Almost a quarter of a century has passed since powers to decide on key matters like schools and the NHS were first democratically devolved to Wales. That means that quite a few reading this column may not have been born, let alone been able to vote, back in 1997 at the time of our second referendum on plans for an elected Assembly.

So the timing in 2021 was spot-on for us to start asking citizens in Wales some fundamental questions about how much they know about and how satisfied they are with our democracy. The answers were striking and not always in a positive way.

For the past two years, I’ve been working with Dr Rowan Williams as co-chair of the Independent Commission on the Constitutional Future of Wales. Our objective was to put Wales on the front foot in future constitutional debates for once. It was a chance to invite citizens to think strategically about how we’re governed, rather than expecting our leaders to react on the hoof to political changes elsewhere, which has very much been the case until now. A quarter of a century of devolution has meant that we are well-placed to begin a proper national conversation with the people of Wales about the next steps we tread in our democratic journey.

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The Commission has looked in detail at what can be done better or differently, all through the lens of citizens. We focused especially on how we receive the important public services that impact our day-to-day lives. This week, the Commission released its final report in which we set out our key findings and our recommendations for what needs to change.

We were a group of 11 people – from diverse backgrounds, experiences and political persuasions. We spoke to people in all parts of Wales, in places like shopping centres and car parks, in colleges and agricultural shows. One common theme emerged early on and that is that things as they stand are unsustainable. Significantly, that’s more than a critique of a political system. It means that the needs and expectations of the people of Wales are not being met by our political system. Some of that is to do with the parties in charge, of course, but some of the dissatisfaction is deeper than that.

Now, I appreciate that’s a bold statement but we believe the people and politicians of Wales need to understand that Welsh democracy itself is at risk unless urgent changes are made to how we are governed. Alongside an erosion of democratic devolution which has seen the Sewel Convention (under which the UK Parliament will not normally legislate on a devolved matter without the agreement of the devolved institution) ignored nearly a dozen times, the UK Government’s attitude to Wales has fallen seriously short, verging at times on a dismissive contempt. Added to that, there’s a palpable frustration among citizens as to how they can actually make their voices heard.

That’s why our report has focused on 10 clear recommendations for change. You might ask: what are those changes and what do they mean for me, my family and my community?

Well, first of all, we recommend as a matter of urgency, the devolution of justice, policing and rail services – not for their own sake or to mirror Scotland and Northern Ireland, but to improve quality, delivery, accountability and outcome for the people of Wales. The Commission also calls for major changes to the way Wales is funded to ensure that our government and parliament can maximise value for money in how they deliver and scrutinise.

We’d already set out three possible routes for Wales’ future in our interim report last year, namely, enhanced devolution, a federal system and independence. Clearly, each of these options has certainties and risk, challenges and opportunities. Our detailed analysis, using a forensic framework of measures applied equally to each option, has established that each of these options is viable as a progressive way forward for Wales.

Enhanced devolution would require further changes around territorial financing in relation to need across the whole UK. It should also guarantee a proper, protected voice for the nations in a second chamber, and remove reserved powers which lack any sensible and strategic rationale. These changes are needed beyond those that we feel are urgent to protect further attrition of the settlement. Enhancing devolution in this way would be economically stable and largely risk-free, without the need for approval through a referendum. It would not fundamentally change the fiscal and economic position of Wales within the United Kingdom economy. But it does offer some more space to more radically realign the Welsh economy and improve social inequality.

A federal UK offers an accountable “middle way” with additional potential benefits to enhanced devolution but some real practical obstacles. Federalist models carry less risk than independence. But there are problems with federalism due to its reliance on an appetite for change in the rest of the UK, as well as the requirement for its protection through a written constitution (something on which the UK remains an international outlier, along with the likes of Israel and New Zealand). Plus, for federalism to be operationalised with England’s dominant population (57 million compared to our three million), it would likely require a new regional governance system in England for which we know there is currently little appetite.

In terms of independence, the creation of a sovereign Welsh state presents obvious potential for long-term radical change. It would offer Wales the opportunity to shape its own constitution in order to maximise benefits around economic realignment, trade and international relationships. Aside from uncertainty around currency and borders, independence also carries the highest risk economically in the short to medium term, as an independent Wales would face a series of early challenges including a significant fiscal deficit.

Now, inter-governmental relations – or IGR – may not instantly jump out at you as fundamental to changing our experience of politics. But, while people didn’t use the term IGR (and why would they?!), more than 90% of citizens across the nations want their governments to work well together. And that has to be on the basis of mutual respect and parity of esteem. But I’m afraid to say it was crystal-clear to us that the UK Government’s commitment to managing relations with the devolved governments has fallen far short of its claims. The co-operation that citizens expect, and which is essential to the successful operation of UK-wide politics, is not being met. That’s why we are calling for urgent steps to strengthen the legal and procedural pillars for inter-governmental relations to ensure that governments have to work together to deliver in the public interest.

The past few years have hardly been a good advert for the United Kingdom, have they? Political chaos in Westminster since the vote to exit the EU, the continued absence of a functioning government in Northern Ireland, as well as leadership shenanigans in Scotland. The way in which our Independent Commission was set up and how it has gone about leading a national conversation about our governance is unique within the United Kingdom. We’ve managed to bring to the table a Conservative Party member along with a former Plaid Cymru leader to debate together how we might improve Wales. We wanted Wales to show others a more mature, consensual and constructive way to do things, driven always for the benefit of its people.

But the publication of our Commission report has to be just the beginning. What’s vital now is that this project becomes a catalyst for energising the people of Wales and our elected politicians. This long-overdue democratic conversation must continue and gather pace. Disengagement with politics is at a record high and that’s much more of a risk than it might seem. Political debates have become terrifyingly polarised and often based on manipulated manoeuvring and deliberate half-truths. That’s why the Commission report makes recommendations on democratic improvements too. We’ve called on the Welsh Government to improve civic education for all and to begin a statement of constitutional principles for Wales – to be drafted by our citizens.

Naturally, we’ve listened to the criticisms from those who argue that Commissions like ours are a waste of time and money. I strongly reject that. This report is a serious, measured analysis that was much needed in our young democracy. It will stand the test of time, as it is underpinned with hard evidence and a proper evaluation of what’s possible for our nation in the future.

This week, the Independent Commission has fired the starting gun on what we hope will be a much bigger and wider civic conversation that puts people and communities at its heart. We’ve done the job that we were asked to. Over to you now to decide if you want to make the changes happen.

* Laura McAllister is a sports-mad academic from Bridgend. She is Professor at Cardiff University’s Wales Governance Centre and former captain of Wales Women’s international football team.