England & Wales Democracy, devolution and governance

Viewpoint: Making devolution an open process

The political cut and thrust of the devolution debate is fascinating, and has enormous implications for the future of the way that local services will be delivered, writes Ed Hammond from the Centre for Public Scrutiny.  It is particularly annoying that so much of it is being conducted  behind closed doors.

The negotiations themselves are a blend of high politics and local pragmatism – a process very much led in Whitehall and fronted by the Chancellor of the Exchequer, but whose impacts will be brought about by the work of local councillors, council officers and a myriad of other partners. The emphasis is currently on the deal – the means by which local bodies will be able to bring about those impacts, but something which is currently quite opaque.

Why is this important?  If the process is led on all sides by democratically elected politicians, there is anything  to worry about? A process opened up to the public eye would risk being slow and unwieldy, with negotiations being caught up in the potential for political posturing, and unhelpful “noises off” from a range of competing local interests. It would be messy, uncertain and would take rather longer than the current, speedy, deal-making processes in which local and national Government are currently engaged.

But messy, uncertain and time-consuming is what local democracy is all about. The potential effects of devolution are profound, and unless the deal-making process itself is opened up to an element of scrutiny, that process will become an echo-chamber, reflecting existing assumptions and prejudices about what devolution can deliver, and about what the area in question wants and needs. Opening out the process will make it unpredictable –  as different people and interests try to get their voice heard. It will make the process uncomfortable, for Government and for combined authorities, as priorities are challenged and questions and some plans have to be rethought or scrapped entirely. For everyone, it may feel  frustrating. But it will  be democratic, and that means  a better chance of having a devolution process which accurately reflects local needs.

There are a few ways that the process might be opened up, and we run through a couple of them in our publication “Devo why? Devo how?”, published yesterday. Briefly, we think that a few non-exclusive options exist.

The first is for Government to expand its approach to “accountability systems statements” to devolution deals, in the expectation that local areas will need to be more explicit about how governance operates, and how the public will be involved. The second is the requirement (as we are proposing in amendments we are drafting to the Devolution Bill) that combined authorities will need to agreed governance frameworks, which might cover policy development, performance management and public involvement. Again, the intention would be to provoke local debate and discussion on exactly what those arrangements would involve.

The third is for areas to make more use of measures to bring local people into the debate on both how devolution should work, and how they can have an impact on local decision-making. On the former point, the use of local constitutional conventions has been suggested, and is being piloted in some areas; focus groups, citizens’ juries, polling, or simply the willingness and ability of elected councillors to go out into their communities and start some discussions about these issues will all make a difference.

This is not just about public input, and scrutiny, for the sake of it – it is about improving those deals as they are developed. The involvement of a wider group of people will help this to happen. Local leaders may think that the bids they are proposing reflect accurately what local people want and need – what better way to give themselves, and Government, this assurance, than to open up the process of negotiation to public scrutiny? There is no obvious, overriding public policy reason not to do this  when stacked up against the benefits.

All we can hope to do is to encourage the key participants to recognise that the obvious vested interests in carrying out negotiations as they do now are outweighed by the advantages in terms both of democracy, and confidence in outcomes, that arise from a more open, deliberative and inclusive approach. We know that this is likely to be an uphill struggle – not because decision-makers are anti-democratic, but because they believe that the way that they are conducting negotiations now is the only way to avoid the debate on local devolution being stuck in a morass of local and national indecision. But we think that in the next few months we can start to help local areas to understand a different approach that will define not only a more accountable, transparent and inclusive approach to devolution negotiations, but a similar approach to the way that devolved services are ultimately designed and delivered at local level.

We will be working with a range of partners to make this happen, and publishing some principal outcomes from our work in the spring of 2016. In the meantime, we look forward to more discussion and debate on democracy and devolution.

Ed Hammond is Head of Programmes, Local Accountability at the CfPS.