The Future Generations Commissioner for Wales was established just over a year ago. We talked to Anne Meikle, Head of WWF Cymru, to reflect on this novel institution.
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.