English devolution: how we’re planning to help

Posted on 17/12/2015 by Ed Hammond. Tags: ,

Devolution is gathering pace in England. True, I could have started a blog with that line at any point in the last eighteen months, but this time (despite some wobbles) it really is happening. Deals have been done (and are being done, and will continue to be done) – but now minds must turn to what the new world of devolved government in England will look like. Who will make decisions, how and where? Who will hold them to account? And what resonance will this have with local people? These are all governance challenges – ones which we are eager to try to address.

Between now and the end of March we will be working with five areas in England to explore some key challenges around governance, and to provide practical help to put in place arrangements for decision-making and scrutiny that are accountable, transparent and that, crucially, involve local people. This work is being funded by the Local Government Association. It complements a range of other activity for us on devolution – notably, the publication of “Devo Why? Devo How?” and our roundtable meeting in November.

This is the first of a fortnightly blog series which will follow this work as it develops, drawing on our experiences as we provide support on the ground.

As we have commented previously, we are concerned about the transparency of the negotiation process for devolution deals – although we recognise that the reality of the situation means that local authorities are not well-placed to engage in broad, wide-ranging discussions with the public about the nature and focus of those deals. As deals are concluded however, the need for a focus on governance is even more acute.

Our support will have two areas of focus.

Firstly, we will provide help to areas to think about technical aspects of decision-making. This will include who makes formal decisions on what, in what forums and under what circumstances – the DNA of combined decision making. This work – which some areas have already carried out – will provide the framework for everything that follows.

Secondly, we will help with thinking about the role of non-executives (scrutiny councillors) and the public, linking discussions in to broader debates on local democracy. We will help areas to ensure that the decision-making systems they are designing are transparent and visible to the public, and that there are obvious routes in for a range of people to influence decision-making. We will also talk about shared responsibilities for accountabiity between combined authorities themselves and individual local councils (in short, how will overview and scrutiny committees work together?). We will help areas to understand how the combined authority’s overview and scrutiny committee’s role might be focused and defined, and how it will work with partners such as the NHS and the police. And finally we will explore the intersections between all of these issues and the vital role of the public.

It’s likely that our support work will focus on carrying out one-to-one interviews and focus group discussions, and on facilitating discussions with larger officer and councillor groups, with a view to agreeing practical ways forward on these issues. With a limited amount of time at our disposal, we won’t be able to carry out (for example) wider work with the public. However, we are hoping to draw on the lessons from the Citizens’ Assemblies, supported by the Electoral Reform Society, and to encourage further local dialogue and debate. Developing a more comprehensive public understanding of these issues – particularly insofar as they provide a new opportunity for local people to have a say in issues which were hitherto the exclusive responsibility of Whitehall – is important.

We will set out the immediate outcomes from this work in a short publication in late March or early April. In the meantime, if you’d like to discuss scrutiny and governance arrangements in your own area – and if you think you might need our help in exploring how governance might look once devo deals have been done – please contact me or Jacqui.

About the Author: Ed Hammond

Ed leads CfGS's work on devolution, transformation and on support to councils and other public bodies on governance and accountability.