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Monday, July 10, 2006

Reforming Public Services

I will be travelling to and from London all day so there will be little or no opportunity to comment on the Beecham Review when it is unveiled later on. However, a number of points arise from this preview on the BBC's website.

The Welsh Assembly Government is quite right when it says that services need to be more responsive to public demand and more efficient. However, setting an arbitrary efficiency target of £2 billion by the end of the decade and then withholding the money at source will not produce that outcome. It deprives Councils of the opportunity to invest to save, prevents them planning over a long period of time to deliver sustainable efficiencies and forces short-term cuts in vital services that have nothing whatsoever to do with efficiency or effectiveness of delivery. If the Government want to deliver the Beecham agenda then they need to work with Councils not dictate to them.

To be fair, many Councils are aready starting to deliver this agenda but are being happened by the Assembly Government's approach to the Gershon Savings Review.

Plaid Cymru's Helen Mary Jones says of public services that "(There is) a lack of accountability, too many decision-making structures, much too complex." Whilst Welsh Liberal Democrat Assembly Leader, Mike German, states that "I don't want to see local councils reorganise yet again because that's a massive disruption but I think they've got to hear this warning and I think Sir Jeremy Beecham will be giving them a pretty sound warning. If they don't pull their finger out then they will get reorganised."

My view is that the Assembly Government has a bigger problem than local Councils in this regard. They need to get their act together in terms of accountability and transparency as well as in delivering effective and efficient services. The Welsh NHS is a basket case for a start. How we can start dictating to local Councils when we have not got it right ourselves I do not know.

It is a not a liberal approach to use a big stick to deliver on this agenda. Threats will only bring resistance. This has to be a partnership or nothing. And as for reorganisation and mergers, well if you want to introduce organisational lethargy and the ossification of public services for the next decade then go ahead. There may well be a case to reduce the number of councils by merging some of the smallest but we have to recognise that such a process will be painful and difficult. It will put the Beecham agenda in those areas onto the back-burner for years as officers and members come to terms with the cultural and organisational issues that such a process will throw up.

Some less threats and more understanding would be very welcome and a whole lot more productive, as would a recognition that local Councillors are also democratically accountable and deserve more respect because of that.
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