Devolution blog – managing relationships, the dynamics of partnership working and the need for clarity and leadership in decision-making

Posted on February 19, 2016 by Ed Hammond. Tags: ,

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This is the third in a series of blogposts on governance and devolution. CfPS has been funded by the LGA to provide practical support to five areas in England which are going through the process of negotiating and agreeing devolution deals. We are exploring how accountability and governance will work in relation to matters subject to those deals.

Devolution deals will stand and fall on the quality of the relationships between the people involved. For someone keen on formal governance, this is difficult to admit. Close relationships – “chumminess” – can be the enemy of good governance. It encourages an uncritical atmosphere, a back-slapping environment where close relationships bind a small number of people together while others sit out on the cold, unable to influence or understand decisions that might be being made in their name. Ultimately, it is a way of working that can breed corruption and failure.

This is why formal governance systems exist. The systems we have in local government are very familiar to us now, and date back well over a hundred years. Strong, independent oversight of spending in particular was seen as critical when local government was a novelty – the District Auditor played a vital (some would say overweening) role in the early years of the last century and further systems of probity and assurance were added on during the “professionalisation” of local government in the 1960s and 70s, and again during subsequent modernisation efforts in the 90s and in the last decade.

Since 2010 the trend has been to move away from this form of control and accountability. Flexibility and innovation, local partnership and relationship-building now count for more than more formal systems of governance which can be seen as bureaucratic. Nowhere is this more evident than with English devolution. Here, relationships aren’t constrained by a formal, nationally-prescribed governance framework. They are recognised as central to success. But could this be at the expense of governance, probity and transparency?

Because this is not a top down process (at least, insofar as local areas have to come together to actively bid for powers) it relies on local leaders coming together and agreeing a joint prospectus. In some areas this has proven exceptionally difficult. The productive and positive personal relationships are necessary to allow a common understanding of priorities to emerge, because such a common understanding will require compromise and reflection – impossible where people are unable to discuss frankly and candidly with people they consider to be their peers. Disagreements develop over some of the biggest sticking points – who, locally, will exercise what powers? What checks and balances will there be? Where will oversight lie? Here, good governance can provide clarity. It provides a framework for these difficult discussions and decisions.

In a couple of the areas where we are providing support, relationships between key decision-makers are being built from the ground up. There has been joint working in those areas before but nothing of the scale we are now talking. Trying to build these relationships while simultaneously having a debate about issues which will affect the lives of people in those areas for the next ten, fifteen, twenty years is to say the least challenging.

We think that a framework is necessary for those discussions. Good – and proportionate – governance can provide that framework. This needn’t be overly bureaucratic.

For example, our work in each of the five areas where we are providing support seems to be coalescing around a particular methodology. We are starting by having some one-to-one structured conversations with individuals, or very small groups. These might be executive members, senior officers, partners, non-executive members and even (!) members of the public. We are using these conversations to design larger group sessions – identifying areas of commonality, areas of disagreement, noting opportunities for further dialogue. We hope that this will lead to a constructive process.

Importantly this process is a broad one. It involves more than just the group of people who might be negotiating the deal. A process that is managed, but that admits a wide range of perspectives, some of which may clash, is we think a good way to place relationships under stress in a safe and controlled way. That way we’ll know where weaknesses lie and what action we can take, through designing governance systems, to strengthen them.

Such an approach gives everyone a stake in leadership. It gives everyone clarity about what their roles are, and will be – individually and collectively. It is built on and promotes dialogue and discussion between peers – not at the expense of good governance, but specifically in order to build governance systems which will feel proportionate and relevant.

When we produce our findings, we will reflect on this process and consider whether it has worked well. In the meantime, we are keen to hear about the experiences of other areas who have been working on these issues. If you have any insights or thoughts you’d like to share, please contact me on 020 7187 7369 or at ed.hammond@cfps.org.uk

About the Author: Ed Hammond

Ed leads CfPS's work on devolution, transformation and on support to councils and other public bodies on governance and accountability.