Adam Lent is the Director of the New Local Government Network
So this is a revolutionary Government. Ready to shake the foundations of Whitehall, radically shift policy focus to the world outside London, and respond to the popular desire to “take back control”. It’s early days but the ambition of the initial ideas seem to owe rather more to Citizen Smith than Che Guevara. It will take a lot more than some departmental rejigging and extra infrastructure spending to upend the status quo.
Fortunately, the Conservative manifesto gives the Government the perfect tool to transform the culture of Whitehall and respond to their new supporters in the North: the promised devolution white paper. However, for that initiative to be truly transformational and mean something to voters outside of London, it needs to provide for a very different type of devolution to that which occurred under previous Governments.
The crucial difference is to make this a devolution about empowering communities, not institutions. Efforts to date have been highly technocratic, offering new powers to areas only on the condition that they create complex new bodies with a top-down, economic policy focus. There was no sense that any ‘ordinary’ citizen was gaining a substantially greater say or stake in how their lives might change. Continuing with that approach will only generate even higher levels of alienation and do little to fundamentally transform the way government and public sector works.
Luckily there is now a new wave of innovation occurring across the public sector that offers a different way forward. That wave involves handing power and resources over to communities to play a central role in designing and delivering services. It is proving transformational. It enables a shift to a preventative model, improves outcomes, enhances legitimacy, and even saves money. It taps into the entrepreneurial spirit and inherent creativity of neighbourhoods, community businesses, and local charities, in a way the traditional paternalist model of public services and state-led solutions never would.
The innovations range from mobilising communities to support families and others facing crisis, holding deliberative events to allow service users to shape public services, handing over budgets of widely varying sizes to neighbourhoods and other communities to control, or transferring assets such as libraries, theatres, and community centres, into the hands of community groups.
The role of a new round of devolution must be to take on the institutional mindsets and allow this spirit of community power to flourish. The key way to do this is to make devolution conditional – not on the establishment of new institutions, but on councils and public sector bodies actively working together to empower communities.
That conditionality cannot be based on the old deal-making model of devolution. This was a waste of time and money – tying up central government and councils in endless rounds of negotiation and bid preparation while delivering underwhelming change or, in some places, none at all. The intention to ensure collaboration by councils and other bodies across areas was sound but the method to achieve that was hopeless.
The alternative is to devolve power and funds as soon as possible, but with central government retaining the right to recall them, should particular areas fail to collaborate or empower communities. After all, as any behavioural scientist will tell you, the fear of loss is a far better driver of behaviour change than the promise of reward.
Our highly centralised political system and public sector is one of the key reasons why so many across the country feel excluded and marginalised. It also helps explain why our economy is so skewed towards London. We have known for years that devolution is the antidote. But devolution that creates new layers of bureaucracy or simply empowers those already in charge locally will always prove an unfinished revolution that fails to excite the wider population. This Government with its revolutionary mindset and imperative to give control back to citizens must not miss the opportunity to do things differently.