Smart devolution is the key to Whitehall reform

March 17, 2021   By Dr Simon Kaye and Adam Hawksbee

Giving local government more power isn’t a zero-sum game for central government. It can help the civil service improve as well. The authors of the new Commission for Smart Government paper ‘Smart Devolution to Level Up’ look at how devolution could be the missing ingredient of the government’s efforts to reform Whitehall.

While the political agenda shifts with each new party leader, election manifesto, and government, some things never change. Dissatisfaction with Whitehall is one.

It has been a long time since any government has seemed content with the civil service. Boris Johnson described his experience during the pandemic as ‘like that recurring bad dream when you are telling your feet to run, and your feet won’t move’.

“The missing ingredient in Whitehall reform is, and always has been, devolution.”

Successive governments and think tanks have set out the same basic idea: reform Whitehall and the central civil service into a system that is less bureaucratic, nimbler, and more capable of rapid delivery on important nation-wide objectives.

Right now, these are the kind of objectives which, for the most part, transcend party politics: levelling-up to address regional inequalities, getting down to net-zero carbon, battling the Coronavirus pandemic.

So why, for both Whitehall and the efforts to reform it, are our feet failing to move?

In a new discussion paper for the Commission for Smart Government’s Devolution workstream, we argue that the missing ingredient in Whitehall reform is, and always has been, devolution.

“Granting more powers to cities and regions can increase Whitehall’s ability to deliver.”

In international context, no other similarly large and complex country is as centralised as this one.

Because Westminster and Whitehall concentrate power at the centre, our wider, distributed capacity to innovate, experiment, and deliver is squandered.

This means that attempts to streamline or shake up government departments are likely to always end in failure, because the underlying issue – that these departments are trying to do too much and micro-manage work which ought to be handled locally – has never changed.

And although devolution is about power, it isn’t zero-sum. Granting more powers to cities and regions can increase Whitehall’s ability to deliver.

Confusing control and agency

Covid-19 provides an illustration of this issue. Faced with an unprecedented public health and policy crisis, the instinct of the centre was to grip tightly to the levers of power in the belief that large-scale problems require a large-scale response.

This approach is an illusion: a confusion of control with agency.

In many policy areas, far more could realistically be achieved by a reimagined approach to trust and accountability between national, regional, and local government.

During the pandemic this could have meant:

  • empowering locally-embedded public health experts to lead on track-and-trace
  • galvanising local private and public resources together to scale up testing
  • moving swiftly to resource local government to solve the many front-line service challenges imposed upon them by the pandemic
  • magnifying the impact of informal community action by helping councils to facilitate their work rather than organising under-used, centrally organised ‘volunteer armies’.

Our recommendations for Smart Devolution

Smart devolution doesn’t need to involve a laborious process of structural reorganisation. In many cases, the capacity for localities to deliver are already in place. Things could be improved by moving toward the devolution of certain funds and powers immediately.

“Whitehall has an effective addiction to centrally assuming all responsibility for delivery – win or lose.”

To support the Government’s Ten Point Plan for a green industrial revolution, we recommend a distributed and locally empowering approach. This includes immediate steps such as:

  • devolution of funding support for Electric Vehicle charging infrastructure to speed up rollout of cleaner cars
  • devolution of energy tariffs to accelerate retrofit
  • the agreement of regional carbon budgets and carbon reduction plans to provide new frameworks for devolved powers and accountability.

To make the recently published Plan for Growth a reality, we recommend serious fiscal devolution. This means making sure any new or reformed taxes – such as an online sales tax – are organised in a way that provides meaningful revenue streams for local areas.

The ongoing Beyond Whitehall programme should also be designed to go further than simply placing departmental offices in the towns and cities of the UK. Let’s use it as a platform to encourage more joined-up local and central government.

But to make these recommendations work, we need a shift in the culture and assumptions of Westminster and Whitehall.

In the paper, we show how it’s these attitudes that lead to unjustified doubts about the competence of local government, micromanagement by default, and an effective addiction to centrally assuming all responsibility for delivery – win or lose.

Devolution as an opportunity, not a sacrifice

Smarter devolution would offer an opportunity for central government, not a sacrifice.

It would not only help government to take on challenges and deliver objectives, but would help to sustain public engagement and trust in our crucial democratic institutions.

Citizens could become partners in reaching shared goals. Metro mayors could be equipped with powers and accountabilities to match their platforms.

And No. 10 could finally start to get a more effective grip on departments of state as their remits become less unwieldy.


Dr Simon Kaye is Senior Policy Researcher at New Local.

Adam Hawksbee is Head of Policy at West Midlands Combined Authority.

The Commission for Smart Government’s Devolution Workstream is one of twelve, each of which seeks to address a pressing question to help push forward the modernisation of our machinery of government. Sign up for the devolution panel event.

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