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Williams Commission: fostering change for the better?

If any of Wales's 22 council chief executives consulted a fortune-teller this week, they'd likely be told that they're going on a long journey. A short pier might also be involved in several instances.

Such has been the interim impact of the Williams Commission, a body created by the Welsh government to look at how our public services can be remodeled and refocused to better effect.

Having waded through their findings, I'm struck by a remarkable similarity in style and approach to management consultant reports I've read over the years urging 'cultural change'. I don't for a moment think that this is accidental.

A prevailing view at Cardiff Bay and elsewhere is that public services in Wales are administered by an excessive number of organisations that need to be made to work together.

The Commission's recommendations therefore held few surprises. I've heard some reservations expressed that there are no actual examples of what reconfigured services will mean in practical terms.

Nor is there much discussion about the mismatch between revised local government groupings and newly-formed city regions.

Ministers however have welcomed the Commission's proposals despite these minor niggles. I'm sure they will also be encouraged by the pragmatic response given to the report by most local government leaders.

Among these is Swansea's David Phillips who is unequivocal in his view that public services should be delivered more cost-effectively and to a better quality, irrespective of any redrawn lines on a map.

Of course, the writing has been on the wall for some time. Yet this constructive reaction is in stark contrast to what happened almost two decades ago when councils saw engagement as being on a par with turkeys discussing the Christmas menu.

Getting consensus among those on the receiving end that big changes are needed is one thing. What observers, including myself, are now trying to do is assess how many recommendations in the 347-page report will actually translate into legislation. That could prove tricky. Forgive the negativity but I'm guessing its very few.

The clue for this assessment come from government statements - and the fact that Wales currently has a government lacking an outright majority.

In much the same way that getting a budget approved needs inter-party negotiation, we can assume that Senedd backing for a reconfiguration of public services will involve similar horse-trading.

Liberal Democrats have already made mention of support being conditional on voting reform. Best of luck with that one.

The talk is that legislation could come after the 2016 Assembly elections. However its likely that ministers could pick up on the Commission's suggestion of voluntary mergers between local authorities.

Both the CBI and Federation of Small Businesses say they like the idea of less local authorities. I wonder though if these bodies have thought through how procurement spending will be affected. Bigger councils equates to bigger purchasing clout and consequent pressure on prices. Will this be good news?

From a community perspective there's the more mundane, but nonetheless important issue about service levels. For instance, would a new council have weekly or fortnightly refuse collections and a limit on the number of bags?

There is still a way to go in determining the final shape of public service in Wales. None of the changes will happen in a vacuum if only because more than a decade of devolution has made this a very different place than it was eighteen years ago. There are new challenges and possibly new opportunities as well.

My view is that the driver behind public service reform has to be about delivering sustainable improvements. No community or individual should become disadvantaged because they end up living on one side of a new boundary line instead of the other.

Let's hope that those steering the changes make sure that this is never allowed to happen.

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