, was a major reason that the previous assembly supported a legislative approach. Ensuring politicians remain committed, focused and inspired is a key challenge – one where collaboration with the Sustainable Development Alliance could be critical to success.
There is also a fundamental challenge to the civil service and the new permanent secretary in Wales. The act requires radical change in the ways that civil servants work. Their decision-making systems and tools need to be reviewed and amended in quite challenging ways.
Finally, the act established entirely new organisations – Public Service Boards (PSBs) – as a regional delivery mechanism. These PSBs bring together all the public bodies in each local authority area to deliver new plans to deliver on the act – collaboratively. Quite rightly the commissioner has been concerned to ensure that these are established and start work with the correct understanding and commitment.
How do you see the commissioner’s role developing in the coming years?
The cultural change required by the act will take at least 10 years to embed across all public bodies. In the first instance, the commissioner’s focus is to promote understanding of, and commitment to, the act’s delivery and providing support for these changes. Maintaining the commitment of public bodies and ensuring they take action on the major transformational changes – the really difficult decisions and choices that must be made – is going to require persistence and the use of all her available powers. Not all public bodies will make effective progress. The commissioner will need to use her powers of review to identify barriers to change and make specific recommendations to public bodies to drive improvement.
The commissioner’s other key role is to report on behalf of future generations, in early 2020. She will assess the improvements needed in public bodies to safeguard the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. This will be a vital moment and mechanism to ensure that politicians in subsequent political terms take forward delivery.
Is this a model that could be replicated at UK level or in the other devolved nations?
A commissioner role is already used in many countries around the world. They all have their own unique powers and cultural context. The Network of Institutions for Future Generations provides a mechanism for them to share good practice, but also to assess the differences between them. As time goes on, it will be interesting to evaluate which of the various types of institution work most effectively. The value of these roles, as the network says, is “bringing future generations to the negotiating table”. Unless the UK or other devolved nations have a robust alternative mechanism for bringing in these voices, then they should look at establishing a commissioner.
Victor Anderson is a Research Fellow at the Centre for the Understanding of Sustainable Prosperity.
What do the election manifestos and Queen’s Speech tell us about the state of the constitutional reform debate in the UK and its relationship to sustainable development?
Constitutional reform remains part of the political debate, with PR for the Commons still a priority for reformers but not for either of the two main parties. The relatively new issue moving up the agenda is parliamentary control over trade deals, an issue that Brexit has placed firmly on the agenda (the Queen’s Speech announced a Brexit Trade Bill, which could be amended along those lines).
However, the connection between constitutional reform and sustainable development or future generations was unfortunately absent in all the manifestos.
From the Conservative point of view, one ambition in the area of constitutional change stands out above all others: returning to the UK the law-making powers that have been transferred to the EU. This was reflected in the Queen’s Speech, which provided for eight Brexit bills. The manifesto also envisaged Brexit involving “a significant increase” in powers for the devolved administrations (page 37).
“We will retain the first past the post system of voting for parliamentary elections and extend this system to police and crime commissioner and mayoral elections” (page 43). That means no Supplementary Vote, i.e. first and second choices, which have enabled third- and fourth-placed parties (generally LibDems & Greens) to run effective mayoral campaigns. Outside the manifesto, the Conservative Party confirmed that this also means an end to the Additional Member System of PR in the London Assembly, which up to now has been the only way that LibDems and Greens have won seats there (see http://www.mayorwatch.co.uk/tories-confirm-london-assembly-also-faces-election-rules-shake-up/).
“We will legislate for votes for life for British overseas electors” (page 42). Expats would never have to live here in order to have a say in how the country is run.
Following the decision to hold an early election, the Conservatives have also committed to “repeal the Fixed-term Parliaments Act” (page 43).
There is also a recognition that metro mayors, local enterprise partnerships, and local authorities have become a bit of a jumble: “we will consolidate our approach, providing clarity … so all authorities operate in a common framework” (page 32).
But following the election, none of these proposals was reflected in the Queen’s Speech. However, it is important to recognise that the Speech never covers the whole of the what is in a manifesto. Manifestos are written to cover a 5-year parliament. The Queen’s Speech usually covers just one year, and this case two. Measures excluded from it could be introduced in 2019 – provided there isn’t an early election of course.
The Tory manifesto is organised around the idea of “five giant challenges”. These are the economy, Brexit, social divisions, ageing, and technological change. Climate change and sustainability are not amongst the big five. Energy and transport are discussed under the heading ‘A Modern Industrial Strategy’, but primarily in the context of what they can do to help build ‘a strong economy’. In a section fitted in awkwardly just after ‘Stronger Communities from a Stronger Economy’, there are mentions of litter, recycling, and the countryside, together with a reaffirmation of the intention to “produce a comprehensive 25 Year Environment Plan” (page 26, with the Plan apparently provided for in the Queen’s Speech through the Brexit Agriculture Bill). The chapter primarily on Brexit includes mentions of climate change – “We will continue to lead international action” (page 38, also page 40) – and the Sustainable Development Goals, although the discussion of the SDGs is explicitly focused on how to spend the overseas aid budget (page 39) rather than difficult question such as how to tackle sustainable consumption and production (Goal 12).
However, there is a rare Burkean sustainability moment on page 9: “We respect the fact that society is a contract between the generations: a partnership between those who are living, those who have lived before us, and those who are yet to be born.”
The Labour manifesto also starts with the UK economy. The opening chapter includes a commitment to “ensure that 60 per cent of the UK’s energy comes from zero-carbon or renewable sources by 2030” (page 14), apparently including nuclear (page 21). Company law will be amended to give company directors a duty to protect the environment (page 17).
The chapter on Brexit is keen to “guarantee that Parliament has a truly meaningful vote on the final Brexit deal” (page 27). “Truly meaningful” is not defined (crucially: does it include the option of calling a second referendum?). Labour wants proper “parliamentary scrutiny of all future trade and investment deals” (page 30). It also supports “international negotiations towards an Environmental Goods Agreement at the WTO” (page 31). On the SDGs, “Labour will develop a cross-government strategy for ensuring the SDGs are implemented …” (page 122)
There is a chapter on constitutional reform. This includes a commitment to “establish a Constitutional Convention” (page102), a slow process of moving towards a democratically elected Second Chamber (page 102), opposition to a second Scottish independence referendum (page 104), and more devolved powers for Wales (page 105). There is nothing on electoral reform for the Commons. Labour commits to “a cabinet of at least 50 per cent women” (page 109).
Comparing these policies with what Labour governments achieved in the recent past – above all, the establishment of the Scottish Parliament with proportional representation and the attempt to set up regional assemblies across the whole of England (in practice that got no further than London) – it is fair to say that constitutional reform has moved down Labour’s agenda (in that sense Corbyn is less radical than Blair).
The same cannot be said of the Liberal Democrats, the Greens, Plaid Cymru, or the SNP but there are no examples which focus on better enabling long-term thinking, or taking into account future generations. A few highlights from their manifestos:
- Votes at 16 (LibDems, Greens, SNP, Plaid)
- PR for the Commons (Greens, LibDems, SNP); “reform the voting system” (Plaid)
- PR for local government (Greens, LibDems, already exists in Scotland)
- Lords reform: “proper democratic mandate” (LibDems), “elected second chamber” (Greens), abolition (SNP)
- Constitutional Convention (LibDems)
- “Give Parliament a vote on any new trade deals” (Greens, SNP similar); Give Welsh Assembly vote (Plaid)
- “a 50/50 Parliament” (50% women MPs) (Greens)
- Second referendum on Scottish independence (SNP)
- More powers for the Welsh Assembly (Plaid)
Widespread public participation is important not only for working out the best ideas to tackle complex problems or effectively implement change, but also to create agreement for major transitions in society or the economy. Simon Roberts, CEO of the Centre for Sustainable Energy in Bristol wrote this blog earlier in 2017, summarising a longer paper that argues that otherwise populist reactions against the ‘liberal metropolitan elite’ can undermine efforts to reduce carbon emissions.
Why carbon budgets could be next in line for a populist backlash – and how to avoid it
The rejection of the EU by a (slim) majority in the Brexit vote in June 2016 offers a glimpse of how support for actions to cut carbon emissions may be undermined if more is not done to nurture public understanding of, involvement in, and consent for such actions.
What we now have to call ‘the liberal metropolitan elite’ has been pursuing a social and economic programme which is justified and beneficial in their eyes and which has, by and large, enjoyed popular support in general (though not always in the particular).
But they forgot (for about 30 years) to spend time engaging with the ‘general public’, listening to their views and developing understanding of what it was all for and why it was the best course to follow – perhaps adjusting that course slightly in response to what they had heard.
In their case, it was deepening membership of the EU. In our case (and that ‘our’ isn’t just CSE but all of the green lobby and many other parts of the liberal metropolitan elite), it’s action on reducing carbon emissions. And we, too, have been forgetting to engage, listen and develop understanding – for about 15 years.
But, for reasons outlined in the opening section of a new discussion paper by CSE Chief Executive Simon Roberts, the transition to a low carbon society arguably requires the involvement and consent of ‘the people’ even more than membership of the EU. This is because it will have even more impact on the way we live our daily lives and the choices available to us.
The new paper was written as a stimulus for a recent roundtable on engaging the public on emissions reduction that was supported and convened by the Children’s Investment Fund Foundation (CIFF). The roundtable in turn fed into government processes for developing the forthcoming Emissions Reduction Plan (to meet the fifth carbon budget).
In the paper, Simon explores why public engagement and consent matter so much for the next phase of the low carbon transition, as we get beyond the easy stuff that’s already been done. Drawing on the experience of onshore wind, he explains the ‘tragedy of the commons’ aspect of public engagement and questions whether we can rely – as many policy-makers and -shapers seem to – solely on the emerging low carbon markets (e.g. in smart energy services or electric vehicles) to deliver the public consent and involvement required.
He then looks at CSE’s positive experiences in stimulating meaningful and local peer-to-peer conversations about ‘what it all means round here, for us and for me’ and the social mechanisms which may explain the success of these in building consent.
We’ve written before about the need for meaningful public consent for this transition (see here and here). And exploring ways of stimulating local discussions and connections which can be the foundation stones of such consent were the basis of projects such as Future Energy Landscapes and Warmer Bath.
The CIFF roundtable involved a range of policy-makers and influencers (BEIS, Behavioural Insights Team) academics, and civil society organisations. Simon commented: “It was a really stimulating discussion. I came away with one particular new insight which is that when policy makers talk about public engagement they conceive it as a purely instrumental process that helps them sharpen up policy to make it better at persuading, requiring, hoodwinking, or nudging people into taking a usually quite specific intended action. But that characterisation of public engagement ignores the far deeper, more transformational level of engagement we need: place-based, peer-to-peer conversations which reveal norms for action and nurture social permission for change.”
Simon tried to capture this distinction in a single image – reproduced below – which used his ‘fertilise the ground so the seeds of change can grow better’ analogy.
A new global study published by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law has found that the number of lawsuits involving climate change has tripled since 2014, with most of climate change litigation cases being carried out in the U.S.
Over the last decade, laws codifying national and international responses to climate change have grown in number, specificity, and importance. Individuals and nongovernmental organizations have now begun to hold governments accountable for their climate-related legal commitments. And it’s not just coalitions of NGOs and citizens – as seen in recent European cases outlined in the report – that are using the courts in efforts to overturn government decisions seen to exacerbate climate change. The report describes how, in September 2015, a Pakistani lawyer’s case against the national government for failure to carry out the National Climate Change Policy of 2012, resulted in the designation of climate change focal points to several ministries to help implement the framework and the creation of a climate change commission to monitor the government’s progress.
“Judicial decisions around the world show that many courts have the authority, and the willingness, to hold governments to account for climate change,” said Michael Burger, Executive Director of the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law.
The report predicts that more litigation will originate in the Global South as developing countries look to the law to address the growing threat of climate change. Furthermore, it is expected that the number of human-rights cases filed by “climate refugees” will increase, as a direct result of climate-driven migration, resettlement and disaster recovery.
The full report can be accessed on the UNEP website (PDF, 4MB).
The last week of April, FDSD Trustee and Director of the School of International Futures, Cat Tully, was invited to guest edit openDemocracy on the theme “Participation and foresight – putting people at the heart of the future”.
Twenty contributors from across the world shared their thoughts on this topic, drawing on examples from villages and cities, workplaces and schools, the young and old, refugee camps and across regions – and finishing off looking at the role of government in stewarding the future. As Cat argues “the act of developing stories together about a collective future is a deeply political act”.
“Foresight is not just a dialogue for the elite or decision-makers. It should aspire to give voice to the excluded, whether marginal views in organisations, or those in refugee camps and rice fields. And those voices need to be given space to be heard… Citizens across the world are asking for more participation in deciding their future.”
Allie Bobak, SOIF coordinator, and Cat have invited several of their colleagues and collaborators to co-create “this passionate and analytical journey”. The articles and comments are available on openDemocracy.
The House of Commons Audit Committee recently published its report Sustainable Development Goals in the UK. The Committee is critical of the Government’s lack of ambition in embedding the SDGs. As the report argues:
The Sustainable Development Goals represent a positive and ambitious commitment to develop sustainably from this generation to the next. We will only achieve the Goals if the Government provides strong leadership and a high level of ambition from the very top – something which has been lacking. There is no voice at the top of Government speaking for the long-term aspirations embodied in the Goals and the interests of future generations.
Throughout the report, the Committee refers to recommendations from the evidence provided by FDSD, particularly on the need for Cabinet-level leadership, partnership working and transparent reporting.
On April 11th, FDSD, in collaboration with the the Centre for the Study of Democracy (CSD) and the Centre for the Understanding of Sustainable Prosperity (CUSP), organised an event to discuss the potential to establish a UK-wide Commissioner for Future Generations. We heard from two speakers with intimate knowledge of the work of Commissioners and Ombudsman around the world – both of whom are FDSD trustees:
- Peter Davies, formerly the Sustainable Futures Commissioner in Wales
- Sándor Fülöp, formerly the Parliamentary Commissioner for Future Generations of Hungary
Provocations were then offered by Andrea Westall (FDSD) and Victor Anderson (CUSP). These were followed by discussions amongst the audience on the opportunities and challenges to introducing a Commissioner at the UK level and/or within the nations of the UK, building on the pioneering work of the Welsh Government.
We will produce further reflections on the outcome of the meeting and continue to advocate for new forms of democratic governance that challenge short-termism and the failure to account for our impact on future generations. A video of the presentations and responses to audience questions can be found below. Visual minutes of the meeting were created by Raquel Durán.
Please get in touch at email@example.com or use the comment section below if you would like to work with us, share examples, or want to keep in touch about similar events in the future.
Jetske Germing, Open Government Wales Officer at WCVA*, was at the launch of the new Open Government Pioneers project in Wales and in this guest blogs shares her insights. (The report first appeared on the WCVA blog page.)
Only a short while into the project we feel grateful to have had a high profile opportunity to launch the Open Government Pioneers project in Wales on the 7th March at the gofod3 event.
The aim of the Open Government Pioneers project is to link civil society networks across the UK to help share tools, techniques and resources to engage better with governments, around the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, which in Wales will focus on the Future Generation Goals.
The panel discussion chaired by Anna Nicholl, Director of Strategy and Sector Development at WCVA started with an introduction to the panel’s work in relation to Open Government and their hopes for the Open Government Pioneers Network in Wales.
Caren Fullerton, Chief Digital Officer at Welsh Government told us about the three main parts of Welsh Government’s journey regarding Open Government: 1) to modernise Information Technology; 2) to modernise Welsh Government’s Digital Services and 3) around data. To date there are a number of examples of the work Welsh Government already undertake, such as publishing 200 datasets. Caren explained that the problem is that no one knows they are there. The Open Government Action Plan 2016-18 aims to change this and Welsh Government recognises the need to engage with civil society groups for the next series of commitments.
Kevin Davies, Head of Engagement at National Assembly Wales explained that engagement for the Assembly is about performing, involving and empowering. The Assembly have changed to a participatory model, and direct engagement. This makes scrutiny more robust, giving better quality and better legislation. Kevin explained that although the Assembly is not covered by the Wellbeing of Future Generations Act it recognises its importance, especially around involvement and collaboration. The Assembly aims to make content and data easier to access and source and to increase capacity of civil society to mobilise more democracy.
In terms of the Open Government Network for Wales, Kevin hopes the network will work towards providing citizens with greater access to information, and increase capability and capacity within civic society to reflect and represent the views of citizens so that people feel closer to the democratic institutions which works to serve them, and to mobilise a more democratically active society.
Peter Davies, Chair of WCVA, Trustee for Foundation for Democracy and Sustainable Development and Chair of the Customer Challenge Group, Dwr Cymru, reminded us that Wales has strong participation levels, with a million active volunteers. He explained that this does not however automatically translate in democratic activity. Peter believes that we need to put users at the heart of services and have a gap to fill in mobilising citizen led activity. He also emphasised the need to work cross-sector and to learn from other sectors, i.e. the customer challenge group he chairs for Welsh Water.
Owain Ap Gareth, Electoral Reform Society explained that the Open Government agenda works across different levels, from participation to direct democracy and a host of policies. The work of the Electoral Reform Society is focusing on increasing the capacity of Assembly Members, and alongside this it is essential that people get involved to succeed. Owain highlighted how citizens need to be active, by explaining that as Wales is such a small country this means that not only do we need to do the ‘nice bit’ around participation, also we need to ‘get as much out of people as possible’. He highlighted that we are part of a wider UK Open Government Network that is joining the dots on what is happening elsewhere already.
The questions following the presentations showed the appetite for Open Government within the room:
- We need to find a way to harness community data.
- How do we include people with learning disabilities to have a say within our communities?
- How do we ensure the user is taken into account in big picture scenarios?
- What capacity is there for organisations to work in new ways and experiment?
In response Caren highlighted that her team have moved on from ‘the risk of using open data’ to ensuring data is considered fully. She answered that there is capacity with Welsh Government to experiment with working in different ways.
Kevin echoed this by saying that National Assembly Wales has the capacity to trial, and is actively seeking views. He’s keen for the network to share good and bad experiences.
It was evident during the other sessions at gofod3 that there is appetite for groups and individuals to get involved. Throughout the day participants expressed their feelings in clear language, such as ‘volunteering is addictive’ and ‘social care is not very social at the moment’, showing the importance of getting individuals or groups throughout society involved in planning for the future.
Perhaps now more than ever, with Brexit and the related pressures on budgets we need to find ways of engaging all sectors to work together for future generations to prosper.
If you are interested in being part of the Open Government Pioneers Network Wales, please get in touch with the team:
- Open Government Forum – http://forum.opengovernment.org.uk/
- Twitter – @opengovcymru
- Wiki – https://opengovpioneers.miraheze.org/wiki/Main_Page
- Open Government Wales Officer Jetske Germing – firstname.lastname@example.org
*Wales Council for Voluntary Action