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Written evidence from Derek Walker, Future Generations Commissioner for Wales


Dear Chair,

Thank you for the opportunity to inform the Committee's inquiry into the effectiveness of Select Committee scrutiny of strategic thinking in Whitehall. This is a crucial initiative that underscores the importance of robust governance and long-term thinking in government decisions.


As the Future Generations Commissioner for Wales, I must act as a guardian for future generations, promote sustainable development and help public bodies in Wales to change their behaviours, think long-term, and follow the requirements of the Well-being of Future Generations Act to improve the social, economic, environmental and cultural well-being of the people of Wales.


The Well-being of Future Generations Act sets in law a common national vision for well-being in Wales in the form of the four dimensions of well-being (environmental, social, cultural and economic) and the seven national well-being goals, which paint a holistic picture of well-being in Wales. You can read more about the Act and my role as Commissioner here.


I recently published my strategy – Cymru Can, which sets out how I plan to support the implementation of the Well-being of Future Generations Act in the next 7 years. Within this strategy, I have made commitments to strengthen Wales’ capacity in long-term thinking and for my office to become focal a point for long-term thinking and expertise.


While I do not have responsibilities to advise or monitor public bodies outside of Wales or policy decisions taken by UK Ministers, I hope my reflections are useful and can help inform your inquiry.


The reality of strategic planning has experienced turbulent changes in the last decade or so – I agree with the evidence submitted by Geoff Mulgan on this, in particular, his reflections on the shrinking time horizons of strategic planning due to a combination of political instability and the need to divert resources to tackling multiple crises.


This is consistent with the intelligence I gathered during the Section 20 Review my team undertook in 2022 into how Welsh Government was implementing the Well-being of Future Generations Act into their machinery of governance. I would encourage you to have a look at the full report here as it contains a lot of information relevant to your inquiry, including a section on long-term thinking, case studies of good practice, and areas for improvement where Welsh Government could do more to strengthen the implementation of the Well-being of Future Generations Act.


The Well-being of Future Generations Act in and of itself represented a decisive step towards long-term decision-making and shifting away from short-termism, something that is endemic in decision-making across the world. The aim of this Act is to create a better, brighter future for our current and future generations and stop us from making decisions that can harm us both today and tomorrow. It is a key element in Welsh Government’s framework for identifying strategic risks and opportunities. However, our review found that there are still gaps that need to be addressed in the areas of People and Culture, Processes, and Public Sector Leadership.


One of the three main themes of the Section 20 Review was around People and Culture and the role that behaviours and culture within Welsh Government have in the implementation of the Well-being of Future Generations Act. In recent years, the Welsh civil service has faced unprecedented workforce pressures as it has had to work (and continue to do so) through multiple crises. My team has seen excellent examples by Welsh Government of where the culture of the organisation – guided by the Act - has responded to challenges. There have been some excellent cases of innovation and resilience such as the creative freelancers fund and pledge, the Social Partnerships Council and the roll-out of Test, Trace, Protect. Now government must look at how they can build on this work and stretch further on the journey to sustainability.


Under this theme, my team found there are concerted efforts to embed long-term thinking across government, but the need to respond to multiple crises and capacity are often seen as barriers. Welsh Government colleagues have agreed this is an area where improvements can be made; an internal futures workshop was organised between my office and the government, with the help of the School of International Futures. Opportunities to act further were identified in the workshop, and I look forward to working with Welsh Government to understand how these can be taken forward.


Under the Act, Welsh Government have to produce a Future Trends Report every five years with predictions of likely future trends in the economic, social, environmental and cultural well-being of Wales. Our review found that the latest iteration of this report is a marked improvement, with a narrative around relevant trends, a guide on how to best use the report, a list of useful futures resources, and an infographic for quick references.


Our review also touched on the accountability and assurance mechanisms that Welsh Government has in place to ensure the implementation of the Well-being of Future Generations Act. Positively, many accountability and assurance mechanisms, such as the Internal Control Questionnaire, the Welsh Government Board Terms of Reference, the setting up of a Board Champion, and the Ministerial Briefings have been updated to reflect and embed the Act. Some, but not all, are reaching their potential. The predominant reason is that their effectiveness in practice has not been assessed. While as general assurance mechanisms these might work very well, when it comes to assurance on the Act they need reviewing and strengthening.


One of the main themes within our review was Public Sector Leadership and the role government has in sharing its resources, research, good practice examples and learnings with the rest of the public sector. It was encouraging to hear from external stakeholders that collaboration with Welsh Government has improved significantly. However, there is still an untapped potential for Welsh Government to work with the public sector and beyond - to mobilise, promote good examples, create resources, and share learning.


Since the Section 20 review was concluded in December 2022, my office has continued to work with the Welsh Government on the areas for improvement identified in the review and we have seen positive changes in the delivery of the Well-being of Future Generations Act, including in long-term thinking. While there are still gaps to be addressed, I believe that Wales’ approach to strategic long-term thinking, with the Well-being of Future Generations Act at its core, is one of the world-leading examples, alongside Finland, Canada, and Singapore, of bold and innovative action being taken to ensure we are not sleepwalking into the future.


Aside from Section 20 Review Report, I would encourage the Committee to consider the Scrutiny Framework that my office has previously produced to help public bodies ensure that decisions are being made in line with the Well-being of Future Generations Act. The framework includes questions specifically in relation to long-term thinking, which the Committee would hopefully find helpful.

Once again, I hope that this response is useful for your inquiry. Should you wish to discuss further any of the information provided in this letter, please feel free to contact me at contactus@futuregenerations.wales.


Yours faithfully,

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Derek Walker
Future Generations Commissioner for Wales