Well-Being and Six Features of the Human Condition

The concept of well-being is very slippery having many different meanings and applications. Moreover, with politicians and governments increasingly using it as an adjudicating value for how policies should be formulated and implemented (including, most recently, the Welsh Government’s Social Services and Well-being Act 2014), it has become especially important to take a step back and assess what well-being means exactly, and how this value relates to who we are as human beings. It is in this light that WISERD recently hosted a workshop on well-being at the University of South Wales, raising important questions amongst academics, practitioners, and policy-makers, about its meaning and measurement. My observations below summarise the main points in the paper I presented, entitled: ‘Six features of the human condition: a conceptual mapping exercise for competing understandings of well-being and some implications for public policy.’

First, I described six features of the human condition which I contended are common to us all, so bearing on questions concerning human well-being. In short, drawing on the wider well-being literature in philosophy, I argue that whatever conception of well-being is used, all must accommodate these six features of the human condition – though, I argued, the precise relationship between these features vary, depending on the position taken.

Six features of the human condition
Embodiment: We are physical creatures who relate and connect with the world through bodily sensations; via our senses – touch, sight, hearing, taste; our experiences of pain and pleasure; our emotions – joy, happiness, anger, sadness, fear; our physical needs for food, water, shelter, rest, warmth; our numerous wants, desires and aversions; and, our feelings towards others – such as pity, compassion, disgust, love, and hate. Whatever our embodied responses, conceptions of human well-being should, I propose, acknowledge this physicality.

Finiteness: We are limited by beginnings and ends – less abstractly, we are necessarily bounded by our existence or survival, the parameters being our births and deaths; our inability to be in two places and times at once; our limited capabilities constrained by social and physical environments, and so on. These constraints, derived from our finiteness, make us vulnerable to harm, disappointment, failure, conflicting choices, and error when calculating what is best for our well-being to pursue. However, being limited in these respects (and others beside), also shapes our life experiences, paradoxically, enabling us, as subjective differentiated persons, to enjoy and become immersed ‘in the moment’ and so be ‘attuned’ to our lives.

Sociability: We learn language and communicate with others, becoming members of social groups. These groups generate social rules of behaviour which delineate arenas of well-being, as different ways of ‘being’ and ‘doing’ are created through social cooperation. These memberships also lead to reciprocal exchanges, which, should be accounted for, to understand how well-being is best promoted. Therefore, conceptions of well-being only focusing on individual endeavour and accomplishments are likely to be inadequate given this condition of sociability.

Cognition: We also understand, rationally calculate, and can be reasonable toward others. Human cognition is clearly mind-orientated, exercising logic, gather information and evidence, and engaging in, what we might be described as, creative imagination – via our imagination we can, for example, picture new possibilities for the future, and remember the past. This ability is also crucial in understanding how well-being, most notably over life-times, is best promoted.

Evaluation: It matters to our well-being that we successfully accomplish goals and ambitions, and these goals and ambitions are valuable to us. Value is understood in terms of what is worthwhile (pastimes, career options, other lifestyle choices), but also refers to moral principles – what is considered right, wrong, just or unjust. Consequently, we evaluate what we do and achieve, and so not merely count our successes, with both success and positive evaluation enhancing our well-being. Value is also derived from exercising self-knowledge – being true to ourselves, or authentic, as it is sometimes called.

Agency: As individuals and/or as members of groups, we, as stated, set goals and have plans and ambitions considered valuable or worthwhile. This implies a degree of agency, where, to lesser or greater degrees, we choose from alternatives, and so become authors of our own actions and life-plans. These alternatives, for sure, are restricted by social, political and physical environments, but, despite these restrictions, we all have options, allowing us to accomplish goals, however limited these might be. Moreover, our choices reflect desires which are shaped by information concerning these desires, so becoming “informed”. Informed desires cohere with wider understandings of what is best for us, reflecting the pursuit of our more important goals and ambitions.

Given this brief outline of these six human conditions, what are some further implications of these features for understanding well-being; how might we use these features to understand better the philosophical debates concerning well-being and their application to social and public policy?

Exploring some philosophical terrains and implications for policy
Even if all six features of the human condition are accommodated for in any conception of well-being there is still considerable scope for debate concerning how these features precisely relate. Kantians, for example, are likely to establish our capacity for agency and cognition as a foundation for understanding and promoting well-being, tending to view well-being as, at best, an inclusive or transparent value. Consequently, well-being for Kantians is usually enhanced by successfully pursuing valuable, rational and reasonable goals, but is not best, or commonly, pursued for its own sake.

Classical Utilitarians, and those from a Humeian persuasion, alternatively, view well-being as based on embodied experiences, with these experiences understood, at least primitively, as subjective and individual. For Utilitarians and Humeians, subjective well-being is more likely seen as a primary value, and although may be constrained by agency, cognition, evaluation, and sociability, is usually promoted within public policy as a relatively substantial, even dominant, end. Other policy debates also ensue concerning, for example, the significance of a person being present-orientated in her pursuit of well-being, as distinct from a rational evaluator of her life overall.

Communitarians, and most feminist, post-modern and post-structuralists writers, would likely view well-being differently again, emphasising the human feature of sociability as a better platform for understanding well-being. Public policy should, in turn, focus on the social groups we belong to, and on how our realities are constructed by, for example, shared language-use and other social behaviours. In short, well-being is viewed primarily as a social product, derived from collective endeavours, with the business of public and social policy being to facilitate these activities.

Of course, these brief sketches of the philosophical terrain and their application to public policy are bound to oversimplify issues and over-polarise debate, given many positions are taken in between, plus many others beside. Nevertheless, my contention is that describing these features of the human condition at least define some general territories of discussions about well-being – for example, highlighting the relationship between subjective and objective accounts of well-being, experience and evaluation/life-satisfaction accounts, and the various ways in which individual and collective/group endeavours relate and are both promoted.

Written by Steve Smith, University of South Wales, School of Humanities and Social Sciences, steve.smith@southwales.ac.uk) – Professor of Political Philosophy and Social Policy

This blog was first published in Issue 12 October 2015 ‘Celebrating the first year of WISERD Civil Society’

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A Swing to the Left for Labour

A big change has happened for the Labour party with the election of Jeremy Corbyn as the leader of the UK party. Clearly, the ideological space that he is taking the party into is the left of the political spectrum with an interest in a range of areas including quality public services, accessible housing for all and  improving the lives of those living in poverty. Not for a long time has there been this clear division ideologically between the two biggest London parties with contrasting views on the market solutions to problems in society and the role of government.


With the UK Labour party now operating in the left ideologically, the Labour parties in Scotland and Wales are likely to have more in common with it. As the National Assembly elections approach in May 2016, Labour in Wales will seek to capitalise on the success of its policies in Wales which have not promoted market solutions or significantly reduced public services in ways that have happened under the coalition in England. These will include the rejection of academy schools and the wide scale contracting out of local government services. Coping with less public resources year on year will be blamed on the London Government.


An interesting issue will be the impact of Labour’s re-emphasised position in Wales on parties such as Plaid Cymru which also operate in the left ideologically. Politicians might have watched the election night disaster for Labour in Scotland in May 2015 of this year and wondered if it could happen in Wales. Could Plaid Cymru have the same success in Wales in the May 2016 elections?


With its reignited position in the left ideologically, my view is that Labour will continue to be strong in Wales. Supported by the UK party and its left wing focus, Labour will be in a better position to sell its policies to the people of Wales.  Having the same UK and Wales policy agenda and putting this to the electorate leaves Labour in Wales in a strong position.


The big question is – has Jeremy Corbyn saved the Labour party in Wales?

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Governance in the Fire and Rescue Service

Over recent months I have been working with a colleague, Dr Jacqueline Baxter from the Open University on a comparative governance paper focusing on education, health, policing and the fire and rescue services. The key issue to emerge is the stakeholder approach to governance is being replaced by either elected models or a more skills based governing board. In policing, elected police commissioners have replaced the original police authority made up of elected local councillors. In education in England, the stakeholder governing body has also been replaced with a membership more sharply focused on the skills which members can bring to the board. Some governing bodies in Wales are also more mindful of governor skills when vacancies arise.


In the recent focus on governance in the fire and rescue services, the issue of the transfer of the elected police commissioner approach to this service has been raised. Here, it is not a new elected Fire and Rescue Service commissioner which is being talked about but rather placing the fire and rescue service under the responsibility of the existing Police commissioners. The Commissioners themselves would be re-titled and have wider responsibilities. These could also include the Ambulance Service.


A change such as this would replace the existing Fire and Rescue Authorities which are made up of elected councillors. It is reported that the Commissioners are keen to take on the wider role.


Before the discussion around this goes any further, it is worth thinking about whether the existing model of governance in the FRS is effective and if it isn’t, a review of a range of approaches needs to be undertaken. The elected commissioner is one model of governance and there are others too which should to be examined prior to any change being proposed or implemented. The various options include a version of the stakeholder approach which could have a membership board based on a range of individuals including elected members – rather like a school governing body. Another alternative would be to replace the elected member board with a directly appointed one. This is the approach to governance of the FRS which has been put in place in Scotland in the newly merged Scottish Fire and Rescue Service. There are other models too.


Before the discussion about the re-organisation of the governance of the fire and rescue service goes any further, an evaluation of the need for change has to be undertaken. Reorganisation and restructuring are not only ways to bring about improvements in governance.

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The 2015 General Election Results: Why did the ‘experts’ get it wrong?

Voting is a big decision.  When results of elections are a surprise – as happened on 7 May, following an exit poll which flatly contradicted the accumulated predictions of weeks and months of opinion polls taken by different organisations – we might wonder what kind of decision has been made.  (See Catherine Farrell’s recent post.)

  • Were people shy to tell the pollsters their voting intentions, but happier to reveal how they had actually done it, after the event?
  • Was there some big event, sometime very close to polling day or during it, which swung things around after the final polls had done their bit?
  • Do people lie to opinion pollsters for fun, or to subvert the process?
  • Was there a conspiracy on the part of the pollsters to mislead the electorate?

Some of these answers may be tempting.  None seems sufficient.  It seems something else has been going on – perhaps less to do with the nature of polls, and more to do with how, in general, political discourse and debate ‘match up’ to the reality of what’s actually in voters’ heads.

In the days after 7 May, the BBC and other news providers ran various ‘vox pop’ consultations, asking people why they’d voted.  In one memorable sequence (from the Today programme on 16 May), an unseated Labour MP discovers the reasons why new SNP voters have switched away from him, and is unsettled to find, for instance, that ‘being tougher on immigration’ and ‘getting out of Europe’ were among their key motivations.  (The SNP supports further immigration into Scotland, and stronger ties with Europe.)  What these consistently reveal is the gap between party aims and manifestos and people’s perceptions of where parties stand.  These gaps remain despite an era of unprecedented communicative muscle, where people are hooked up to each other in ever more direct ways via social media and otherwise.  Are we better informed?  Is the quality of deliberation any better?  It might seem not.  Why?

Here are two possible reasons.  (There are many others, of course.)  One is that politicians don’t engage in social media half as well as they think they do.   Their use is patchy.  Indeed, politicians continue to employ social media with trepidation, mindful of the danger of on-line gaffes which can result in a loss of reputation and threaten their political career. As a consequence political use of social media invariably fails to engage in collaborative discourse with the electorate, instead focusing on the broadcasting of campaign messages. This approach to social media exacerbates distrust in politicians and supports the notion of ‘them and us’, a term used as a rallying cry by populist parties such as UKIP.  It also means that politicians don’t ‘feel the temperature’ of public opinion as well as they might.

The other involves the expertise we hear in the run-up to the election results.  All that speculation.  All those maps of the country, colouring different regions red, blue, yellow, green and purple.  To the commentators, these represent tectonic plates, highlighting the sheer splintering of the country into separate interests and political tendencies.  But of course, this is a simplification.  The political map of the country is not conveyed by such maps, or by opinion polls, or by long-term tendencies.  Voting itself is only a momentary register of the shifting complexity of what goes on beneath.  Just like social media, these models are often, quite simply, an oversimplification.  They present ‘knowledge’ which actually takes us away from a fuller picture of what is going on.

But of course such punditry, however distant from what’s going on, is, just like social media, a weighty influence on the results.  This might give us good reason to suspend opinion polls in the run-up to Election Day, as they do in many other European countries.  It certainly, at any rate, gives us good reason to treat the game of the election as taking place at a distance from the everyday concerns of voters around the country.


Blog written by Gideon Calder and Michael Parsons, University of South Wales

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Election 2015 – A New Majority Government, Three Party Leaders Down and a Review of the Voting System

It was very clear from the ‘exit poll’ published at 10pm on election night, that politics was going to be very different in the morning.


Three days on, we have a new Conservative government and have lost the leaders of the Labour party, the Liberal Democrats and UKIP. Quite shocking results. None of the minority parties was needed after all to go into a Coalition with the bigger parties. No need for parties to identify their ‘red lines’ (policies which they would not give up on in coalition). No deals. A lot of wasted time in both the parties and in the media speculating about what might happen.


So now we have the results. The electorate has spoken. The clear party winners were the Conservatives, the Scottish National Party and UKIP. There will be many reviews of the results to follow and for the leader-less parties, there will be a focus on the new appointees and the future direction of these parties.


Ironically, one of the big issues to emerge after the election is the voting system itself. I say ironic, because the party which has long campaigned on its reform, the party which was in government for 5 years, the Liberal Democrats, will not even be a major part of these discussions with its few MPs.


This time, the party which was severely disadvantaged by the first past the post system is UKIP. Despite a share of the vote which averaged higher than the SNP, the party ended up with one single MP compared to the 54 SNP Members. Clearly the new UKIP leader will be campaigning to change the election system to reflect the fact that its support is spread more widely than that of some of the other parties.


Few predicted the results of Election 2015 – a new majority government, three lost party leaders and the voting system back on the agenda. The agenda will now shift to  the detail of these.

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Diverse politics is here to stay

While the battle buses are parked and the bunting packed away, amidst the uncertainty facing the UK after the general election, one thing is for certain. The fringe parties have gone mainstream, and the bigger parties had better get used to it.

Seeing Nicola Sturgeon, Nigel Farage, Leanne Wood and Natalie Bennett alongside Messrs Cameron, Clegg and Miliband showed people that there is more choice, and that what were formerly fringe, or protest, parties have got things to say about issues such as the economy, migration and housing, which they may find themselves agreeing with.

Leader of the SNP, Nicola Sturgeon, has ignited this election campaign and looks set to return more than 50 MPs to Westminster, virtually wiping out Labour north of the border.

She, along with Plaid Cymru, UKIP and the Green Party, have benefited from the increased exposure of the televised leaders debates, her ‘anti-austerity’ rhetoric and constant attacks on the Conservative party for targeting normal working class people has played so well she is even receiving messages from people south of the border who want to vote for her. Extraordinary, considering she isn’t even standing for election herself!

Similarly, Leanne Wood, the leader of Plaid Cymru, is also ‘anti-austerity’ and wants to see Wales have parity with Scotland in both finance and powers. Her party believes Wales is underfunded. But neither her, or any of the other ‘anti austerity’ parties can identify where the money will come from.

The ‘anti-austerity’ wing has struck a chord and people like the sound of it. In a political contest in which trust is in short supply, political gains could be made if people choose to turn their backs on the big three parties.

Labour is also preaching an ‘anti-austerity’ message too, but as the banking crisis and economic downturn happened on their watch, public trust is not so easy to come by. Labour ‘s plan is to continue with the reductions in the deficit and to do this as fairly as they can.

The Conservatives insist they can be trusted with the economy and that ‘anti-austerity’ will take the UK back into financial chaos. However, the bedroom tax and welfare reform mean that, whilst they may be able to balance the books, people don’t like how they are going it about it, and they are still pretty sure the rich aren’t paying their fair share.

A big issue for the Liberal Democrats is also about trust – having formed a coalition with the Conservatives, they agreed to raise tuition fees for university students.

The public may not yet have forgiven politicians who have been seen to be on a ‘gravy train’ of opulent expenses with  the revelations of duck houses, moat cleaning and second home flipping.

The next government is likely to be a coalition. The parties, formerly at the fringe of Westminster, will now be central to it. Whilst Cameron and Miliband might continue to insist they will win the election outright, nobody believes them, because the polls tell us otherwise.

Coalitions are quite new in the UK and we will all have to get used to them, just as voters in other countries do, because the balance of power no longer lies with the big two, but with who they can bring on board and how much power they are prepared to give away to get them.

One thing for sure is that the future of politics in the UK is uncertain, and it is about to get more complicated as views become more diverse with many new voices around the table. Today, the UK public is casting their vote … for the next few days the party leaders, supporters, pundits and opinion pollsters we will all be working out who will form the new UK government.

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The Williams Report: A Challenge to Higher Education

Contributed by Professor Tony Beddow, Visiting Professor at Welsh Institute for Health and Social Care, University of South Wales


The Williams Report seeks to prompt an improvement in the leadership and management of public service in Wales. It issues a challenge to Higher Education to facilitate this improvement.

There has been a great deal of publicity since the publication of the report on how many Welsh local authorities there should be (a reduction from 22 to between 10 and 12 is William’s conclusion).

Whilst not wishing to undermine this discussion, a more significant one is how Wales improves public services if eschewing the English tactic of using both competition and the private sector. William’s answer is to employ a different governance and managerial paradigm that relies upon a blend of collaborative professionalism, network delivery systems, greater user involvement, and transparent governance arrangements that positively welcome – and use – scrutiny – “the invisible hand of the market must be replaced by the visible hand of performance management.”

This is a major challenge to the way that public services are led, governed, managed and changed and there is clearly a need to collaborate and understand the importance of services. To meet this challenge, the leadership and management of Welsh public services (by political, professional and managerial domains), must adapt, acquire and apply knowledge and skills that are tailored to Wales.

Higher Education in Wales must play its part. It should craft eclectic undergraduate and Masters degrees that prepare prospective public sector leaders from many disciplines for the challenges ahead; creating and supporting alumni that can nurture leaders and managers. It should also be spearheading research across public sector boundaries aimed at service improvement. Training too could be further developed which offers more of the skills within the Wales public sector which will be needed in the future. Responding to the new Wales public service, Undergraduate and Masters degrees could include the following aspects:

• legal basis of Welsh public services
• “new” economics” – challenging the all-powerful panacea of “competition”
• management theory relating to partnerships/networking, performance management of public services, and understanding professional, managerial, and political domains
• history of Wales and its contribution to public service
• operational processes, outputs and outcomes of the main public services – including elective work placements
• comparative international experience of public service performance, including study abroad.

In recognition of the distinctive Wales public service which is emerging, there is a need to offer a new generation of future leaders of the professional, managerial and political domains a rich and shared academic experience.

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Women in Public Life

As I write this, I am aware of the huge advances there have been in relation to the presence of women in public life. When I think of the senior positions in our Universities, police and other public services, we have female Vice Chancellors, Chief Constables and Chief Executives. Many of our politicians are female too at local, national and European levels. Women are also prominent on the boards of public organisations. It is not uncommon for women to be part of public and media debates and discussions and often, for them to lead these.

This is a positive picture. So it should be. In 2014, we expect females to be prominent in public life. Why wouldn’t they?

Whilst the picture is a positive one, the presence of women in public life continues to be an on-going concern. A recent report published by the Fawcett Society, titled ‘Sex and Power 2013, Who Runs Britain? http://fawcettsociety.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2013/02/Sex-and-Power-2013-FINAL-REPORT.pdf draws attention to how little progress has been made. The key finding of this report is that “Britain is falling down the global league tables when it comes to women’s access to power and representation in politics and public life more generally”. Figures are presented about the low proportion of females in a range of careers across the public, private and voluntary sectors. An important issue highlighted in this report is that the proportion of females in public roles has actually decreased over the last decade. The report recommends that politicians take steps including ‘positive discrimination’ to ensure an increase in female politicians.

In relation to Wales, the Equality and Human Rights Commission, has recently published its report ‘Who Runs Wales’ http://www.equalityhumanrights.com/uploaded_files/Wales/WRW_2014/wrw_2014_english.pdf.

Reviewing the position of women today with ten years ago, it highlights what it calls ‘the lost decade’ in the promotion of females into key roles in society. Key findings indicate that only 27% of Councillors in Wales are women; none of the eight Police and Crime Commissioners and Chief Constables in Wales are women and of the top 100 companies in Wales, only 2% have female chief executives. There are fewer women now in the Cabinet in Wales than a decade ago and also fewer female Assembly Members. In 2003, the National Assembly had a gender balance of 50% men and 50% women, and today this is 58% men and 42% women.

There is currently a lot of focus in Wales and elsewhere in the UK about the presence of women in public life, in particular about the need to recruit women on to the boards of many organizations and to promote their presence as political leaders. In England, the Business Secretary, Vince Cable, has asked the Equalities and Human Rights Commission this week to advise him on the legality of all-female shortlists for top City jobs as part of the coalition’s drive to get more women on to the boards of major companies http://www.theguardian.com/business/2014/mar/04/vince-cable-considers-female-only-shortlists-city-jobs. In Wales, the publication of the expert advisory group’s report on diversity in democracy in Wales calls for all of the political parties to introduce a new target of 40% female candidates in winnable seats at the next local council elections in a bid to improve representation http://www.walesonline.co.uk/news/wales-news/too-many-straight-white-men-6772571. Both of these reports, published in the lead up to International Women’s Day, are significant and provide a powerful narrative on the continued under-representation of women in public life.

So, the picture for women in public life is a positive one but it is not has favourable as it could be. The above reports will lead to a discussion about the introduction of targets. Targets may be what is required – but please don’t put women into positions just because they are women. If we could always put the best people forward, the most talented, the most qualified, the most able, this way we will have the best people in public life. What might be needed is a little more encouragement and confidence building, not just for women but for all under-represented groups. There certainly needs to be a greater awareness of the existing position. To quote from the Wales report about elected local officials in Wales, “too many are straight, white men in their 60s”. Getting in a wider range of talent is certainly what is required. There is certainly some way to go.

Catherine Farrell
Twitter – @catherinefarre

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Treat scrutiny support as professional practice

As a scrutiny support team working in local government in Wales, we have been thinking about our work as professional practice, trying to get underneath what this means and considering how we can improve what we do. I’m not sure everyone sees scrutiny support in this way. It suffers from being a mix of different roles and can often be mistaken as a sub set of committee support. Now that scrutiny is coming of age, however, isn’t it time to recognise that scrutiny support is a professional practice in its own right?


In defining our professional practice we started with the list of five core competencies that came out of work on the role of the professional scrutiny officer done by the University of Warwick and the Centre for Public Scrutiny.

This is our slightly tweaked list of those five competencies:

•Research – E.g. Undertaking and coordinating research activities. Gathering and analysing evidence from a range of sources. Managing public engagement activities.
•Communication – E.g. Managing meetings and facilitating communication between key individuals and groups involved in scrutiny projects. Producing reports that clearly and succinctly reflect councillors’ views and Inquiry findings. Sharing the work of scrutiny through social media and traditional channels.
•Political Environment – E.g. Working within a sensitive political environment and providing advice to cross party groups of councillors. Providing diplomatic challenge to all parties as well as knowledge of how and when to share information appropriately.
•Project Management – E.g. Being able to scope, plan, manage, review and evaluate scrutiny projects with councillors. Working within a wider scrutiny work programme.
•Relationship Management – E.g. Building networks and effective working relationships with councillors, officers and external stakeholders. Sourcing and sharing relevant knowledge and information. Acting as a public point of contact.

These competencies, which together make up the ‘meta role’ of the scrutiny professional, are reflected in our job descriptions and provide the focus for 1-2-1 supervision and discussions in team meetings.

Professional Practice

While I’m not sure there is a single definition of what makes something a professional practice, there are a number of aspects of scrutiny support that make me think that it is one. As well as a core set of competencies it is certainly a specialised field that requires a significant knowledge base and a commitment to continuous development. Scrutiny practitioners have to gain expertise in particular topic areas as well as in the practice of scrutiny itself.

Scrutiny Officers Development Project

In Wales, the Scrutiny Officers Development Project, being delivered in conjunction with a new Post Graduate Certificate in Governance, is an important and welcome step towards underlining the professional nature of scrutiny practice. This pilot project, supported by the Welsh Government, is being led by the scrutiny team in Cardiff Council in partnership with the University of South Wales. It is providing an accredited Masters level course that supports scrutiny practice and, by drawing together a group of scrutiny officers as participants that together represent the majority of Councils in Wales, it should also provide an excellent opportunity for shared learning.

Professional Values

As well as expertise and skills I would argue that there is also a core set of professional values underpinning scrutiny support even if these are not always well articulated. These include a commitment to the democratic process, independence of thought, evidence based policy making, openness, impartiality and fairness. It seems to me that these all operate at the heart of our professional practice.

Of course I’m not claiming that scrutiny is support is a profession in the same way as nursing, planning or teaching. While professional networks are taking shape there is no formal professional body, no Institute of Scrutiny Officers, providing accreditation or bending the ear of central government. Indeed, the research conducted by Warwick Business School and the Centre for Public Scrutiny mentioned above found ambivalence towards the idea from practitioners although, five years later, perhaps things may have shifted a little.

One achievable step forward, however, would be to gain greater recognition from councillors and other officers in local government that scrutiny support is indeed a distinct professional occupation. This will not only ensure increased respect for the function and the people who support it but will also help bring greater attention on the capacity and effectiveness of the scrutiny function as a whole.

This blog has been contributed by Dave Mckenna, Overview and Scrutiny Manager, Swansea Council. Dave is a regular ‘blogger’ and this is a web link to his site: : http://localopolis.blogspot.co.uk/2014/01/64-treat-scrutiny-support-as.html

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Wales Public Services – Joining Services, Governance and Scrutiny

Catherine’s blog on governance and scrutiny (26th September 2013) was spot-on in highlighting the complexities and difficulties associated with achieving real public accountability in the modern public services world. The debate in local government seems stuck on how many local authorities the Williams Commission will recommend and whether this will lead to greater efficiency. Hopefully, it will move on to what it all means in practice after the Commission publishes but even then the numbers game will dominate proceedings.

Anticipation of the Commission’s recommendations have caused some to abandon thinking about the need to continue with what is possibly Welsh Government’s central policy stream, namely collaboration by public service agencies. Yet it is wrong to assume that a reduced number of local authorities will be a self-sufficient answer to current problems or that we can suspend collaborative initiatives whilst waiting for local government reorganisation. Implementation of LGR will require legislation which takes time and the 1974 and 1996 experiences suggest political horse trading will go on up to the last minute.

So, collaboration will remain important and this has continuing implications for governance and scrutiny. Research I undertook recently on attempts to achieve cross authority integration of social services which led to new guidance for authorities http://www.ssiacymru.org.uk/home.php?page_id=7911 proved how difficult it was, not least for the governance and joint scrutiny aspects. The models are out there – joint committees, special purpose vehicles etc., but each carries numerous risks for decision-making, sovereignty and accountability which are the real tests of good collaborative governance and scrutiny. Too often, discussions start with the form (the governance model) rather than the function which is the shared vision and purpose of the collaboration itself. It’s even more complex when other sector agencies are involved and it’s important to remember that joint scrutiny needs its own secure governance. For example, it’s illogical to have joint governance and separate scrutiny – they must mirror each other.

Governance and scrutiny are not only about political structures. If front line workers are unsure about the parameters of their decision making powers, governance is faulty. Similarly, the public must expect accountability to be evident at the executive as well as political levels. The governance and scrutiny threads must be strong through the vertical lines of the single organisation and horizontally across collaborating organisations. Achieving this needs attention to a whole range of public service issues – political, organisational, constitutional, legal, financial, managerial and operational. Underestimate these and you run the risk of creating models which tick the structure boxes but fail to recognise that collaboration is much more than an extension of partnership working. It’s difficult territory demanding strong shared leadership and beliefs and a constant eye on what the public expects and deserves.


Contributed by Tony Garthwaite, now Senior Research Fellow, WIHSC, University of South Wales. Tony was a former Executive Director at Bridgend County Borough Council, http://wihsc.southwales.ac.uk/staff/TonyGarthwaite/

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