Sarah Ayres, Tessa Coombes and Mark Sandford

The PSA’s Research Commission on the role of ‘informal governance’ on devolution to England’s cities recently concluded that the transition between ‘back stage’ negotiations and ‘front stage’ decision making was essential for the future success of devolution in England.  The Commission was chaired by Dr Sarah Ayres (University of Bristol) and 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 case of English devolution provides us with an interesting example of the complex interrelationship between ‘front’ and ‘back’ stage policy-making. Front stage, public officials are observable and accountable as office holders in elected bodies and are constrained by established bureaucratic rules, codes of conduct and public scrutiny. Back stage describes the world of complex decision making where public officials are hidden from public scrutiny and can engage in negotiations less constrained by formal rules.

Research findings reveal that the devolution deal process is purposefully low on guidance and has involved a small number of key actors from central and local government, negotiating the deals largely behind closed doors. This process has been criticised by some as being secretive and lacking transparency and legitimacy. From this perspective, high levels of informal working can be viewed as the latest chapter in the power-hoarding instincts of the British political tradition. By using informal means to shape local aspirations behind closed doors, the ‘shadow of hierarchy’ is operationalised in more subtle ways.

As our recent article demonstrates, the reality is more nuanced than this account describes. Evidence also indicated a genuine desire on the part of critical actors involved in the process to drive forward devolution. One local government respondent said ‘it created momentum and progress in a policy area that had limped along for years’. Informality had created an innovative space to explore policy options and to generate trust between central and local actors. Back stage negotiations were seen as a route to achieving the transfer of power to the local level. While there were differences of opinion on the details of the negotiations, the majority of respondents from central and local government viewed the process positively. On the whole it was seen as far less adversarial than in the past.

But momentum and progress came at the cost of inclusivity and buy-in from stakeholders and the public. Deals were offered to areas on a ‘take it or leave it’ basis and some areas chose to ‘leave it’: deals have collapsed in parts of England. Our research shows that the trust generated back stage between core insiders did not always percolate to the formal front stage. The challenge for policy makers moving forward is to strike the right balance between the flexibility afforded by back stage informality and demands for greater front stage democratic accountability.

For example, a lack of public awareness and opportunities for consultation have undermined an effective transition between back and front stage decision making. Public information and consultation at critical stages in the process might alleviate this risk. Second, the move towards more transactional and negotiated deal making clearly advantaged some areas over others. Those with a history of partnership working and established high trust relationships with central government were best able to champion local interests. Third, while some areas of the negotiation might best remain back stage, the blanket ‘shut down’ in local dialogue undermined the potential for sharing best practice and policy innovation. Allowing some elements of the bids to be discussed more openly would permit a ‘softer’ transition between back and front stage.

In the context of Brexit and a public mood of mistrust and apathy towards politics and politicians it is even more important than ever before to get the balance right. A policy agenda that is supposed to be about empowering local areas needs to be seen to be conducted in a democratic way.

 

Sarah Ayres is Reader in Public Policy and Governance at the University of Bristol. Tessa Coombes is a PhD Researcher, also at the University of Bristol.  Mark Sandford is a Senior Research Analyst at the House of Commons Library. Their article “Policy Making ‘Front’ and ‘Back’ Stage Assessing the implications for effectiveness and democracy” has just been published in the British Journal of Politics and International Relations. 

Image: Jaime Casap