Monday, 25 April 2016

Devolution: "The money being passed out to the (unaccountable) local enterprise partnerships far exceeds the supplementary investment grants going to the consortia of councils."

The National Audit Office has not been very impressed by the 'devolution deal':

“Despite several iterations of deals, the government’s approach to English devolution still has an air of charting undiscovered territory. It is in explorer mode, drawing the map as it goes along. Some of the opportunities and obstacles are becoming clearer, but we still do not have a clear view of the landscape or, crucially, an idea of the destination. Devolution deals provide important opportunities to reform public services. As with any experiment, some elements will work better than others. As we have said before, it is in the interests of both local areas and the government to know which programmes have the biggest impact for the money invested. Localism is not a reason for failure to learn from experiences or to spread best practice.

Amyas Morse, head of the National Audit Office, 20 April 2016

English devolution deals | National Audit Office (NAO)NAO calls on government to clarify its devolution vision | Public Finance

There is disquiet in many parts of the country:
BREAKING NEWS: Government warned over ‘complex and untested’ devolution plans for East Anglia - Fenland Citizen

Including Devon:
Futures Forum: Devolution and Local Enterprise Partnerships: a summary
Futures Forum: Local Enterprise Partnerships >>> "accountability and value for money" >>> Submission to National Audit Office by East Devon Alliance

The EDA blog draws attention to an article today from the former director of public reporting at the Audit Commission:
A mainstream newspaper finally sees flaws in devolution | East Devon Watch

Devolution will decide the future of the civil service

David Walker Monday 25 April 2016 13.34 BST

Bernard Jenkin’s new inquiry into the civil service doesn’t even mention devolution – yet it will determine the size and shape of Whitehall

Of course devolution isn’t a given. Localists have taken umbrage at the sceptical tone adopted in the National Audit Office’s (NAO) progress report on the devolution deals, especially its observation that there isn’t a great deal of rhyme or reason to some of the arrangements. The money being passed out to the (unaccountable) local enterprise partnerships far exceeds the supplementary investment grants going to the consortia of councils. Even in Greater Manchester, the most advanced and best favoured deal, the NAO can’t fathom what influence, if any, the new combined authority and mayor are going to have on NHS budgets. As for schools, the NAO notes dryly that proposals from councils to retain their role “have not been accepted by central government”.

Devolution will decide the future of the civil service | Public Leaders Network | The Guardian

Another piece from earlier in the week looked at the NAO's report:

Without clarity and local scrutiny we risk the prize of devolution

Ed Hammond Wednesday 20 April 2016 12.59 BST

Tens, even hundreds, of billions of pounds are being handed over to regions with little obvious accountability or a coherent sense of what it’s meant to achieve

Around the country, the government is doing deals with a patchwork of local areas to devolve powers over economic development, further education, skills, regeneration, transport, public health – and perhaps more in future.

These devolution plans are undeniably a positive move both for local government and local people. The potential prize is huge: direct local power exerted over services and issues that were previously planned and delivered from London. Contrary to what cynics might think, the deals that have already been done show this is not mere window dressing. Real power and real funding comes with this agenda.

You’d expect this would be accompanied by plans to ensure that devolved funding and powers are subjected to robust, meaningful accountability. You’d assume, too, that government was working towards some overarching policy objective. The National Audit Office (NAO) has noted that the sums are very large – tens, even hundreds, of billions of pounds over the next five years. But accountability for that spending, and a coherent sense of what it is meant to achieve, is difficult to find.

The approach government has taken to putting these deals in place has been ad hoc and inconsistent. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. We’re told that devolution deals are bottom up, that local objectives should be defined by local areas, rather than arbitrary objectives set by Whitehall, and that inconsistency between areas is actually a hallmark of a devolution process being driven by local needs.

But behind the scenes, ministers and civil servants have sought to tinker and engineer those deals to a surprising level of detail. We’re told, too, that government has no framework or plan that it uses to conduct negotiations – but good management practice suggests that it must do, to learn lessons from the first deals and improve the quality of the negotiations on the tranche of proposals now being considered.

It is a missed opportunity that government chooses not to share this learning more broadly, to give local areas a clearer sense of where the negotiation red lines might be and ensure deal-making can happen from a position of equality. But perhaps it doesn’t want to pre-empt plans that other areas might come up with.

This approach has resulted in confused governance. Government has pushed for directly elected mayors, but this solution fails to take account of the complexities that exist in the public sector locally. There are plenty of local issues and services for which a mayor will be only partly responsible, or not responsible at all – and many other local players (such as local councils, the NHS, and local enterprise partnerships) will jealously guard their existing powers.

This complexity makes it increasingly difficult for the public to understand who is accountable to whom. Bluntly, when things go wrong, who’s responsible? And why? Localists may cheer the idea of powers being shifted from Whitehall to mayors, combined authorities, and similar local structures, but when those local bodies are shrouded in mystery and secrecy, will it really make any difference?

Beyond the mayor, government seems to be relying on the oversight it exerts through the deals themselves – performance management, financial accountability, and so on – but this technocratic approach, which faces back up towards Whitehall departments, seems at odds with the broad policy objectives behind devolution.

The NAO, in its report published on 20 April, is right that there are significant accountability implications arising from devolution deals. However, its principal focus on accountability up to parliament – while understandable and important – is not where the real challenge lies. That challenge is actually about making these deals mean something to local people, and allowing them to be subject to meaningful local scrutiny.

At the moment, while there is an increasing recognition in the local government sector that this is an issue that needs addressing, government seems unbothered. And this is a big worry if it wants and expects devolution to deliver outcomes on the ground – real, tangible improvements to people’s lives – rather than arguments about powers, funding and legitimacy. We mustn’t risk the prize of devolution being obscured by the more prosaic, but critical, challenges of good governance.

See also: