Fresh from launching the ‘Wales We Want’ report outlining the findings of a major consultation exercise on what kind of country people want for future generations, Peter Davies, Commissioner for Sustainable Futures outlines how the Welsh Government’s Future Generations Bill could improve democracy.
Sustainable Development (SD) has been a distinctive dimension in the devolution process for Wales, with a duty incorporated in the Government of Wales Act. 15 years on, we are on the verge of introducing a new piece of legislation The Wellbeing of Future Generations (Wales) Bill which will strengthen this duty and broaden it to apply to the whole of the devolved public sector. The legislation proposes a series of mechanisms to improve our governance for the long term – setting long term goals, establishing key governance principles, introducing a Public Service Board structure to integrate local delivery, and creating an independent Future Generations Commissioner.
There is currently much debate as to the form and function of these mechanisms to ensure we build a better Bill that can truly embed sustainable development as the central organising principle of the public sector. However a missing element from these discussions has been the potential contribution of the legislation to improving the democratic process. The Bill introduces a timetable and process which is directly linked to the electoral cycle. There will be a duty on Welsh ministers to produce a ‘Future Trends’ report within a year of the election to inform a national conversation, facilitated by the independent Future Generations Commissioner. The commissioner will have a duty to produce a ‘Future Generations’ report a year prior to the Assembly elections, based on an “engagement exercise with stakeholders, communities, businesses and citizens across Wales”.
This engagement exercise is intended to “provide a means of influencing public discourse so that there is a focus on the long-term challenges that people in Wales identify with”, while the final Future Generations report is intended to “provide an assessment of how public bodies should better safeguard the ability of future generations to meet their needs and take greater account of the long-term impact of the things they do”.
Over the last year we have been piloting this process through a national conversation on the “Wales We Want”, which has been carried forward through over 200 Future Champions, engaging 7000 active participants. The report of this pilot process, which will be launched on March 2nd, will reflect on a great sense of disconnectedness from decision-makers which permeated the conversations.
Many groups felt that their voice had little influence and often expressed perceptions of a “them and us” relationship with government initiatives. The importance of effective involvement and engagement with government at all levels was seen as a key issue, with a history of limited and ineffective consultation exercises leading to frustrations and cynicism.
Many youth groups in particular were concerned with the recent closures of youth-led movements such as Funky Dragon, which can exacerbate the problem of disengaged youth in decision-making.
The pilot national conversation has given a sense of the size of the task but also the potential to engage and inform citizens in a process that is part of the electoral cycle and can influence political party manifestos in addressing the long term challenges. Communities and groups were passionate about recognising the potential of individuals and communities to actively participate and be part of the change / transformation that they want.
Our democratic system is driven by short term agendas around electoral cycles. The Wellbeing of Future Generations (Wales) Bill aims to balance the nature of this short term accountability with the need for a long term framework if we are going to deal with the major intergenerational challenges. Above all it recognises that greater engagement in the democratic process, a stronger citizen voice and active participation in decision making is fundamental for the well-being of future generations.
Peter Davies is the Wales Commissioner for Sustainable Futures