What can the public sector of Aotearoa New Zealand learn from the achievements of the first Future Generations Commissioner for Wales?
As public sectors worldwide face an urgent call for transformative action in the face of the need for long-term sustainability and social justice, it is helpful to highlight cases where success has already occurred.
Sophie Howe was appointed as the first Future Generations Commissioner (FGC) for Wales in 2015 (a role she held until January 2023) as part of legislation introduced to protect the interests of future generations. Like most public servants, she entered the public service wanting to make a difference – for children, crime, worklessness, and housing.
Sophie delivered a keynote address in July 2023 to the Local Government New Zealand conference held in Ōtautahi Christchurch.
“We are in the middle of a climate crisis; we are continuing to see exponential growth in technology, and we know that we have an ageing population,” says Sophie. “Each of these is a specific issue, but in my role as Future Generations Commissioner, I was asking how effective is the system within which these challenges sit and how can our public system get upfront of them? And how effective is the system at recognising the connections between these issues?”
In a mission to answer these questions, the government in Wales conversed with the Welsh people to ask what they wanted for their future generations. In 2015 they passed the Wellbeing of Future Generations Act. The Act sets out overarching principles for all public bodies and local authorities to work within. All of the main Welsh public services, and significantly the Welsh central government itself, must now demonstrate how, when making decisions, they are seeking to meet today’s needs without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.
An example of the Future Generations Commissioner’s success includes opposing the Welsh government’s plans to spend £1.4 billion on extending a stretch of the M4 motorway. “We were continuing to invest in an old solution and never getting to the root cause,” she says. “As a result of my input, the government has reformed the entire transport strategy for Wales, including increasing spend from £5 million to £75 million in active travel from 2016 to 2021 and reducing roading spend from two-thirds of the budget to one-third.”
Another example was the government using the requirements of the Future Generations Act to recognise the shortcomings of the Welsh curriculum and reprioritising skills such as creativity, empathy, and interpersonal skills, which “they’ll need in a world dominated by automation and artificial intelligence,” says Sophie.
Adopt a holistic approach
Learning from this, New Zealand’s public sector could prioritise integrating sustainability and social change across all policies and decision-making processes, ensuring that long-term societal and environmental wellbeing is at the forefront of all actions. “In Wales we have seven wellbeing goals, and a new Social Partnership Act, which creates a statutory Social Partnership Council. This is made up of central and local government, businesses, trade unions and voluntary sector representatives, who all come together to work out the collective national actions needed to deliver the wellbeing goals. New Zealand doesn’t have this set up currently, and I think that’s a problem,” says Sophie.
Take risks and be innovative
In Wales, the Future Generations Commission has parallel duties with the Auditor-General’s office. Sophie said that, at times, it was difficult working alongside the requirement to run audits and measure the output of their work. “But I encourage people to shift the culture of audits and ask ‘What’s the risk of not trying?’ and start from that place.” Sophie’s role, as she describes it, was to act as coach and referee. “I offered advice and support to public bodies, but I also held up a mirror and asked people to consider the long-term impact of their decisions.”
Foster collaboration and engagement
Sophie consistently emphasises the importance of collaboration and engagement in driving systemic change. Emulating this approach, New Zealand’s public sector could actively seek input from citizens, partner with various sectors, and build strong networks to create a shared vision of a sustainable future, says Sophie.
In addition, Sophie says, “Find those people within your organisation who can become trailblazers for this work. Those who can use the Act to give them permission to challenge the system. In my role, I found those people and supported them, helped them break down barriers and showcased their work.”
Embrace long-term thinking and decision-making
Sophie advises not to obsess or get bogged down in the process and bureaucracy of this transformation. “This is typically where the public sector’s comfort zone is. Public servants are used to a plethora of new laws and regulation requirements, new plans and impact assessments and so on, and we don’t want this law just to become another one of those lists of something to do,” says Sophie. “Instead, we found those people who were going to use the Act to embrace long-term thinking and decision-making. It’s a mindset shift, and that’s what can make the difference.”
Emphasise evidence-based decision-making
With a team of only 30 employees and a small budget (£1.5 million), Sophie thought creatively about how she could leverage this significant work. “We built partnerships with universities who would do the research on this for free,” says Sophie. “This allowed us to make evidence-based decisions with minimal resources.” In addition, many of her team were on secondments from other agencies. So, on returning to their original jobs, they could transfer their learnings and decision-making processes directly to their ‘home’ departments.
By considering and applying these lessons, New Zealand could be in a position to create a brighter future for present and future generations and inspire other nations to follow suit. For more information on the Future Generations Commission, visit https://www.futuregenerations.wales.
With thanks to Local Government New Zealand for hosting Sophie Howe and facilitating this interview at the Local Government New Zealand’s 2023 conference.
This article was published in the Public Sector Journal - Spring 2023, Issue 46.3.