Devolution presents a messy opportunity to change decision-making

24 May 16

Local government and local people must not miss out on an opportunity to reshape governance

Our recently published paper Cards on the table sets out, for the first time, the practical steps areas should take in their approach to devolution governance. It tries to do this from a perspective that acknowledges structures are complex, humans are involved and, as experience to date shows, it’s all likely to get a bit messy.

We, along with many others, have talked a lot about the challenges of devolution and what a fantastic opportunity it creates to build new approaches to governance which engages all parts of the system in the ambition to improve outcomes and places.

We have always felt that some structure ought to be applied to the development and implementation of deals – but that this structure should be developed from the bottom up. Local areas should design their own bespoke approaches suited to their areas and outcomes rather than seek to either wait for a perfect solution that will never arrive – or to launch into these arrangements in an ad hoc and unreflective way. Both approaches could risk local government – and local people – missing out on this great opportunity.

Our new paper sets out some possible ways to manage these challenges. It describes a clear approach to how governance could look and operate in devolved areas and be resilient enough to withstand changes in political control and personnel in key political and officer roles.

Governance is much more than checks, balances and compliance. It sets the tone for how business will be done, it is about people and personalities. Our plea is still that we don’t limit the people and personalities involved and that we must seek to widen the net.

This will involve engaging in a meaningful way with those not at the ‘decision-making table’ - backbenchers, partners, the voluntary sector and, most importantly, the public. There are many tried and tested ways to engage with our more ‘professional’ partners in the public, private and voluntary sectors (although not enough is currently being done) but true public engagement and involvement is a more difficult thorn to grasp.

To date there has been minimal, or no public consultation on devo proposals (Durham, with its recent referendum, being a notable exception). Deals have been presented as done and dusted, often to the consternation or confusion of local communities and the elected representatives who serve them.

In our report we introduce the concept of a ‘democracy stack’, which came from Catherine Howe (Capita and previously Public-i) in this blog. It talks about how we need to recognise that true good governance is about many different formal and informal systems working together – with those systems always focusing on the needs of the citizen.

By taking a more rounded view of all the citizens within areas seeking to agree devolution deals, appreciating that people inhabit and influence their environment and policy through multiple, often informal routes, local authorities can try to engage with people not just on their own terms, but invite them to participate in the process of actively creating the sort of democracy they want. To the theorists, this is the holy grail of citizen-focused policy development – co-production, or co-design, where citizens and traditional decision-makers work side-by-side to develop systems that operate in everyone’s best interests.

But what does this have to do with the dry, stuffy world of formal governance? By inviting people in, by engaging proactively with people in their own spaces, we are asking them to be part of a process that builds in openness, transparency and accountability.

Bringing in a range of perspectives explores all the potential that an area might have to offer. It provides a space for better ideas about how power is exercised and decisions made. This can be done without undermining the primacy of elected officials – the concept of ‘the stack’ enables these to co-exist. Less formal, civic spaces, community groups, local forums and message-boards are essential vehicles for engaging in public community life – and essential to making communities rich and meaningful which our elected officials want to represent. None of this is new in itself, but the governance challenge of devolution is, and we need to take account of it as we design new systems.

Devolution and other aspects of public sector transformation give opportunities to bravely innovate and to devolve power even further. This can build on what works – check out Durham and Cornwall’s work in local areas – and successfully capitalise on all assets that a community and place has to offer.

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