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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  • Dear Matthew,

    what‘s about subsidiarity and proportionality?

  • Matthew makes some good points here. However - as I am sure he would acknowledge - life is rarely as simple as having one knock-down argument. The arguments apply with subtlety and interact with each other and with other issues. There are also (at least) two other arguments I would suggest are ‘good’ arguments for decentralised power. Before turning to those, is worth briefly considering the first of Matthew's three arguments itself. 

    The first argument is surely not all bad. Being closer to a problem can lead to better decisions. It can also lead to worse decisions. The point is to have the optimal mix of distance and closeness, and for both central authority and local body to acknowledge what the other brings to the party. The planning system may be a case in point. It is hard to imagine a completely centralised system being effective, but equally complete localism would prevent important issues being faced. Whether the exact mix of central and local authority at any time is the best mix is open to debate, but the principle of the mix is hard to dispute. 

    Some system design principles can perhaps be discerned. On the face of it, matters necessary to achieve overall goals are best determined centrally, whereas other sit more effectively in local hands. Thus, in the planning system, the current vogue in England for widespread use of permitted development rights may be misplaced. 

    Similar comments apply, I would argue, to Matthew's second argument. The third is, indeed, quite compelling, but not necessarily a complete knock-down, as cases can be made for the importance of some centrally-determined policies.  Requiring household waste to be collected, for example, can reasonably be centrally dictated. 

    Turning to other ‘good’ arguments:

    1. There is a case for local decision-making as an expression of identity and choice in a place or community. If city X or district Y favours investing more in one service or public work or less in another, or a more or less strict regulatatory approach to some perceived ill, that can be seen as a collective expression of choice. This applies from the smallest to the largest scale of government. Indeed, forms of this argument drive desires for autonomy or independence across the globe, and influence the Brexit debate. 

    2. Local decision making can be more efficient. Because in current Western civilisation legitimate authority is (generally) considered to flow from the people, decisions need to be seen to have their legitimacy from this source. If this is via a national government and parliament, this leads to long chains of command and complex accountability arrangements. These result in cost and delay. Conversely, local decisions flowing from local democratic arrangements have shorter chains of command, allowing for quicker decisions and less complex arrangements, reducing cost. 

    Therefore, whilst there is much to agree with in what Matthew says, there is also more to say in justification of decentralised authority. 

    • I have yet to read the whole piece, because I'm still stuck in the mud at the start. "Chief among the lazy arguments is that we should devolve power because..."  I'm not yet interested in arguments good bad or indifferent. I'm interested in this phrase: and who is "we"? 

      The lord of the manor generously taking rotten apples to retainers round the estate, in Peter Sellers' lovely image? Westminster ever so generously allowing Scotland a (sort of) parliament? Imperial Britain not so long ago saying (as my parents used to say) that the nice people of the colonies are not yet grown-up enough to make these decisions for which we have had so many generations of superior training to make?

      Uwe Dervient is absolutely right to say 'what about susidiarity? ' Delors' (and others') idea that matters ought to be handled by the smallest, lowest or least centralized competent authority is surely the fundamental democratic building block. The problem only remains with its name - it still looks as if it might be granted as beneficence from above. What we, at least in England, fundamentally lack is a mature sense of 'we the people.'

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