One and a half billion pounds – it doesn’t sound so bad when you write it like that. Numerically though – £1,500,000,000 – has a different look to it. One thing politicians try to do with big numbers like this is to rationalise them with everyday comparisons. For example, £1.2 billion is equal to 61,947 nurses, which is nearly three times the number of nurses, midwives and health visitors that work in our Welsh NHS each year writes Angela Burns MS.
But £1.2 billion is a number that resonates within my head and makes me feel angry and frustrated. And for what reason I hear you ask? Well £1.2 billion is the minimum amount that has been wasted by the Welsh Government since 2010. That’s £120 million a year that goes down the drain on projects which are unchecked and on business which go into administration; with both of these examples ultimately helping no one – certainly not the people of Wales who the Welsh Government are meant to help. It is numbers like this, and over a decade in Finance, Education and Health where I have witnessed shockingly wasteful spending, that drove me to accept the role of Shadow Minister for Government Resilience and Efficiency in the Shadow Cabinet led by the Leader of the Opposition in the Welsh Parliament, Paul Davies MS.
One of the key lessons I’ve learnt since being elected to the Welsh Parliament in 2007 is how difficult it can be for governments to make policies work, let alone work effectively and consistently. This challenge is made even worse when the Welsh Labour Government seems to think making a speech is enough. As my friend Paul Davies said in his leader’s address last month, the Welsh Government’s declaration of a Climate Emergency, without announcing what the Welsh Government intends to do to address that emergency, is symptomatic of the entire problem. Labour has been in government for so long, it has forgotten the difference between words and action.
When I was in business – for good or bad – you knew that you had to have ideas, commitment and consistency to deliver tangible results. I had to be strong to push for improvements or be prepared to take the tough decisions and axe what wasn’t working.
Therefore, it is beyond frustrating to see a sound policy being delivered badly because of poor implementation or a lack of buy in, and yet ineffectual policies seem to go ahead unmonitored and unchecked for years. Nothing changes for the better, inertia sets in and Wales is the poorer for it, not least when a defensive culture has developed in which denial has become the norm.
A very recent example was the decision to have a unified IT reporting system across all the different Welsh NHS health boards in order to help deal with the coronavirus. It was an absolutely sound proposal which would have streamlined services and improved care. Somewhere along the line the fundamental reason behind the creation of the system was lost and health boards were allowed to take their own route. A piecemeal reporting system developed, Health Boards reported incorrectly, Public Health Wales had no idea of the true scale of COVID-19 fatalities, the Welsh Government based decisions on incorrect data when Wales faced a clear and present threat.
Things have to change. A Welsh Conservative Government under Paul Davies will introduce a new Office for Government Resilience and Efficiency (OGRE). This office will work across government to be a critical friend to ministers and ensuring that the government delivers for people. It will have teeth and the mandate to hold the government to account.
It will end the 20 years of leaden government we have had in Wales, where instead of placing a light hand on the shoulder of people to help and guide, we have a Welsh Labour Government that over promises, over manages and concentrates on delivering law that prohibits rather than concentrating on the big issues and enabling people.
Earlier this week, a report from Audit Wales on public sector fraud in Wales identified seven key themes that public bodies need to focus on. It says that counter-fraud arrangements need to be strengthened, particularly in local government and it warns that public sector fraud could be costing a further £1bn a year on top of the figure I already quoted. To minimise the risk of fraud, Audit Wales called for seven principles to be embedded in public spending: leadership and culture, risk management and control frameworks, policies and training, capacity and expertise, tools and data, collaboration, and reporting and scrutiny. If I’d been asked to come up with seven principles that would guide my approach to OGRE, I couldn’t have identified seven better ones.
I am a conservative because I believe with my heart and soul in a small state and big people. We need to trust the people and when we govern, we need to do so in a responsible and effective way; that involves thinking things through and ensuring that there are checks and balances in every decision.
Most politicians want to help people, but we must help people in the right way and not let our emotions get the better of us. An example is the Circuit of Wales fiasco. We desperately need more high-quality jobs in the South Wales Valleys in order to help a region that experiences real deprivation in many areas. But seriously, was it the best idea to do that by imagining the motorbike racing circuit would simply break their contracts, abandon its home in Donnington and come to the South Wales Valleys? All the hype and all the spend with not a contract in sight, let alone the contradiction in Welsh Government policy, given that they claim the climate change emergency was a major reason for abandon the M4 relief road. The irony of it all!!
Paul Davies’ Government will be different. Paul has trusted me to develop this new office so that it can sit with ministers and have the frank conversations that many people avoid: “have you thought this through properly?” “are you delivering this correctly?” “how does this policy affect other departments?” “are you deploying your resources in the best possible way?” and “does it achieve your policy objectives in a financially responsible way?”
Some might argue that these checks and balances are already in place. Surely they cry, this is the job of the Future Generations Commissioner or the Welsh Government’s Delivery Unit or the civil service or indeed Ministers themselves. The difference is OGRE will have a different focus; eliminating waste, promoting best practice and making government more self critical. It will end the cosy culture that has infected every part of Welsh public life. And to do this it will have real firepower, will have teeth and will have a seat in the heart of decision making, but with the mandate to be the awkward squad, the grit that will help to deliver a true pearl.
A Welsh Conservative Government won’t be afraid to take on the vested interests that are holding Wales back. We will try new things and, if they don’t work, we will stop them, learn from them and move on. None of this will be easy, not least for those who thrive on ticking boxes or running campaigns and programmes without clear outcomes. It is, however, time to do things differently.
With OGRE we will follow the money and ensure it delivers for people.
We will make sure that individual ministers don’t get wrapped up in one or two projects, but instead look at the wider impacts.
And finally, if there’s one quote which sums up failed government, it’s that too many ministers end up waist deep in alligators and forget that they went in to drain the swamp.
Wales has spent the last 20 years being run by people who have forgotten what they set out to do. We need a new government, with fresh eyes and new ideas to finally deliver for the people of Wales.
Angela Burns is the Member of the Senedd for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire and the Shadow Minister for Government Resilience & Efficiency.