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To be taken seriously, OGREs need to show their teeth

There’s something special about sitting down as a family over Christmas to watch films, snuggled under a blanket against the cold. Whether it’s a classic like Die Hard or an animated adventure like Shrek, the story of an ogre who ends up walking the corridors of power, it wouldn’t be Christmas without it, writes Nick Evans.

The Christmas break gave us the opportunity to reflect and consider things; for me, it was a chance to pursue trains of thought that may be crowded out when the pressures of life are more demanding. So it was a different type of OGRE that I found myself considering over the festive period. One that, as Conservatives, we should welcome just as warmly.

The devolution revolution that Paul Davies announced in his speech to members last summer has been a long time coming, and inviting Angela Burns to lead the shadow office for government resilience and efficiency (OGRE) that has real firepower and a mandate to be the ‘awkward squad’ is exactly what a big reform agenda needs.

Make no mistake; undoing twenty years of Welsh Labour Government and bureaucratic empire- building is a big job, and frankly the dice have been weighted against its success. New taxpayer funded quangos, advisory boards and sponsored bodies, with Labour supporting board members and staff that will fight tooth and nail to see off any ‘existential threat’ to their continued existence, means that those seeking to bring reform and efficiency to the public sector landscape will need determination and the highest level of support to succeed.

This OGRE team should be small, with the highest levels of access and, crucially, should be staffed by high flyers who have a proven track record of thinking outside of the box and getting things done.

Very early on in the new Senedd, the OGRE also needs to set its own agenda. This is essential if it is to succeed and be taken seriously in the corridors of power. The way to do that is to assess every single Welsh taxpayer-supported body, and ask why it exists, can its functions be completed in a different way, and has it succeeded in doing what it was set up to achieve. To use public sector parlance, there needs to be a Zero-based review. 

This review needs to begin by assessing the Welsh Government supported public sector, looking at Departments, Government offices and sponsored bodies to determine:

  1. What is this organisation’s core function?
  2. Does that core function still need to be delivered and how does it fit with our manifesto commitments?
  3. Does that core function need to be completed by the public sector?
  4. What are the other ways that this function could be delivered that would be more efficient or cost effective?
  5. Is this organisation succeeding in fulfilling its objectives or is it making meaningful progress on its agenda?

The aim of this review is simple; to assess whether each organisation should be abolished, reformed or retained.

Any organisation that has completed its core functions or whose functions can be managed as part of the usual business of Government should be abolished. Sunset clauses tied to spending periods should be used in future as back-stops to make sure that there is a regular assessment of operational and policy delivery, so that there is proper scrutiny of whether an organisation is achieving what it has set out to do.

If an organisation’s functions could be completed effectively and efficiently by another organisation, either in the private, third or public sector, or if it has failed to deliver on the objectives it has been tasked with, then it should be listed for reform. This could include merging existing bodies, sharing functions or creating trusts or trading funds to deliver what had previously been done in the public sector. As devolution is a process, not an event, this should also include devolving powers and functions further, from centralised control to regional or local level.

Any decision for an organisation to be retained would need to be defended in a star chamber, that includes other ministers and outside experts without conflicts of interest who would challenge the decision making on why an organisation should be retained or should continue to work in its current form. In order to be clear on future democratic accountability of the body, it should be the responsible minister for that organisation that will lead the defence in person.

Now, there is nothing like a reform programme to actually slow down and distract from the delivery of core functions in an organisation. So best practice, garnered from previous experience of such reorganisations in Wales and the wider UK should be followed, using the insights available from those that were charged with delivering those changes to make sure that costly mistakes are not repeated, and the programme is delivered quickly.

Once public bodies have been reviewed, OGRE then needs to turn its attention to bodies that have been regular recipients of large amounts of grant funding from the Welsh Government or nationalised companies. For these organisations, the questions should be slightly different:

  1. How much public funding has this organisation received, and to do what?
  2. What has this funding achieved and how does that return on investment compare to the objectives set out when the funding was awarded?
  3. How does this funding and the policy objectives fit with our manifesto?
  4. Where is the democratic accountability for this funding and how is it scrutinised?
  5. If a nationalised company, what is the action plan to return the company to the private sector and provide a return on investment to the taxpayer as soon as possible?

If these questions cannot be answered, or if the funding is failing to achieve the objectives that were set for it, then it should be stopped and services retendered if the programme remains a priority post- election.

Lastly, in addition to these reviews, we should trust the staff in these organisations and programmes that will be retained to know where there is waste and bureaucracy that gets in the way of them being able to do their jobs. I have spent time working in the public sector and have seen how ‘mission creep’ takes focus away from core tasks, how bureaucracy gets in the way of doing the day job and how some reforms or removal of duplication could save taxpayers money. We should provide a way for staff to, confidentially, offer their own ideas on how to improve efficiency and avoid waste of taxpayers’ money. This will help ensure we are sweating every pound of taxpayer’s investment in Wales to make sure it is delivering what we ask of it, rather than seeing it spent on unnecessary administration.

Launching a radical programme and seeing it through will undoubtably cause a lot of noise and those charged with delivering it will need to be resilient. There will be a great deal of special pleading, and examples of why this organisation or that programme should continue. But senior leaders of any organisation should be capable of taking constructive feedback on how they could improve delivery and make it more efficient; in the private sector, that challenge is provided by competitors and customers; in the public sector, it is provided by the opposition and new Governments.

If an organisation or programme can demonstrate its worth and added value, is able to demonstrate a willingness to be innovative and adaptable and show how they fit with the Welsh Conservatives’ programme for Government, then like Shrek, they should be able to live happily ever after.

Nick Evans is a political and communications advisor and local councillor.

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