Horizons Talks: Wales’ Well-being of Future Generations Act
The Horizons Talks speaker series brings experts from Canada and around the world to share their forward-looking research and ideas with public servants.
Sophie Howe, the Future Generations Commissioner for Wales, shares the progress and challenges in implementing Wales’ Well-being of Future Generations Act, and the growing momentum for protecting the interests of future generations in national and global decision making.
Sophie Howe’s role is to provide advice to the government and other public bodies in Wales on delivering social, economic, environmental, and cultural wellbeing for current and future generations, as well as assessing and reporting on how they are delivering. Sophie has led high-profile interventions focused on transport planning, education reform, and climate change in Wales. Sophie has been advising various governments and the Secretary-General of the United Nations’ Office on proposals to update the UN’s governance, to take into account the interests of future generations.
Kristel Van der Elst
Kristel is the Director General at Policy Horizons Canada, Government of Canada. She is former Head of Strategic Foresight at the World Economic Forum. Kristel holds 3 Masters including an MBA from the Yale School of Management. She is a Fulbright Scholar and a Rotary Foundation Ambassadorial Scholar.
KRISTEL VAN DER ELST: Hello everyone. Welcome very much to our first event back into a virtual world with actual real people in our office. We’re so excited about that and welcome very much, Ms. Howe, Sophie.
Hello everyone, Miigwetch. It is such a pleasure to be here today with all of you. But before we are going to start, I would like to first take a moment to acknowledge the land we’re all gathering on here in Ottawa, which is on the shores of the Kitchissippi, the traditional and unceded territory of the Algonquin Anishinaabe people.
As I said, it’s the first time we’re back with an event in our offices. But of course, Policy Horizons has been doing events over the last two years through—right through the pandemic, actually, we’ve had a lot of Horizons Talks.
We also had Futures Week, which for two times, which you can all find on our website, and those who were with us at Futures Week  in June will no doubt recognize our speaker of today.
She was our main speaker actually, Sophie, when we were talking about perspectives of the future generations, how they were seeing Canada and how we could actually bring that type of knowledge within the decision making of today.
And Sophie, this was one of the best attended sessions. So we’re very glad that you’re back here. And I think we can confirm your…the interest in this topic because we have the people here, but we also have about 200 people online. So it’s fantastic.
So Sophie is here with us. As you know, she is the Future Generations Commissioner of Wales and she’s also been called the guardian of the interests of future generations in Wales, and also called the world’s first minister of the unborn.
No pressure there.
So her role is to provide advice to the government and other public bodies in Wales on the delivery of social, economic, environmental and cultural wellbeing for current and future generations, and to assess and report on how that is progressing and being delivered.
She’s been doing this since 2016 and she has been leading actually, a number of very high profile dossiers, files, some on the transportation planning, which she talked about also at Futures Week, on educational reforms, climate change, challenging the government and different parts of society to demonstrate how they were actually taking into account kind of the visions of the future generations into the actual decision-making of the day.
So prior to that, Sophie was a Deputy Policy and Crime Commissioner for South Wales and an advisor to two of the Welsh First Ministers.
So thank you very much again for being with us here. It’s a real privilege and I will provide you an opportunity to come and speak to us about Wales’ Well-being and Future Generations Act.
After her presentation we will have a fireside chat, but you will also have an opportunity to ask questions. So for the people who are with us online, you can find in the chats a link to Slido where you can post your questions or you can kind of upvote other people’s questions if you think they’re interesting. For the people in the room here, we will have a microphone going around at the time of the Q&A. But you’re also welcome to go and look at what other people are doing on Slido.
If you need to get on the Internet, on both sides of the room, you can find our wi-fi codes to do so.
And so. I look forward to the conversation. Ms. Howe, Sophie, I will leave the floor to you.
SOPHIE HOWE: Well, thank you. It’s my absolute pleasure to be with you this afternoon. So good afternoon. Bonjour, prynhawn da, as we say in Wales, and I feel that I am amongst friends here. I don’t always feel that I’m amongst friends, those in the know in terms of how important it is for us to be considering the long term impact of the things that we do.
And of course, you know, the challenges that we are facing, indeed very live challenges in Canada at the moment in terms of the cyclone, in terms of forest fires, in terms of flooding that you’ve experienced, and indeed we’ve experienced a similar one in Wales are all a consequence, I would argue, of actually our short-termism and our failure to think and plan for the future.
So hence why it’s so important that governments like yours, governments like ours, quite different in terms of scale, Wales has a population of just over 3 million people, but I like to think that we’re small and beautiful. In fact, we were described by someone as part of a “league of small and awesome nations”, which I think is pretty cool because you know, the things that we are doing in terms of acting in the interests of future generations and in particularly legislating, is indeed groundbreaking.
And I think one of the key kind of focuses of our legislation is really trying to tip that balance between economic well-being and climate, well-being, well-being of people and well-being of planet, and for too long hence why we’re seeing some of these big challenges in terms of the climate emergency at the moment, that balance has really been tipped in favor of the economy.
And of course, as one of the members of the well-being economy governments, Canada is an absolute leading light in terms of taking that shift. But even if you look at, you know, they’ve got a long way to go, but if you look at some of the things that Biden has been saying over the last week or so, there’s definitely this movement towards GDP and GVA and increasing economic growth at any cost.
There is definitely a shift, and I think it’s our role as progressive nations to be really trying to accelerate that shift.
So from a Welsh perspective, what is the Future Generations Act? Well, it was passed in 2015, the first country to place, really, the SDGs at the heart of what we were doing and put it on a legislative, put those SDGs on a legislative footing.
It began its life as a manifesto commitment which simply said we will legislate for sustainable development. And it morphed through the process of consultation, dialogue with citizens through this consultation called “The Wales We Want”, where the question that we posed to citizens in Wales is, “what is the Wales you want to leave behind to your children, your grandchildren and great-grandchildren and future generations to come?” And the citizens of Wales came up with I think 13 different kind of priorities.
It was about protecting our rich natural heritage and assets, it was about conserving our language and heritage. It was about ensuring we had a more equal Wales, so no matter what your background, you had equal chances to thrive. It was around recognizing the damage that we were causing to our planet and putting a stop to that. It was about making sure that we are helping to keep people well rather than just treating them when they’re ill.
And those principles from the people of Wales, alongside the UN SDGs, came together to form seven long term well-being goals and a shift from a Sustainable Development Act to a Well-Being of Future Generations Act.
Now, that in itself I think was quite a crucial move. And what I often say is that, I think where we see these sort of different elements of focus across governments at work across the world, where we have the sustainable development goals here, we often have well-being politics…policies, well-being economics here, and we have futures and foresight over there, and very rarely do those things come together very neatly, but actually they’re all part of one and the same thing and we need to be considering them all equally if indeed we are going to be protecting the interests of future generations, whilst also meeting our obligations to the SDGs and whilst also shifting this debate towards well-being economies.
So here we have these seven well-being goals, a piece of legislation that applies to all 44 of our main public institutions in Wales. So all of our local authorities, all of our health institutions, our national agencies like Public Health Wales, Natural Resources Wales, our environment agency, and others, and then significantly the Welsh Government itself, and Welsh ministers specifically named in the legislation. Their duties are to set objectives which maximize their contribution to all seven of these well-being goals, and then to take all reasonable steps to meet those well-being objectives.
Now,”all reasonable steps” means that this Act permeates all business of government and those institutions, and specifically referenced in the statutory guidance, are kind of seven core areas where we want to see the change.
So things like financial planning, workforce planning, risk planning, asset management, what are the ones I’ve missed, risk management, asset management, budgeting, corporate planning and procurement.
How are we spending?
Well in Wales we spend £6 billion on goods and services. How are we spending that in a way which is not just going for lowest cost but actually delivering these well-being benefits?
So it permeates all aspects of the decision making sort of infrastructure of our public bodies. It also places specific duties as well as on those public bodies, on new entities called Public Services Boards.
And these are a collection of all of the key public services in each local authority area and some of them have now regionalized.
So individual duties on public bodies, collective duties on public service boards to do two things.
One, to undertake a well-being assessment of their area. So they have to look across those seven well-being goals at the particular issues for their area, both currently and how they may play out in the future.
So they use a future trends report produced by the Welsh Government. They use their own foresight analysis about local issues and they then have to set a plan of the things that they are going to do collectively.
So this is really recognizing and trying to get to the fact that everything’s connected to everything and no one institution, organization, department can solve some of these big challenges that we’ve got on their own.
The Act then establishes a Future Generations Commissioner, myself, the world’s first “minister for the unborn”, which was The Guardian headline, isn’t quite accurate. I’m not a minister. I’m independent of government.
And that’s a really critical point as well.
My job as, as you heard, is to act as the guardian of the interests of the future generations of Wales. That can be you know, you could say that’s quite challenging or ideal in a way that I don’t have a constituency that’s on my back all the time because they’re not yet born and so therefore they can’t possibly be on my back.
But it also poses the question how then can you possibly know what the interests of future generations are? And of course, I’m not a psychic. I don’t know exactly what those interests might be. And of course, you know, when we apply foresighting techniques, they’re never 100% accurate. They can take us towards understanding what the context might be.
But I’d actually come a step before that to say that actually, you know, some of the things that we’re not acting on are pretty certain.
You know, the climate emergency and the catastrophic breakdown of our ecosystems. You know, all of the evidence is there.
So it’s not that we don’t know, it’s just that we’re not acting on it.
Likewise, we are going to have an aging population. It’s not that we don’t know that. We’re just not appropriately planning for it. Everything is pointing in the direction we’re in it now, and it’s only going to increase of the changing nature of work.
It’s not that we don’t know that. It’s just that we haven’t geared up our systems to be thinking about how do we need to not just respond to it when it happens, but how do we need to change the ways that we do things now to make sure that we’re not sleepwalking into widening inequality and so on?
And so actually a lot of what I do is not necessarily that very technical foresight, you know, in that we do use that and that is important, but it’s actually trying to change mindsets to get people to think and act for the long term and here are the five principles by which our public institutions must demonstrate that they are applying in their decision making.
So there you have the long term they must demonstrate how they’re applying the long term, or how they consider the long term impact of the things that they do. They must demonstrate that they’re seeking to prevent problems from occurring or from getting worse. And again, if you look at, you know, just some of the things that happen in terms of of public health, in terms of looking at things like childhood adversities.
Again, all of the evidence and the analysis tells us we know exactly what’s going to happen to a child by its fifth birthday if they are born into certain types of circumstances, if they’re born into poverty, if they’re born into families where there are mental health crises, parental separation or incarceration, other forms of child abuse and so on, and we know that we need to intervene early in those areas in order to you know, if you’re coming from a monetary perspective, to stop those individuals from costing society huge amounts of money in the future, if you’re coming from a moral perspective, as I do, to say, actually, we need to be giving those kids the absolute best start in life.
And that’s where we need to focus that money and that spending on preventative approaches. We need to work together.
So again, get out of our departmental or organizations… organizational silos, make sure that we are recognizing the connection between things and the fact that we need to work together. Integration is absolutely critical. So again, recognizing that everything is connected to everything.
So one of the things that is kind of coming out of, you know, if I give you an example of how that’s playing out in Wales, in Cardiff, our capital city, the public health consultant has been seconded into the local authority, into the local council to lead on the development of the city’s transportation strategy. Because when you apply a public health lens to a transport problem and the transport problem is our roads are too congested and, you know, we’ve got illegal levels of air pollution.
Actually, you start to get different types of solutions. You give that problem to a transport planner. The answer will be build more roads. You give that problem to a public health consultant whose role is not just to improve congestion, but is actually to improve population health, to work on our goals of more cohesive communities, to focus on doing things like addressing socioeconomic disadvantage. There, what you see is a shift from building roads towards investment in public transport, investment in walking and cycling, investment in greening communities and so on.
And that’s where the points of integration in our legislation is so critical that we must recognize those connections and must choose to do the things that make the maximum contribution to all seven of the well-being goals. That’s the main aim of this legislation and then how we go about taking those things forward, how we roll out those policies, how do we do that in a way which also adds to the positive impact across the goals. There we go.
So just a little bit in terms of my role, a number of sort of facets to it, if you like. So statutory duties to monitor and assess the progress being made by the 44 public bodies, and there are more public bodies to be added to the legislation this year, powers to provide advice and support.
So a lot of the things that we do, yes, it can be about frameworks, it can be about tools for thinking. But the biggest thing that we do in our team is try to get to the kind of cultural change we’re trying to win hearts as well as minds.
And I’ve been acutely conscious during my term that we do not want to turn this into a tick box exercise where we go through writing plans, which says the goal of a prosperous Wales and a healthier Wales and uses the word long term and pep is the right words throughout the document, ticks the box and completely misses the point.
What we’re trying to do here is to get to those people who have already worked out that there is a better way of doing things. How do we support those people?
I call them the frustrated champions. These are people who’ve been in public services, in public policy-making probably for a number of years. They might be the social workers who are seeing one family from one generation to the next going through the same issues and challenges. They might be the transport planner, even who might have been responsible for building a road 20 years ago and is now going to have to build another road because that road is just as congested. These people who can see that there’s a better way of doing things, how do we get to those people? How do we support them? How do we help them to break down some of the the old ways of working in a system?
Because even if you’ve got legislation that requires you to do a particular things, I don’t need to tell this audience that actually it’s about, you know, hearts and minds as well. So a lot of what we do is around that kind of cultural change program.
What does it look like to lead for future generations? One of the best things we’ve done is set up a Future Leaders Academy, which is a cohort of about 30 young leaders across Wales. These are people we’ve identified who are likely to be future leaders aged 18 to 30. They go through an intensive program looking at what does it look like to lead for future generations. They have an absolutely amazing understanding of how they apply the act. They come from a range of different sectors, so they are meeting and interacting with colleagues that they might never come into contact with, generally in their working lives.
And then those future leaders mentor existing leaders. So that’s a reverse mentoring. Usually get you get the older, more experienced people mentoring you know, the young upstarts. But actually the young upstarts are saying to our current leaders, you have no idea what it’s like to be a digital native. You’ve never experienced climate anxiety in the way that I do. You probably don’t know what TikTok is or how to use it. And there’s something about our future generation eyeballing current leaders and asking the question, why? Why are you doing it like that? How are you taking my interests into account?
I suppose the toughest of my powers is section… I’ll call Section 20 review powers. So I have powers to go into particular public bodies, review things that they’ve done.
I’ve used these powers twice to date one on the issue of public procurement, where I made a number of recommendations around how government and others need to improve the way that they spend their money to apply this well-being lens.
And I’m currently using my powers to review the machinery of government.
It’s not universally popular, as you can imagine, but what I’m trying to do is to look at how exactly is the civil service implementing the requirements of the Future Generations Act, because what you’ll see on the next slide is in terms of the policy that is coming from the government, we are seeing some absolutely huge changes as a result of the Future Generations Act, but a lot of the bit where we’re not doing quite so well is really focusing down on how we implement policy.
So how the big ticket exciting items like a universal basic income, how it’s rolled out, then how we start also applying the lens of the Future Generations Act. And that’s a lot to do with how the machinery is working.
Finally, the Future Generations Report, so statutory requirement for each commissioner to publish a Future Generations Report every five years. It’s timed specifically to land the year before the next parliamentary elections, particularly because it’s designed to influence manifestos. And again, just to give you a flavour of the progress that we’ve made in these first seven years.
So the first I’m the first commissioner, the first Future Generations Report was published in 2020. We had parliamentary elections in 2021 and the sort of two main political parties, Labour and Plaid Cymru, 48% of what was in the Labour manifesto were recommendations from my report. About 62% of what was in the Plaid Cymru manifesto was recommendations from my report. The election happened, Labour won, they formed a kind of alliance with Plaid Cymru, and we’re now on about 54% of the recommendation… of the program for government, reflecting recommendations from my future generations report.
So we have a way to go, but that’s showing some significant kind of progress that has been made.
So just on some specifics then, the difference that the Future Generations Act is making. So I’ve talked a little bit about transport.
The first major intervention of myself the Commissioner was on government plans have been around long time before the Future Generations Act came into force to spend the entire of their borrowing capacity on building a 13 mile stretch of motorway to deal with the problem of congestion.
And I asked the Government to explain to me how they’d applied long term thinking to that decision, what future trends they were taking into account. I asked him to explain to me how they considered how this proposal was taking all reasonable steps to meet their well-being objectives and how they’d looked at that proposal, not just in the traditional way of “we’ve got to build a road because it’s good for the economy”, but actually how are we looking at that across… how is that going to contribute to all of our well-being, goals and objectives?
So can you explain to me how it’s in line with the goal of a prosperous Wales, which talks about productive, innovative, low-carbon society? Can you explain to me how it’s in line with our goal of a healthier Wales? I’ve got illegal levels of air pollution, we’ve got increasing rates of obesity. Actually, we need to get people out of their cars walking, cycling and we need to reduce car use in order to reduce our levels of air pollution. Can you explain to me how it’s in line with our goal of a more equal Wales when 25% of the lowest income families in this area don’t own a car. So we’d be spending the entire of the Welsh Government borrowing capacity on a scheme which advantaged the wealthier rather than the poorest.
Cut a long story short, it was considered to be a done deal that this road was going to go ahead. You can imagine the business interests in this. This is absolutely critical to Wales’ economic prosperity and so on. The First Minister changed his mind. He canceled the road and set up a new commission to look at the problem of congestion here, based around meeting our well-being goals in the Future Generations Act.
And as a result, what will happen here instead is mass investment in public transport, active travel, walking and cycling. And it’s gone even further than that. That that triggered a change that I supported the government and help them to rewrite the transport strategy built around the seven well-being goals in the Future Generations Act, we changed the criteria for awarding funding for transport proposals and we then I say we. This is a particularly brave Welsh Government Minister announced a moratorium on all road-building in Wales.
So 55 pre-approved road schemes on pause, all currently being reviewed in light of the new criteria with the Future Generations Act. And I’m feeling pretty confident that we from that review we will see a fundamental change in how we spend and deliver transport policy in Wales.
And to give an indicator of that, in this year’s budget we were spending two thirds of our infrastructure investment budget on roads that this year is reduced to a third, with the third saved going into investment in public transport and active travel. So you can see there how we are seeing this massive shift in this policy area alone.
I talked about a basic income. So a lot of work that I’ve been doing looking at how do we get to the root causes of some of those long-term health outcomes, educational outcomes, inequality and so on in Wales and poverty is the root cause of many of those challenges that we’re facing and we’ve only ever really just been put in sticking plasters on that. I think universal basic income could be a solution to that.
I did a big piece of work modeling what that could look like in Wales, what benefits it would drive from the perspective of the seven well-being goals. It was seen as not even on the agenda three years ago and this year the Welsh Government has started its first pilot of a universal basic income with the sort of mission, the U part of the universal basic income, but they’re on a journey.
So we are focusing on care leavers. So young people who’ve been in state care, who are the most disadvantaged group of people generally in society, and they will be paid £1600 a month for two years with a huge evaluation wrapped around that to see what the well-being outcomes of that basic income payment are.
Big reforms to the school curriculum, an area that I’ve been focused on. How do we ensure that the way in which our children are being educated equips them for the work, work of the future, but also enables them to live, you know, to have a life well lived.
So if we think about those seven well-being goals, this isn’t just about equipping them for work. It’s making sure that the school system is supporting them to be physically and mentally well. It’s ensuring that the school system is supporting them to be part of being a globally responsible Welsh citizen, one of our well-being goals. It’s around the school system, making sure that they understand how they can address inequality.
So our new curriculum is built around the Future Generations Act with the outcomes that teachers are striving for, for their pupils being creative and enterprising citizens, healthy, active and confident learners, and an ethical and informed citizens.
Now imagine if every school, if every education system in the world 20 or 30 years ago had had those measures at the heart of how they delivered education. Would we be in a climate crisis? Would we have widening inequality? I’m not sure that we would.
Finally, there’s lots more that I could talk about in terms of impact, but I’m going to pick on waste. So Wales is already third in the world for its rates of recycling, which is great, but we want to go beyond recycling so we have an aspiration to be Zero-Waste by 2050, and what’s really interesting about this is how the government are looking at that through the lens of the seven well-being goals. So how can we reduce waste was also tackling inequality whilst also meeting the goal of cohesive communities and so on.
And so some of the things that they’re focusing on are things like repair cafes which bring people together, can get their washing machines, microwaves, whatever they might be repaired rather than them going to landfill, but also bringing people together and helping to make those communities more cohesive. Also, if we’re able to repair through through free repair cafes were also particularly helping those in social economic disadvantage who can’t afford to buy new.
So when you apply this holistic lens, you set your long term objective might be we need to reduce waste, we need to do that, particularly because of climate issues and so on. But then you apply how do we do that in a way which has these kind of maximum benefits? That’s when you get to the sweet spot of how we’re trying to work differently in Wales.
Just finally then in terms of global impact, as I said, I think in terms of Wales and Canada, we are certainly at the more progressive end of public policy internationally. Some really exciting developments, at the UN level in that the Secretary-General has just last year announced that he wants to have a declaration on future generations at the UN. He wants to appoint a UN special envoy, which I guess is the kind of equivalent of my role at a UN level. And there’s going to be a summit of the future to bring all member states together to talk about how we can move, I guess the SDGs into this space of beyond GDP and focusing around a test on how we are acting in the interests of future generations.
So as I said, Wales is a tiny country, but if you ever think you’re too small to impact globally, then I guess look at some of the things that Wales are doing. And you know what you’re doing here in Canada, particularly through the foresighting work, particularly through your work on sustainable development and the Federal Sustainability Act, and particularly through the new Quality of Life Index. I think you are absolutely in that space as well.
So thank you, dioch yn fawr.
KRISTEL VAN DER ELST: Thank you so much. And it’s quite mind boggling actually. Maybe, you know, small countries, small area, but the impact is quite fascinating. So what strikes me is kind of, you know, it’s such an approach where you bring together data at the same time, foresight, insights, really going into decision making, changing holistically systems.
And I guess that’s not all that easy. Obviously, it seems like amazing when you talk about it. Big change tends to be either inspiring or scary. So changing big systems like that is can give a lot of energy, but it can also be very problematic, I suppose, which we’re going to be talking about.
So just a reminder for everyone, I will be taking questions after the fireside. So if you want to ask your questions, prepare them for the room and go to Slido. In case you want to ask it from online. As she said, change isn’t easy. Okay?
You’ve been the first country that actually acted those sustainable development goals and really brought them into legislation. It hasn’t been all that easy. I suppose so. Can you tell us a bit about some of those kind of challenges you had to go through on how you got actually to the Act?
SOPHIE HOWE: Yeah. So I mean, you know, there’s a history in terms of sustainability in Wales when the Government of Wales was established, it had this clause in the Government of Wales Act which said sustainable development should be a central organizing principle, which you know, is very nice, but it didn’t actually mean anything in practice.
What the Future Generations Act has done is put some meat on that, if you like, and I think the the beauty of it is that it goes from, you know, well, it goes so top up and bottom down, So it covers the government as well as local, local institutions.
A lot of the challenges in the early years have been around unpicking existing systems. So everything that kind of came before the Future Generations Act was not, you know, at best kind of, you know, sort of rubbing up against it, at worst, completely contradictory. So if you look at that road’s example, the criteria that they were playing was based on a transport strategy from 2008, which didn’t align the Future Generations Act.
And so unpicking all of that and I know you’ve got lots of issues in the Canadian government with unpicking different frameworks. There’s a complexity of a whole range of different frameworks. There’s complexity around everyone wanting to hang on to their, you know, that little bit of something. There’s also that not just the complexity of frameworks, but everything that an institution does. How their performance is managed tends to be short term performance measures, how their budgets are allocated, annual budgets, you know, how the media holds institutions accountable.
It’s on the basis of, you know, there are ambulances stacked up outside our accident emergency rooms. Isn’t this terrible? Every Christmas, rather than saying, why are people going to our accident emergency rooms in the first place, could their conditions have been prevented?
So trying to unpick all of that has been hugely challenging. And that’s why I think that the approach really needs to inspire and to talk about how do we find these solutions that do multiple things.
So if your thing is the environment, you might start from the environment and then talk about, right? And how are we going to do that in a way which makes communities connected and reduces inequality. If your thing is tackling poverty and social justice and I know for a fact that the First Minister was particularly persuaded on the roads issue, not by the fact that it was sort of economy versus environment and it was going have a big environmental impact, although that was a key issue as well. But by the socioeconomic arguments. And that’s where I think, you know, this sort of holistic framework becomes really, really powerful.
But to do that, you’ve got to get people out of their silos and you’ve got to get them thinking for the long term. And that is, you know, we’re still going through that. And, you know, we’ve made lots of progress, but we’ve still got people who don’t get it. And, you know, will take a while to get it.
KRISTEL VAN DER ELST: It’s a big cultural changer. But as you were explaining, there’s a lot of progress that has been made.
And so, can you explain a bit kind of how the commission and the legislature kind of interacts with these different structures, whether they’re political or government legislation or other legislation? But mainly, how do you operate with the government? You indicated it a little bit in your presentation of certain of those report’s recommendations being picked up. But how does that function?
SOPHIE HOWE: Yeah. Okay. So I’m so I’m independent of government and so my job is to sort of advise and also to monitor. So we often tread quite a kind of, you know, a fine line between how do we get alongside government in areas where they’re trying to improve, where they want to do the right thing. And then we are working with officials, you know, and politicians to say, well, you know, if you want to do that thing, you could do it like this, which would help to, you know, deliver against more of the well-being goals.
A lot of what I spend my time doing and I was talking to some officials from the Treasury and Finance Departments earlier and they recognize this. A lot of what I do is spend time connecting civil servants to other civil servants to say to them, hey, skills people, over here, the housing minister has said that she’s going to deliver 20,000 low- carbon homes and, skills people, you’re going to need people with skills to deliver that government priority over there. And by the way, whilst you’re doing the skills pipeline for that, the Equality Minister has got objectives around and there are well-being objectives around the racial profile of people in those industries. So how are we doing in all of those things up? And I spent a huge amount of time bringing those people together, but also bringing in experts and others from outside of government to kind of develop ideas, stimulate conversations and so on.
Sometimes I have to be quite challenging, I guess. Sometimes I do have to call out on behalf of future generations and say, I think that we’ve got things or, you know, whatever the government might be deciding to do is is wrong or needs to be done differently. But I would say we’re mostly in the space of trying to encourage, cajole, show a way, showcase where great stuff is happening and inspire other people to adopt that sort of good practice. And also outside of the kind of, you know, public institution machinery, although business, the voluntary sector and and communities and so on are not legislatively, legally required to implement the Future Generations Act.
There’s actually a level of excitement and people being inspired by it and voluntarily adopting it. So as an example, this is a very exciting time for Wales because it’s the first time that Wales has football teams qualified to go to the World Cup right? So capitalizing on this opportunity and on a new chief executive in the Welsh Football Association, we’ve been working with them around what’s the power of football to start communicating on well-being, on sustainability.
They’ve got this reach into these communities, you know, government and councils and so on could never get to and actually, you know, can we get our football clubs recycling and can we get them thinking about how they’re traveling to matches and can we get them docked in with the well-being health benefits of football and now our Football Association for Wales, I’m going to cop with the chief executive there because they have set we can work with them on a new sustainability and well-being strategy where their aspiration is to become the most sustainable football association in the world. How dare you capitalize on this build in a movement for change outside of government in terms of using that kind of culture and that opportunity sometimes to give a bit of a shake to the public institutions, to tell them outside of public institutions, the public pressure is on you to go further.
KRISTEL VAN DER ELST: And certainly there’s a lot of young people also you could inspire through that, of course. So there is a side where it’s inspiring. But I have the feeling that from a lot what I’ve heard from you legislation is still very, very much needed to have action and accountability. I hear you talk about the powers, the Act, etc. Okay, could you achieve this without the kind of legislation… or how important is legislation actually in such a process?
SOPHIE HOWE: Yeah, I mean, it would undoubtedly be tougher. The real beauty of this is that it provides that not just policy framework, which could change from one election to the next, but a stable legal framework that everyone can corral around. And it’s taken, you know, well, with six and a half years in now, it’s taken that long for lots of people to realize that it’s not those covered, but lots of others to realize that exist, to get excited about it, to sort of say, actually, there’s a legal framework that we can that we can get behind, but also it’s important for, you know, in every institution, I think that there are you know, there’s a frustrated champions of people who want to do different.
They tell me that the framework of the legislation gives them permission to challenge the system. Now, that’s really that’s really important. It gives them that kind of legislative backing, if you like.
There’s then sort of what I call the kind of passive procrastinators who sort of get it sort of on board with it, but are kind of waiting to see what everyone else does.
And then there’s these people called the “abominable ‘No’ men”, at least that’s what I call them. And those are people who are kind of just blockers in the system.
Now, the legislation is really important, again, for those abominable “No” men, where we can say to them, as a director of finance, you might want to do your financial planning in a short term way, and you might not want to invest in prevention because you can’t make your budget stack up this year. But you have a statutory duty to demonstrate to me how you are accounting for the long term and how you’re spending in the long term, and how you’re sharing your budgets in the most effective way rather than just keeping it in a silo. And so on. So that’s where the legislation becomes important.
But you know as well as I do, just having a piece of law isn’t going to achieve it all either. Scotland actually is an interesting example where they did a lot around kind of well-being frameworks and collaborative working and so on, and now they’re about to have a Future Generations Act, so they’re about to put it on a statutory footing. So I think that, dare I say… Well, I am saying this in public, but I’ll say it quietly that actually they might be even better placed in Wales because they’ve had this history we kind of legislative first and then tried to do everything. They’ve tried to do some good stuff and then they’re going to legislate and I think that might accelerate their progress.
KRISTEL VAN DER ELST: Yeah. It’s interesting because it’s a huge change management exercise actually. That’s why it’s important. And you talk about like champions and laggers and carrots and sticks and yeah, it’s quite interesting.
So Wales doesn’t live, of course in kind of a… in a bucket. So it’s, the world is big and everything is interconnected as we always see. So if you, if you try to create that well-being and sustainability for Wales, of course you have to do it. But you know, the whole world should go in that direction, As you said, some countries are more progressive than others.
So how… I know you’re here, for example, and you talk to the UN, etc. and different countries, but how do you see that conversation kind of progressing and your role in that kind of, as being the first ones and having some experience in that?
SOPHIE HOWE: Well, I mean, you know, I think, you know, we’ve got the scars. We’ve certainly got the scars of some of the battles that that we’ve had.
And we’ve you know, there’s a lot that we’ve there’s a lot that we’ve learned actually at the moment, this review that I’m doing into the machinery of government is going to produce, and we’ve done it kind of, you know, it was not it was not widely, you know, the huge sort of like, “Oh God” from civil servant, “who’s going to come in and review us?” Actually, we’re doing it in a in a, in a collaborative way. And the idea is, is that we produce a joint improvement plan and a range of tools for how the civil service can go from where they are on a kind of maturity matrix to where we want them to be. And alongside that, there will be some tools that will be targeted at an international audience. So obviously recognizing Wales has, you know, particular characteristics.
You know, lots of governments are, you know, different all over the world. But there are a few kind of principles from that which we think can be applied elsewhere so that we can share our learning. I think the UN, you know, approach has been taken forward at the moment, could be a real moment in terms of really escalating the agenda because you know, if you’ve got the hundred and 90 odd countries of the UN signing up to a declaration on future generations, of course they will all do that definitely in their own in their own countries.
And then you get the kind of post 2030, you know, end of the SDGs, how could the next set of SDGs or whatever they might be called, be framed within a future generations and kind of well-being economics, context. That’s when I think you start to see the real kind of global progress.
So I suppose, you know, our role in that is talking to other countries like, like yourselves, learning from you where we can improve and share in some of our learning. But really trying to also question I suppose as the, the first Future Generations Commissioner, you know, there’s got to be something that, you know, every politician has got to be able to answer. You know, are you acting in the interests of future generations? Do you want to act in the interests of future generations? You can’t see many of them saying no publicly, at least. And so therefore, if you want to do that, you should be willing to be held to account on how you do that.
KRISTEL VAN DER ELST: So you said a lot has been learned. I think, if we’re going to define, kind of, where the future is, right, like the future generations, what is their vision? Obviously there is a concept of inclusivity and kind of who is defining, actually, that future. Certainly, if you bring it from a country level to the international level.
So Canada, as we know, is this is quite a big country with a lot of different landscapes, a lot of different cultures, history, a lot of nationalities, immigrants, Indigenous peoples, etc. So we have we have quite a lot of diversity in this country. What have you learned from your experience actually, in making sure that the approach of defining the future, the aim you’re going for, is actually inclusive? Like does it help relations? How have you factored in the inclusivity, which is difficult sometimes, I suppose?
SOPHIE HOWE: Yeah, but it’s absolutely it’s crucial. So we’ve got this goal of a more equal Wales so and that that specifically the legislation requires our institutions alongside other pieces of legislation, the Equality Act and various other pieces of legislation, but requires them to specifically involve people who reflect the diversity of the communities that they serve.
There’s something there around that word “involve” which was specifically chosen rather than “consult”, “engage”, “involve” is a much deeper, kind of coproductive sort of approach. And we’ve seen some really good practice on that. We’ve also seen organizations not get to grips on that. And there’s been some great work from the Welsh Government on producing an anti-racist Wales plan, which I think is one of the best examples of involving those of a diverse set of voices.
And I think where my role comes in is talking about the things that aren’t usually talked about in that context. So, you know, race and the environment not often things are kind of coming together, but actually environmental justice is racial justice because what we are doing in the predominantly white global North is having a hugely detrimental impact in the in the in the black global South.
Actually, even within our own communities is if we’re going to invest in green jobs for the future, we can’t just do that in a way which lets nature take its course because if we do that, we’re going to be perpetuating inequality because you will see predominantly white men going into these high paid jobs as engineering engineers, people are going to do the heavy infrastructure, people who are going to do the public transport infrastructure and so on.
So that’s where this sort of lens of bringing in different voices. And one of the pieces of work we’ve been doing around skills is talking to black women’s groups around, you know, what are your experiences and why have you never considered a career in some of these industries? And how could we get to your communities to make sure that you’re not being disadvantaged?
Likewise, when we’re talking the example that I gave from Cardiff, the highest levels of air pollution in Cardiff are in the areas with the biggest concentration of Black, Asian minority ethnic communities. So hence why we target interventions, public transport and air quality interventions at those communities, because that is also addressing inequality.
So I think to me it’s about making sure that we involve those different voices, but also making sure that we are talking about the connections to areas that perhaps have not been traditionally considered in terms of hearing those voices.
KRISTEL VAN DER ELST: And so when we talk about that, involve the different stakeholders. I know your role is kind of geared towards public governance, but of course you don’t change society without all the other actors.
So how do you interact with the private firms, NGOs, and is what you’re doing ultimately kind of maybe becoming part of normal culture, whether it’s in business or in society? How are things moving?
SOPHIE HOWE: Yeah. So you can imagine it was a sort of, you know, an easy approach with the sort of voluntary sector, many of whom, you know, absolutely love the future generations act in a voluntarily building their whole frameworks around it. And I think they’ve started to have a bit of, you know, early on actually were having kind of epiphany around it.
So for example, an organization, National UK organization with the Welsh face as well, called the Wildlife Trust, you know, their focus is on, you know, wildlife, biodiversity and so on, but they are now actually looking at how do we work with health boards to connect the sort of healing power of nature into health, preventative health care, social prescribing. They’re seeing it around, you know, the power of that in terms of mental health and a range of other kind of issues around bringing communities together. They’ve got programs recognizing that actually the people who tend to work in those sectors tend to be often white, middle-aged people. So how are they’ve got programs around specifically connected with more diverse communities because they’ve applied this framework of the Future Generations Act.
And business has been a little bit slower to come to it. But I feel that we’ve kind of in these last perhaps two years and particularly actually, you know, COVID was terrible for a whole range of reasons, but it did have some benefits in terms of really, you know, getting the business community getting on board with the kind of green revolution and, you know, investing in the green economy as kind of post-COVID stimulus.
And we are now getting businesses knocking on our door saying we like the fact that this government has a long term framework because business like know certainty. They like long term planning and thinking and they recognize that actually they need to get with the program anyway because that’s what their staff are asking for, is they want to recruit the best people and that’s what their consumers are asking for. And those are the sorts of things they’re being measured on. And so therefore they want it and they like the fact that Wales has got this country- wide vision that they can then get behind so that we are, they’re coming to us now and we’re working with them on a set of voluntary reporting kind of approaches. My colleague John is leading that work and we’re really excited actually about some of the big businesses from Wales that are coming to us to do that.
KRISTEL VAN DER ELST: It’s fantastic.
So it’s such an exciting job, I think. So you’ve already given us a couple of your success stories, right? From the battlefield, to say so. Right? But if you if you had to say give one kind of thing where it might not be the biggest, you know, from the external perspective, but kind of you as a person, like what’s kind of the thing you would consider your biggest kind of success, the thing you thought wouldn’t be possible, but you made it so.
SOPHIE HOWE: I mean, I think just a massive shift in terms of transport policy and we can see there from a kind of, you know, a singular, I suppose, intervention right through to huge shifts in the entire way we do transport policy in Wales and the way that we spend money, that’s probably the most comprehensive sort of policy intervention.
I can speak for a moment as a mum I’ve got five children at various points of the eldest is 22, the youngest is 8, and I can see a lifetime through the eyes of my kids. And as a parent, how the school curriculum has changed. My 22 year old had a completely different school life and a much worse school life than my eight year old. And, you know, she is coming home talking about Gretta Thunberg. She’s coming home talking about Black Lives Matters.
I was telling, earlier, this story how I was out having a glass of wine with a few school mums and three of the school mums told me that their kids asked for whittling knives for their birthday. You know, a whittling knife is, a whittling knife It’s kind of what you use to kind of carve wood and so on. And I’m not sure about the benefits of a whittling knife for an eight year old, but the point is that, that sort of one little anecdote is because our kids are now being educated in forest schools. They’re being educated to connect with nature. And that was just not anywhere near my 22 year old’s experience.
So as a mum, I can feel that that change and that makes me hugely proud.
KRISTEL VAN DER ELST: Yeah, that’s amazing. So ultimately the Act and the work that you do is kind of has the assumption that we maybe the unborn, although as you said, that it can’t really talk, but at least young voices are being integrated. So can you tell us how that kind of really practically happened to have like young people? Because that’s sometimes a difficult dialogue. People say that, but how do you really practically bring in that, young voice to older decision makers?
SOPHIE HOWE: Yeah. So there’s, you know, there’s there’s a few, a number of sort of big ticket items that have happened in Wales.
So we have a youth parliament who are elected every, every two years and they sit in a chamber next door to our main parliament. They set, you know, priorities that they’re going to focus on. They interact with myself and Welsh government ministers and so on.
We’ve recently reduced the voting age so and the voting age is now 16 in Wales, which is really exciting. It was kind of disappointing that the first time that 16 year olds could use their vote was during COVID. So we wouldn’t, you know, we didn’t have all of what you would normally have in terms of awareness and so on and around that. But nevertheless, I think that’s massive progress.
And there’s as I said, this thing called the Future Leaders Academy, which I’m incredibly excited about. So those future leaders I’ve said mentor all existing leaders in Wales, so they’re mentoring the head of the civil service, they’re mentoring the chief executive of Cardiff Council, they’re mentoring Health Board chief executives. And then that is sort of grown from this sort of little idea that we had in my office to now they are they formed a board to challenge a constructively challenging critique of the Welsh Government’s COVID recovery strategy. They’re now applying, we’re sort of helping them to, we’ve been asked by the Infrastructure Commission who decide on how we spend our money and plan our infrastructure in Wales to do a similar thing.
We’ve of course, you know, we’ve got youth councils and so on in every local authority. We’ve got young people on boards, we’ve got in some places young commissioners. So when we’re commissioning particular services, young people will sit on the on the, on the commissioning panel, those young people who are going to be on the interview panel for my job. So I come to the end of my term at the end of January. So the recruitment process is just going on. So young people will be on that panel.
So there’s a range of different things. Have we completely cracked it? No, but I’ve seen definite progress over the last four, four years in particular.
KRISTEL VAN DER ELST: Yeah, it’s nearly seven years. It’s kind of a new generation kind of coming up also. So it’s a lot of change in a very short amount of time.
Any recommendations for Canada? will be my last question before we move into the questions.
SOPHIE HOWE: Okay. I think try, if you can, to bring all of your frameworks together because, you know, it’s difficult enough being, I think, in government or being in public services without having to like face 30 different, you know, frameworks and indicators and metrics and so on.
So you can corral that together as a starting point, I think that’s hugely important.
Don’t focus too much on ticking the box because that can drive sort of the perverse outcomes. It is as much about hearts as it is about minds. And I think, you know, capitalize on those opportunities out there because, you know, many of you in this room will be parents, maybe grandparents. And I think playing into that kind of what are people out there concerned about? How are these things going to affect my children, my niece, my nephew, whatever it might be, and sort of trying to get into people’s mindsets in that way, I think is hugely important.
And then finally, involve unusual suspects, the more you can bring different voices into government, they don’t have to be, you know, necessarily in government working, although that is good as well. But the more you can bring in those different perspectives and often challenging perspectives into a dialogue, I think, you know, and create that culture of open discussion and challenge. And I think you got better policy and better approaches as well.
KRISTEL VAN DER ELST: Thank you very much. I mean, it’s really I find it… I’m so grateful you came back and I was happy that you accepted the Futures Week invitation also, because I think it’s just amazing. I think it’s fascinating the work that you’re doing and the type of change, if you really think about it in a holistic way with your mind and your heart, kind of what you can achieve when you believe you can achieve it, it’s pretty amazing. So congratulations to you and your leadership and I’m sure your children will be very proud of you.