You wouldn’t necessarily think it’s revolutionary for a government to have long-term goals. But thanks to the Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act of 2015, that’s exactly what the devolved Welsh Government has. So, how does that Act make Wales different?
Essentially, by enshrining into law objectives that every successive government must work towards, regardless of political composition. And that is completely revolutionary.
The Act is a guarantor of continuity, compelling the Welsh government to make progress across seven, key policy areas: culture, community, resilience, health, equality, prosperity and global responsibility. As future generations commissioner, my job is to ensure that the government sticks to the ambitious programme outlined in the Act.
The Guardian once called me ‘the world’s first Minister for the Unborn,’ but that’s not very accurate: I’m neither a minister, nor in government. As set out in law, my job is to support the interests of future generations by serving as an independent scrutineer – holding the government to account, monitoring its work under the Act and ensuring the wellbeing programme moves forward.
As such, my work ranges across six Priority Areas: skills, the health and wellness system, adverse childhood experiences, housing, transport and land use. It’s a multidisciplinary brief – and all those areas are, in some way, interrelated.
Often, leaders of departments or organisations get caught up in the way things have always been done, or the narrow focus of their own job descriptions. To counter that, my approach is based around systems leadership. So, I take a ‘helicopter view’ not just of the connections between the various policy areas I oversee – but of the impact that current decisions will have on future generations.
That involves encouraging leaders of our relevant stakeholder agencies to be brave, take risks and not be afraid of failure. In a governmental system, there are many factors that discourage innovation. But we are living in a time of emergencies.
We have a cost-of-living crisis. There are concerns that young people are not being educated in a way that’s going to equip them sufficiently for the future of work. And there are worries that we’re not providing the facilities that will meet the demands of an ageing population. Those issues can only be addressed in a spirit of boldness, innovation and a willingness to act today to prevent problems in the future.
Before the Act, our public bodies spent too long working in silos. But as a proponent of systems leadership, I’m encouraging them to follow my lead – and to look outside themselves to see how their decisions affect other domains.
For example, we’re asking health bodies to recognise that the NHS needs to shift some of its resources towards tackling air pollution – which is as big a threat to health and wellbeing as some medical conditions. It’s also about recognising that, yes, we want jobs and prosperity – but there are no jobs on a dead planet. So, the creation of jobs and wealth must take place within certain, planetary boundaries.
No programme of this type would be complete without input from the people who will have to live with its outcomes for longer than anyone else – so we involve younger generations in all of our initiatives.
We run reverse-mentoring schemes that are currently benefitting senior figures such as the chief executives of Cardiff City Council and the Aneurin Bevan University Health Board. This is important because, if you consider the sorts of skills and knowledge bases on which our public sector leaders have traditionally been performance manged, and the actions for which they’ve been rewarded, they’ve tended to focus on very narrow objectives.
We’re asking those leaders to focus their efforts on delivering whole-systems change, in a way that will shape public services for future generations they don’t necessarily understand. They don’t quite know about the lives young people lead. They’re not, in the main, digital natives. And they probably haven’t experienced climate anxiety to the extent that young people do today.
All those areas make fertile ground for reverse mentoring.
Climate change is one area in which I’ve directly challenged the Welsh Government.
One hugely positive development we’ve seen in Wales is last year’s introduction of a Climate Change Ministry, which has all the levers it needs to tackle the problem through policy avenues such as housing, planning, transport and energy. But I recently had to point out to the Welsh Government that it was spending two-thirds of its infrastructure budget on roads – so, it was tackling climate change on one hand, but undermining it on the other.
This is one area where my call for whole-systems thinking proved particularly effective: in our latest budget, the Welsh Government allocated 59% of its overall capital to the Climate Change Ministry – and reduced infrastructure spending on roads by two-thirds.
Wales has also recently launched pilots for Universal Basic Income. Why is that important in the context of my role? Well, the working world has changed so much that in-work poverty is now as big a problem as poverty stemming from unemployment. The gig economy was nothing like as established 20 years ago as it is now, and the sea change around how we work has impacted both physical and mental health.
When they enter adulthood, 65% of the children who start primary school this year will take up jobs that don’t currently exist. With that in mind, Wales has reformed its curriculum in the context of the Future Generations Act – paving the way not just for healthy, active and enterprising young people, but ethical and informed global citizens.
As my term as the first Future Generations Commissioner comes to an end, I know that there is still much more to do – but there are many positives to reflect on so far. Perhaps the most significant is the United Nations’ recent announcement that it intends to follow the lead of Wales with the appointment of a Future Generations Special Envoy. With the potential for a trickle-down effect through 193 UN Member States, this shows what one, progressive nation can achieve by implementing a whole-systems agenda.
My hope is that, as a result of this, the next Future Generations Commissioner for Wales will be joined by many others across the world – collectively ensuring that we are acting today for a better tomorrow.
Voices from our community: Sophie Howe is future generations commissioner for Wales.