The Welsh way - RSA

The Welsh way


  • Picture of Jane Davidson
    Jane Davidson
    Former Welsh Minister for Environment, Sustainability and Housing
  • Democracy and governance
  • People & place
The Welsh way


Jane Davidson, a former Minister for Environment, Sustainability and Housing in Wales, discusses the importance of courageous governance in addressing climate change and ensuring a sustainable future. She faults governments and organisations for failing to take necessary actions to mitigate environmental crises. Davidson emphasises the need for a new type of courage to make bold, evidence-based decisions. She highlights the Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act 2015 as a way of integrating long-term thinking and sustainable development goals into governance, and calls for the establishment of a Courageous Governance Commission.

Reading time

Six minutes

Almost a decade on from its passage, the Well-being of Future Generations Act is a testament to the power of courage in good governance.

I’ve spent most of my working life trying to understand why organisations, including governments, take bad decisions. By ‘bad’ I mean contrary to the factual evidence. We are seeing record ice reduction in the Arctic and Antarctic, record temperatures, record rainfall, record floods and droughts. In response, you would expect public bodies to be calculating risks, making plans to keep communities safe, prioritising spending to mitigate, and adapt to, the current and future situation. Most importantly, you would expect governments to be doing ‘whatever it takes’ — a well-used political trope — to look after their populations.

But, in fact, the silence on the actions needed is deafening. Somehow, the actions needed are too brave, and the protagonists too fearful of the consequences, to act. We’ve never needed courage to challenge the system more.

Charting a bolder path

And what is courage? From the French coeur, meaning heart (‘as the seat of emotions’, and ‘spirit, temperament, state or frame of mind’), the new type of courage we need now is cultivated in the heart, forged and strengthened by us laying down our differences and connecting to each other through love: love for this amazing single planet of ours, love for nature (including humankind), love for our babies and theirs, and theirs yet to come. 

Perhaps we need to change the culture of ‘how’ we take our decisions? Instead of focusing on ‘what’ needs to be done, perhaps we should focus on ‘how’ to achieve the ‘what’? After all, good processes are integral to good outcomes. The challenge lies in reframing our mindset and governance models to enable bold, evidence-based actions. 

It shouldn’t be considered courageous to promote the idea of a liveable world for current and future generations, but it is. It is a reboot; a big step change away from how decisions are usually taken. If, in our current paradigm, we won’t take decisions commensurate with the evidence, how can we factor in generations yet to come?

The Welsh way

It shouldn’t be considered courageous to promote the idea of a liveable world for current and future generation

Leading the way

Wales has become an unlikely world leader in this space. The Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act 2015 is the first and still perhaps the only legislation in the world that provides a legal basis to deliver on the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Based on the Brundtland definition of sustainable development, ‘development that meets the needs of the present without compromising on the ability of future generations to meet their own needs’, the Act aims to protect the rights of future generations alongside current generations in everything the Welsh government and its public services deliver.

The Act is structured as a governance framework. On the face of the Act are seven clear goals — the ‘what’ organisations are required to achieve — but also five ways of working: the ‘how’ Welsh public services are required to deliver. Unusually, the Act includes the Welsh government itself: all are required to think long term, to act preventatively, to collaborate with others, to integrate their outcomes and, very importantly, to involve those about whom decisions are being made. Significantly, the Welsh government does not mark its own homework: there is an independent Future Generations’ Commissioner and the Welsh Auditor General to apply external pressure, as ultimately can the courts. 

What difference has the Act made? In simple terms, it is a value system which enables decision makers to be more confident about the actions they propose. Individual actions, such as turning down a new motorway in favour of valuing nature or making 20mph the default speed limit in residential areas, are newsworthy only because they challenge the norm. Banning the smacking of children and running a universal basic income pilot with teenagers leaving the care system are responses to poor outcomes for children, which have remained resistant to the usual measures. 

What we are already seeing, in the nine years the Act has been in place, is how these decisions are now part of a logical framework where economic, cultural, societal and environmental decisions are part of a whole new philosophy. My own role as Chair of Wales Net Zero 2035 is about how we can accelerate climate responses in Wales in fair, just and nature positive ways. This work would not have happened without the Well-being of Future Generations Act. Interestingly, many other countries across the world are looking seriously at this governance approach, not least to deliver on their SDG obligations by 2030.

The Earth has revolted, and each storm, fire, drought and flood that overwhelms and claims the lives of people somewhere on this single precious globe of ours is part of a bigger picture.

Better, braver governance

What is good governance? Dr Victoria Hurth from the Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership recently said: “Governance, simply put, is how we make decisions around here.” If we want to promote ‘good governance’ we would want to govern well, and that should be how we make decisions around here.

How do we encourage courageous governance in the interests of all species? As it is the government which sets the tone and the agenda in a democracy, good governance and decision-making can help foster trust where culture wars and short-term decisions have festered division. How do we put our arms around those who are acting in accordance with the science and support them on their journey — when some governments are becoming increasingly draconian about anyone who challenges their actions? How can we turn this moment into a movement for change? 

So, when I talk about courageous governance, I’m not talking about the old, rigid governance systems that measure without values, without heart. I’m talking about new governance models that can help us to deliver against new outcomes, with head, hand and heart, and urgently. New flexible systems, with processes designed to enable innovative solutions. We should make space for solutions to emerge and the models must be inclusive, able to listen to what’s emerging from different places at different levels.

My fundamental argument is that ‘good’ governance can yet save us all. And I use the word ‘good’ deliberately. Some will see governance as an unlikely saviour, particularly those who have spent their lives in thrall to a bureaucratic mechanism that takes time and effort but delivers no benefit. We are in new territory now. 

The Earth has revolted, and each storm, fire, drought and flood that overwhelms and claims the lives of people somewhere on this single precious globe of ours is part of a bigger picture. The challenges ahead are huge, complex and systemic, but we hold the solutions in our hands if we are brave enough, courageous enough, to execute them. In the interests of current and future generations, we cannot fail.

The RSA has a proud history of being at the forefront of significant social impact for 270 years, with its unique global network of changemakers who work collectively to enable people, places and the planet to flourish in harmony. Its most recent Design for Life programme explicitly recognises the importance of the natural world for all our futures. I believe now is the time, and the RSA is the global organisation best placed, to collaborate widely with others to set up a Courageous Governance Commission to help, inform and support governments and organisations to foster a liveable planet for another 270 years. 

Jane Davidson is a former Welsh Minister for Environment, Sustainability and Housing. She is also an author and environmental activist and previously chaired the RSA in Wales. 

Calum Heath is a UK-based illustrator who counts The New Yorker, The Guardian, The New York Times, Vice, Politico EU and Wired among his many clients.

Anna Nicholl, Maria O’Connor, Simon Milton and Andrew Corbett-Nolan, provided feedback in the development of this feature.

This feature first appeared in RSA Journal Issue 2 2024.

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