January 25, 2024

Should Scotland establish an independent Commissioner for Future Generations?

by Sophie Howe, Director of Sophie Howe Associates and former Future Generations Commissioner for Wales

Legislating for a Wellbeing and Sustainable Development Bill in Scotland is a unique opportunity for the country to build world-leading legislation. Importantly, this Bill would enable the Scottish Government to provide a clear vision and guidance for public bodies to put wellbeing at the centre of decision-making. In this short blog series, we share learning and reflections from a range of experts on wellbeing policy to provoke discussion and debate.  

In this first blog, Sophie Howe, former Future Generations Commissioner for Wales shares her reflections on the importance of including an independent advocate for the future within the legislation.  

Does Scotland really need another commissioner? That’s the question inferred by the Scottish Government in their consultation on a Wellbeing and Sustainability Bill.   

The consultation signals the Scottish Government’s intention to move to the next stage of implementing a commitment to deliver an act with many parallels to the Wellbeing of Future Generations Act passed in Wales in 2015.  

The Welsh legislation created the world’s first future generations commissioner, a post I held from 2016 to 2023. The Scottish consultation asks whether a similar post is necessary.   

Both the Government and many opposition members seem to understand the need for long term decision making to be legally mandated. Indeed, the consultation has been prompted by Sarah Boyack MSP laying her own version of the Bill, having garnered significant support from MSPs and broader civil society. 

Scotland has already blazed a trail in the UK for embedding collective wellbeing focused outcomes in policy making and service delivery through the National Performance Framework. 

The aspirations of both the Government’s and Sarah Boyack’s proposals are sound but we should be under no illusion that what they are seeking to achieve is hard. It is contrary to how public bodies generally do business, the financial and performance requirements they operate within, and how politics operates within short term electoral cycles. 

The context in Wales was similar – the newly established Future Generations Commissioner became one of several Commissioners, advisers, standards authorities and Ombudsmen with a range of different powers (or not) and remits.   

There was of course some overlap. We worked hard to make sure that this was not confusing to those who had to implement our respective pieces of legislation – sharing staff appointments and issuing joint guidance with the Children’s Commissioner and joint policy responses with the Welsh Language Commissioner. We also worked collaboratively with Audit Wales on joint assessments of how well public bodies were implementing the different parts of the legislation that we were respectively responsible for monitoring.  

However what made my role and the office unique was the oversight the legislation gave across policy areas and interests and across different public sector organisations.   The Commissioner’s role is to take a helicopter view – not necessarily getting into the nitty gritty of problems emerging in the here and now – but offering a longer-term perspective. This is about joining the dots between issues and organisations, supporting and monitoring the application of a wellbeing lens 

You could be forgiven for assuming that is what normally happens in the course of government business but having worked in and around various Governments for over 30 years I can assure you that it doesn’t. Integration and joined up policy making continues to be as elusive as a significant shift to preventative spending (even though we know prevention is better than cure) to even the most effective of governments. 

Consequently, the role my office often played was almost a dating agency for public policy: building and strengthening relationships between agencies and departments. For example, we brought together the Skills and Decarbonisation Departments to plan out the skills required to meet Wales’ net zero ambitions.   

We also found that a significant amount of support was needed to equip people working in public bodies with the skills to think long term. Fore-sighting, analysing future trends and developing 25 year plans is not a skill that has generally been taught or often required in the public sector and so as Commissioner my team and I spent a lot of time supporting this work.  

All too often, legislation placing new duties on the public sector is passed without providing any support for the training, development and longer term cultural change required to properly implement it.  

That’s where the role of Commissioner really comes in; being the constant champion and constructive challenger on whether the rhetoric and bureaucratic requirements of the legislation are driving change in reality. Sometimes organisations need support with developing their leadership and practical skills and capabilities to do this, sometimes they need help in joining the dots or challenging the related sector or organisation who won’t play ball and sometimes a more public challenge from the Commissioner is the right response to shift those in the system who want to maintain the status quo. There is no one role that does that across the system with a remit not just to scrutinize but also to advise and provide practical support.   

So in answer to the question of when is another Commissioner a Commissioner too many, I would say when we can be sure that the system can effectively implement its own aspirations and mark its own homework – in Scotland and indeed the rest of the world, I’m not sure we’re quite there yet. 

Read Carnegie UK’s response to the Wellbeing and Sustainable Development Bill Consultation.