When the Welsh Government announced its Programme for Government would be delayed for 100 days, my expectations were raised. Taking into account of the huge tectonic shift in Brexit, a new UK leadership, and following the Assembly arithmetic, its’ necessarily more inclusive approach to working with other parties, this seemed a logical way forward. Given the time over summer on a detailed response, a vision and way forward that would produce a clear detailed document allowing opposition parties, civil society, business leaders and ordinary citizens to scrutinise and input into the programme, the means to assess its progress and make a fair judgement on the Welsh Government at the next Assembly elections, seemed to be on the cards.
With such lofty expectations, perhaps the programme was bound to end in disappointment. Even so, the 16 page document (including its cover) seems thin gruel. Other civil society commentators have ably assessed the lack of detail and its effects, and the titles of subsequent articles ‘Warm words and little more’, ‘must do better’ give a flavour to tepid response. While civil society is in the business of scrutiny, it is likely that commentators would prefer to discuss a document that allows for a response to detailed proposals, rather than forlornly lamenting a lack of substance. For examples of detailed programmes we can look at of another minority administration in Scotland, or similar programmes such as New York City, which provide plenty of meat to engage with (whether you agree or disagree with the Government).
As any Twitterer may tell you, length is not in itself indicative of quality; although as with Twitter, it can indicate a lack of detail, and ERS Cymru have always maintained that in some areas at least, Size Matters. But the detailed data of other Programmes noted above are not the only model. The First Minister statement for the defence was that this is a strategic document that allows room for manoeuvre given the uncertainties of Brexit and the political weather ahead, and also allows for input from the other parties. In the Welsh Government’s defence, it is clear that there are strategic frameworks under which it operates, and any Minister will doubtless point (and have done ad nauseam) to the Well-Being of Future Generations Act.
There is some merit to this case for an agile Government. A short 16 page document could provide an overarching and compelling vision of where they hope Wales to be in 5 years, and not a series of seemingly arbitrary set of lists of policies and vague aspirations. It provides an opportunity to provide a read-across to documents such as the Future Generations agenda and make it more digestible to the citizens in terms of what it seeks to do, and how. It can provide a clear steer for citizens, civil society, business, and opposition parties to scrutinise and input into policy-making. Nevertheless, this document does not provide this strategy – it provides a disparate list of (often laudable) policies and many vague aspirations (and even the Government’s own supporters have argued a lack of ‘Labour values’ in the document).
So why is this important? Here is a short, but by no means exhaustive, list of some of the wider significance and consequences:
- Scrutiny and Measurement lofty aspirations (‘promote Green Growth’; ‘provide support’; ‘work towards’) most of us can agree with that come without any detail on the interpretation of what this means to the Welsh Government and how it is achieved, allow for no evidential means by which to judge success or failure, or judge how the policy fits within a wider government programme. In the end, there is little of data that suggests how Welsh Government came to its’ list of policies for the Assembly term.
- Collaboration and policy-making While the First Minister defended the document in terms of allowing others in the chamber to input into policies, this seems either to invite others to fill a blank page or a closed style of policy-making outside the programme itself. The latter is bad for obvious reasons. But a blank page is not particularly useful either. Opposition parties and civil society in Wales have a particularly limited pool of resources, and require clarity so that they can work their research and policy-making capacity toward what will have an effect, where they can change something they see as wrong (and so provide a plan B), and a clear direction of travel within which to work towards the interest of the public, their client, or interests. This allows for a positive response. A lack of steer from Welsh Government, rather than opening up possibilities, most likely invites inertia.
- Publicity, openness and policy-making Other Programmes for Government have detailed data on which they build their direction and provide indicators for progress. Open Government should allow for this data itself to be questioned, for experts (and amateurs) to provide possible alternative measures and to point to areas where there is a lack of data (which is a particular problem in Wales). This again adds to scrutiny and to allowing for policy alternatives (a Plan B). Vagueness obfuscates what the Welsh Government is looking to do, or suggests they’re unsure, and this is again makes policy input difficult.
- Political In her blog, the IWA Director Jess Blair points to the lack of measures provided as being to the Welsh Government’s political advantage, allowing them to claim success in 5 years with little by way of evidence. There is another side to this, because in a democracy Governments may not have it all their way. Without providing indicators and measures, or a compelling narrative for success, they are in danger of allowing a large space for others to provide the data measurements, and the narrative framing for them. As well as being in the interests of all those outside government to have a clearer document, I would suggest it is also of long-term advantage to the Welsh Government, its credibility and vision, and its future electoral performance.
It is likely the aims of this document are those defensible aims outlined by the First Minister – but it is not the final document to achieve his aims. It is plausible that this list of policies from the Labour manifestos, with a smattering of concessions made to the Liberal Democrats and Plaid Cymru, has emerged from a path of least resistance.
If so, given the scale of challenges and the need for all sectors in Wales to work toward the best possible outcome and use every opportunity for Wales in an uncertain time, this should be an opening introduction, and not the final chapter. I would echo other commentators’ hope that this is a holding position for a more compelling programme. I look forward to reading the follow-up, or to paraphrase another response to thin gruel: ‘Please, Sir, can we have some more?’