Decentralisation: bad arguments and good arguments - RSA

Decentralisation: bad arguments and good arguments

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  • Devolution
  • Institutional reform
  • Localism

I have pretty much always been an advocate of decentralising more power from Westminster and Whitehall.

My experience as a county councillor and then a Number Ten advisor tended to reinforce my views. But, in truth, it’s also good to have a simple way to criticise things that makes it sound like I’m on the side of the underdog.

For years my arguments have felt a bit tired and facile, but the other day, for no particular reason, I had a moment of revelation. Not only have I relied on weak arguments, but in doing so I have failed to articulate the slam dunk case for devolution.

Bad argument: being closer to the people means you make better decisions

Chief among the lazy arguments is that we should devolve power because those closer to the people make better decisions. I’m not saying this isn’t true, it’s just that it ignores evidence and common sense that points the other way. Put simply, lots of people who judge what to do by what they see in front of them are liable to suffer from limited knowledge, excessive subjectivity and tribal bias.

It’s all very well having local interpretation and local solutions of a social challenge – say, street homelessness. But, on the one hand, such phenomena tend to have common underlying causes as well as distinctive local expressions while, on the other, a wider lens can quickly show that some interventions seem to work much better than others.

What’s more, while national analysts can be reasonably dispassionate, local decision makers will tend to be biased in favour of the local solutions led by people they know. All in all, being close to a problem is as likely to impair judgement as to sharpen it.

Bad argument: Whitehall doesn't understand local circumstances

The converse argument is that national ministers and officials don’t understand local circumstances and are antagonistic to local discretion and difference. Again, while there is truth in this there is another side to the story.

Being able to look dispassionately across the country enables national observers to see and analyse patterns, including the ways that local factors affect problems and solutions.

Generally, Whitehall policy makers do think about the appropriate balance of central prescription and local discretion, partly in recognition of local difference, partly because they don’t always have the capacity to prescribe implementation in detail and partly because they don’t aspire to Nye Bevan’s idea of accountability, that the sound of a dropped bedpan in Tredegar should reverberate around the Palace of Westminster.

Indeed, to be honest the biggest problem expressed to me by people involved in the hard graft of delivering outcomes – in areas ranging from NHS procurement to industrial strategy - is a severe lack of local capacity. We can blame that on austerity or the long-term effects of centralisation but in the short term it rather suggests we should be consolidating and centralising more not less.

Good argument: The impact of multiple national policies can only be understood locally

So local politicians and officers aren’t angels and national ministers and officials aren’t devils (although I might here make an exception for Chris Grayling).

Can I just say sorry for consistently and sometimes passionately arguing the reverse for most of my life?

But there is to my mind an irrefutable argument for decentralisation. It’s not about the relations between national and local but what goes on at the centre.

Those in charge of individual policies, strategies and even departments may try their best to get right the balance of central control and local discretion, but what they almost never even try to do is understand the consequence of multiple national policies, incentives and funding streams all landing in one place.

While I find national officials and ministers can usually hold up their end well when I accuse them or their teams being too centralising, I equally find when I start to explain how their policies might be clashing and conflicting with other stuff constantly emanating from the centre that they tend to close down the conversation as soon as possible.

While overlapping priorities and opposed interests unfold emerge locally too (they do in the medium sized organisation I run), in the end it is simply much more possible to convene local decision makers, to untangle what is going on, and to agree a better way of coordinating things.

As the world gets more complex and fast moving this argument (but not the other ones) gets even stronger.

The case for decentralising more power

So, there we are. The case for decentralising more power can and should be pursued with confidence, but it we should make it on the basis not of comforting prejudices but a single unbeatable argument.

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  • The decentralisation of the UK from EU power bases is a very topical issue. The most efficient means of developing local resources is to decentralise the decision -making process of government and administration to give more power to the regions. With increasing centralisation of authority whether it be in London, Brussels or in the case of the church of Rome it becomes remote from the people being served. The unfamiliarity of the bureaucrats with local issues  and lack of engagement with local problems and lack of interest in such problems leads to inefficiency in the development of local resources. The concentration of power at the centre is the most characteristic and at the same time most disturbing tendency of our times. Decentralisation should no longer be a sacred cow in a rural pasture. It is the solution to over development of our cites and political power bases.

  • Adam Clarke's article is right – “THIS isn’t working” and nor will any proposed solutions work either until the nub of the matter is properly addressed, viz. the PROCESS of decision-making.  

    As it stands, decision-making is a dark art which disguises incompetence, ignorance, corruption, nepotism and patronage.  With a freely-available, structured, universal methodology that can be applied to any decision, involving any number of people and which always shows the best choice, we can begin to replace the current political miasma with a refreshingly transparent, fully-participatory and accountable system.

    Both citizens and politicians will benefit; it is the basis of government of the people, by the people, for the people – Democracy incarnate.  This, we humbly suggest, should be the first port of call to resolve the conflicting and emotionally-charged politics we have endured for far too long. 

    Give peace (consensus politics) a chance!

  • I have just finished reading Paul Collier's book "The Future of Capitalism" which makes some compelling arguments for the (re)development of "towns" in order to reverse the 40 year agglomeration of resources and wealth in "cities".  The arguments are well reasoned, but the execution of such a strategy would absolutely need the cooperation of both central and local power bases.  So if one buys Collier's ideas, which are cogent to me at least, then it cannot be one thing or the other.  Sadly, both business and government have a very poor record of articulating the arguments for centralisation and decentralisation, or for something in between.  As the business consultant's joke goes:  "when is the right time to centralise?" - "when you have just finished decentralising" - and vice-versa!  Leaders with the ability to really understand and communicate "big pictures" (as per Collier's arguments), and who can then build teams who will collaborate, are few and far between.

  • If we take corruption as a problem in government, big or small, national or local it only works if there is some form of accountability and impartial assessment of the policies and targets, that is taken seriously. I used to think that local Government was pecularily corrupt, probably because that was what I was closest too. But I think corrumption and power are part of the human condition and should never go unchecked. Nevertheless, I have seen some pretty corrupt practicies in local government in relation to planning and social services and appointments of familly and friends by locaal councillors etc. Beng close to the locality does not guarentee an impartial view, sometimes you are too bound in to the desires of local "influence" makers. Therefore you need both local and central to have a role in standing in judgement on the other. Local councils should have a degree of veto on central government policies, at least in how they are executed. Likewise there needs to be some form of impartial assessment of local spend, an auditor with teeth, from the central civil service that actively looks for signs of corruption and can step put elements of local government into "special measures". If there is a mechanism to do this, I have to say I haven't heard of it, but that may just be my ignorance and I assume they would work closely with the Ombudsman for local government. So to summarise you need both devolution and centralisation, neither is perfect but both brings balance.

  • Thanks for sharing this. One thing that might be useful to consider is that decentralization doesn't happen in a vacuum, and adding decentralization to a system often means realigning and reorganizing some centralized structures as well. These are issues I've been exploring in some recent work (both academic and polemical).

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