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That is the conclusion of the Political Studies Association’s Research Commission to examine the role of ‘informal governance’ on devolution to England’s cities.

The Commission is chaired by Dr Sarah Ayres (University of Bristol and Board Member of the Regional Studies Association) and has involved the following Commissioners - Paul Buddery (Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce), Dr Jo Casebourne (Institute for Government), Tessa Coombes (University of Bristol), Ed Cox (Institute for Public Policy Research) and Mark Sandford (House of Commons Library). 

The Commission is launching its report (Examining the role of ‘informal governance’ on devolution to England’s cities) at a round table event at the Institute for Government on 3rd March 2016. The report offers some reflections on the process of decision making around the devolution deals to date. It draws on the shared learning and experiences of key actors involved to identify elements that have worked well and also potential areas for improvement. It concludes that the devolution agenda offers a real opportunity to empower local areas, boost economic productivity and improve public services. Yet, there is a danger that the initiative will falter in the absence of greater clarity around process and enhanced local ownership of decision making.

The UK has long been regarded as one of the most centralised states in Europe. Yet, since the Scottish Referendum and the election of a Conservative Government in May 2015, the devolution agenda in England has moved forward at a rapid pace. It offers a real opportunity to significantly transform the way England is governed. There is energy and momentum behind English devolution that has the potential to address growing public concerns about the governance of England in a devolved United Kingdom. Central Government proposals for devolution have been met largely with enthusiasm from local areas and there is a firm commitment in parts of Government to see the devolution of power in core policy areas such as transport, economic development and regeneration and public service reform. 

However, the devolution agenda, and more specifically the process of negotiating the recent round of devolution deals, is characterised by a high degree of ‘informal governance’. Informal governance can be defined ‘as a means of decision-making that is un-codified, non-institutional and where social relationships and webs of influence play crucial roles’ (Harsh, 2013). The issue of informality in policy making is particularly timely as global nations and cities seek to manage multifaceted policy problems within contested, complex and uncertain environments. This development has prompted a new style of political leadership - one that relies less on bureaucracy and formal structures and more on networks and informal relations. However, informal governance raises important questions about effectiveness and transparency in policy making. On the one hand it can lead to greater efficiency through more timely and streamlined decision making, based on high trust relationships. On the other, it may weaken transparency, accountability and legitimacy by undermining traditional (more formal) administrative structures.

Informal governance is everywhere in policy making but the devolution agenda is characterised by a particularly high degree of informal governance. The fact that guidance and procedure are absent generates scepticism and suspicion from some participants, councillors, and the public. This could damage the democratic legitimacy, and hence the sustainability, of the policy. The UK government is embarking on fundamental constitutional change driven largely by informal ways of working. While there are undoubtedly benefits to more informal and fluid governance arrangements, there is a danger that devolution could be undermined if key actors and the public feel disenfranchised by and disconnected from the process. More specifically, the Commission makes the following key recommendations:

  • Procedures for making decisions about devolution deals need to be more open and transparent. There is a need for ‘light touch’ guidance on (i) central government objectives (ii) what policy areas might be included in the deals (iii) characteristics of a successful bid (iv) how implementation might be monitored and (v) central and local government expectations for consultation and engagement.
  • The Government needs to better articulate the benefits of a combined authority and metro mayor if broad support for this element is to be garnered.
  •  HM Treasury needs to stay involved in the implementation of devolution deals to ensure that the commitment to and momentum behind the deals remain.     
  • There needs to be more emphasis on sharing good practice about how deals are negotiated across Whitehall departments and local areas to promote policy experimentation, learning and innovation. 
  • Combined authorities need to move quickly to drive public engagement and wider stakeholder collaboration in implementation.

The Commission’s findings and recommendations are consistent with other recent evaluations of the devolution deal process. For example 'Devolution: the next five years and beyond' identifies concerns about the pace of the devolution agenda, a lack of rigour in procedures and concerns over public engagement and consultation. 'Empowering Counties: Unlocking county devolution deals' calls for greater clarity on the purpose, process and timescale for devolution. Moreover, 'Making devolution deals work' offers guidance and a check list on how to make effective devolution deals. Our findings seek to contribute to this debate and to offer critical reflections on how to develop and improve plans for devolution in the future.

Sarah Ayres is Chair of the Political Studies Research Commission


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