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How do you fix the centre of government? And what’s broken anyway?

This week’s RSA event, prompted by NESTA’s open letter to the next prime minister, provoked a terrific discussion. If the audience was wonk-dominated, we hid it well, and the panel respondents, Gus O’Donnell and Sue Cameron, gave really clear and robust responses to Geoff Mulgan’s four proposals, although in the course of the conversation, I counted ideas for about five new quangos and a couple of Czars.

Like so many organisations with deep pockets, NESTA can suffer from ‘funders syndrome' – people are so keen to get hold of an organisation’s money, they never publicly say what they really think about the organisation. So it was good to hear Sue Cameron politely deconstruct many of the ideas expressed in the letter. I agree with much more than Sue did, and the framing of ‘the right capabilities’ especially resonated with my short and not too sweet time in the Prime Minister's strategy unit in 2007.

However, NESTA’s proposals contain one significant flaw – a lack of thinking about localism. The letter concludes by arguing that:

 By fixing the centre of government now, you make it more open to the views of voters and make decentralisation easier.

This feels wholly unconvincing. Indeed, the opposite might be the case. An improved centre might further inflate the arrogance and hubris of those who tread the Whitehall boards. Why trust the local, when we are better at this governing thing than we ever have been?

As the RSA’s City Growth Commission and many other reports have argued, key to fixing the centre of government will be reducing its influence – not only over decisions about the best methods to achieve centrally-determined outcomes (the classic but flawed New Public Management way), but also over decisions about the actual outcomes that communities desire and services should aspire to.  As Matthew Taylor argued in his annual speech:

The creative society would also, of course, seek to devolve power to the lowest effective level not just because the centre is too distant but because we would encourage different places to do things in substantively different ways, not just experiments in service delivery but experiments in living.

Get under the bonnet of any machine of British public policy, and it’s still difficult to tell whether we have the most centralised or decentralised state in the world. In education, as the Daily Telegraph once argued, power is ‘everywhere and nowhere’, with our schools simultaneously appearing emancipated but feeling constrained. As the Institute for Government has argued, we seem much more centralised than others in the national to local division of power, but much more decentralised in terms of the leverage the centre of government has over its departments. The first step towards devolution might require the centre to hold – forcing rather than encouraging all departments to let it go.

At the event, Geoff Mulgan pointed out the problems with politicians who have never run anything (apart from a couple of twitter accounts as Special Advisers). Centralisation has stripped England of the useful escalator of powerful local or regional  government politicians, from which presidents and prime ministers tend to emerge in other countries, running partly on their track record of getting things done (this might partly explain Boris Johnson’s appeal). If this is a problem, then a long term, radical commitment from the centre to devolution has to be an explicit part of the solution.

The current electoral conundrum might worsen this situation. Parties without a chance of national power tend to gravitate towards decentralised philosophies – where their power bases tend to lie. But now almost all the parties have some chance of being part of a coalition government, with the seduction of those big national levers to pull, their commitment to the local will be highly contingent – why work so hard at this political stuff, to give power away once you have it? As I wrote in my last blog on a gap year for schools, localism is the first casualty of any general election campaign. Although there is a consensus in all the manifestos about devolution to cities, this remains superficially constructed, with implications ill-thought through. For instance, if we are serious about ‘Devo-Met’ which gives cities similar powers to the devolved nations, that implies the end of any national curriculum for England. This may or may not be a good thing, but the advocates of Devo-Met haven’t even registered this as a possibility.  

So here’s an idea, too late for any manifestos, but possible for any first ministerial shuffle, or even the Spending Review. Building on NESTA’s idea for superministers, how about a superminister for devolution? A minister without a department, but with a principle of subsidiarity, who is prepared to ask difficult questions about existing arrangements or future proposals – ‘why are we doing this? Why are we deciding this? Would these decisions and actions better be taken locally? ’

Importantly, the superminister could have a behaviour change remit: evolving accountability systems so that the right people are blamed and praised for the right things; educating the media and public to direct their wrath to the right radio phone-ins; and the rapid reaction mentality of departmental ministers to local problems (whether it’s about bin collection or Trojan Horses), so that the response is more often ‘stuff happens’ than ‘something must be done (by us)’. Ministers and civil servants would undoubtedly see this superminister as an asset stripper/grim reaper, but perhaps some grimreaping and asset stripping is just what the centre of government needs.


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