England & Wales Democracy, devolution and governance

Viewpoint: Public involvement strengthens the devolution hand


The Centre for Public Scrutiny has just launched a new paper on devolution in England, writes Ed Hammond.

Our report, Cards on the table suggests the different stages that local areas will have to go through in agreeing and implementing a devolution deals – highlighting the fact that there is a sequence to the process, with each stage in that sequence demanding its own unique governance response. Many of these responses focus on the need to bring in the wider member corps, and the public, to discussions on devolution and its outcomes.

Member and public involvement is critical to the success of English devolution, but it is an element that until now many areas have filed away as “too difficult”. It never seems to be quite the right time to do it. Too early, and plans and proposals may be too vague. Too late, and the decisions may already have been made. In between, many of the negotiations with government are required – by government – to be private. What space is there?

We think that there is more space than you might think, but to take advantage of the opportunities requires a different mindset to that which has been prevalent up until now. Primarily, there are big opportunities to engage non-executive councillors and the public at the earliest stage – to talk to them about “the place” and what they want it to look like in the future. Having discussions with a wide group of people about the future, and their place in that future, helps to do three things:

  • It places those aspirations front and centre when it comes to working up more concrete plans for devolution;
  • It frames the future debate and the way that proposals can be presented to government. A proposal for devolved powers which ultimately derives from a local conversation about what devolution might be able to achieve could end up more robust than one which is based on a discussion amongst a comparatively small number of elected councillors and officers;
  • It engages with the art of what is politically possible. Early discussion of proposals – even using those discussions to frame what the proposals look like – makes it more likely that they will be grounded in reality. Such discussions will highlight where a gap may exist between public expectations and reality – allowing politicians to act to bridge this gap.

Beyond these three reasons, there are the wider and less tangible benefits for local democracy of opening this process out at an early stage. Transparency is a good thing, and the more that local people know and understand about how devolution is likely to make a different to their lives, the more likely it is that political and community buy-in will happen later on in the process.

Our report suggests that local areas establish what we have termed a “governance framework” to help them to clarify fundamental issues around decision-making. We think that at its most basic such a framework might cover policy development, decision-making and the monitoring of performance. Crucially, such a framework would also highlight the steps that decision-makers would take to involve and engage the wider public in each of these issues. Bringing the public in to the devolution debate earlier on in the process means that agreeing clear and open systems for engagement and involvement becomes much easier.

Contrary to the accepted assumption amongst those who would resist this kind of public dialogue, the public are, in fact, interested in devolution. They are interested in economic development, in skills and jobs, in education, in transport, in public health and so on, because what difference devolution makes to those issues will have an impact on their daily lives. Best, then, to focus the public discussion on devolution on those outcomes.

Cards on the table, was published on 12 May and can be downloaded from the CfPS website.

Ed Hammond is Director of Local Accountability, CfPS