‘People First’ In New Service Standards

A set of basic standards for public services will tell taxpayers exactly what they can expect under sweeping reforms unveiled by the Assembly Government. Important decisions affecting services from healthcare to schools will be taken by a network of public service boards, consisting of council chiefs, NHS managers, voluntary bodies, the police and public sector organisations. Public services will be made to collaborate in an attempt to make standards consistently higher across Wales.

They will have to meet national standards for key services which people can download from the internet or obtain from a local library to see what they are entitled to. Finance Minister Sue Essex, who is responsible for public services, said today’s policies would end the phenomenon of people being “shunted” from one organisation to another.

They are part of the Assembly Government’s response to a major review published this summer. Its author, Sir Jeremy Beecham, ruled out a major reorganisation of Wales’s 22 local councils, but said the public sector had to make the Welsh pound go further. Ms Essex said: “It’s a very radical agenda. It’s not targets – it’s turning this whole thing around to say what should everybody in Wales, wherever they live, have a right to expect. There will be some standards that we will want to see and there will be some local standards. It’s going to bring all the key players together in every single local authority area.”

She said a new smoothly-functioning public sector would mean people would not have to “fit the bureaucracy”. “We expect the organisations to fit people’s needs,” she said.

The Assembly Government said it would “put citizens first” by giving them a “clear statement of national standards of key services”.

Local service boards – one for each local authority area – will sign agreements with the Government, explaining how they aim to improve specific services. They will then get their own budgets, giving all the members a duty to co-operate on things such as looking after children in care, home help for elderly people or collecting rubbish and recycling. Each board will have a Government civil servant, and a team of officials in Cardiff will provide the First Minister and the Cabinet with data on how well services perform.

Officials say there could be more one-stop shops to make it easier for people to get help and give feedback. The new policy document calls for ‘a revolution in how people are able to contact services’. “We need to be measuring and reporting on public satisfaction,” it says.

The Government insists its policy will “tidy up” existing good practice and will not add another tier of bureaucracy. At a press conference in the Assembly, Ms Essex said the boards would not undermine local democracy by taking decisions out of the hands of elected councillors. “This actually enhances their (councils’) community leadership role because it will be around the geography of the local authority area,” she said. “These changes, in a small country of three million, of putting people first, can actually sit within the democratic structures in Wales. It’s very much a grassroots way of doing things.”

There will be no compulsory requirement for boards to be formed, although ministers could seek to make them statutory in the future.

“I think the jury is still out on that,” Ms Essex said. “If we can develop this on a voluntary basis, I think that’s our preferred way.” Her drive to foster cooperation in the public sector, called Making The Connections, was backed by a £42 million budget.

Plaid Cymru’s shadow finance minister Dai Lloyd said: “The Labour Minister has today insisted that a new layer of bureaucracy is needed to try to identify answers to these long-standing problems. Adding a new layer of bureaucracy when one of the aims within the report is to cut bureaucracy is like an episode of Yes Minister.”

The Tories said the Government was offering “too little too late”. Tory local government spokesman David Melding said: “For the last seven years Labour has been reluctant to tackle local government head-on. In that time they have allowed many of the problems to go unchecked for fear of offending their Labour colleagues in town halls across the country.”

Liberal Democrat Assembly leader Mike German gave a cautious welcome. He said: “While the proposed Public Service Boards bring together a range of public services, I am concerned about how – or even if – they would work with the private and voluntary sectors. There is also a question about democratic accountability of PSBs which could be dominated by unelected representatives of local health boards or police authorities.”

Sir Jeremy told BBC Wales’s Good Morning Wales programme: “It’s necessary to make the Welsh pound go further in the provision of services. People have to recognise that opportunities are being lost. Clinging on to small school sixth forms, clinging on to every hospital bed may actually prevent better services being provided.” Wales had to “face up” to the choice of better public services, even if that meant change. He said there was “quite a lot of good practice in Wales, but not enough”. “

The system is very complicated,” he said. Sir Jeremy called for more freedom for public sector organisations and shared budgets to encourage them to cooperate.

Merging councils and reorganising local government would be a ‘diversion’. “The unified pathway to services is something everybody should be getting,” he added.

During First Minister’s Questions, Rhodri Morgan told AMs the “inane finger-pointing” between the NHS and social services would have to end. We know that everybody accepts that some of the cost-shunting nonsense we have seen … has got to stop,” he said. “We know that some kind of pooling of budgets is going to make a lot more sense and really stopping the cost-shunting and blame game is very important. Everybody accepts that and it’s time we got on with it.”