Consider the Unintended Consequences of Local Devolution

The prospect of Scottish independence, or major constitutional change, provides a ‘window of opportunity’ for other political reforms. People feel, quite rightly, that now is the time to push their ideas, as part of a package of reforms unlikely to be repeated for a generation. It’s now or never (or, at least, much later). You can see that in today’s Herald piece ‘A chance to revitalise our local democracy’ which pushes for more devolution of powers to local government (or, at least, those in Glasgow and the islands councils) – a push that is broadly supported by the ERS’ Democracy Max. Perhaps the difference is that the ERS considers this idea as part of a whole package, which is better than considering each bit on a separate day. Still, there are at least two unresolved issues to consider alongside such reforms:

1. What would be the role of the Scottish Parliament? Currently, Scotland has a fairly traditional Westminster system in which the Scottish Government is accountable to the Scottish Parliament. The experience of 14 years of devolution (and the last 6 in particular) is that the Parliament struggles to hold the Government to account because: (a) it does not get enough information about what is going on; and, (b) local authorities say they are not accountable to the Parliament because they have their own elections and mandates.  This is despite the idea that Scottish Parliamentary committees are ‘powerful’ in relation to their Western European counterparts. More devolution to local authorities would exacerbate this tension between local and national accountability. In turn, it should prompt us to think about what the Parliament is there to do. Is it there to consider the Scottish Government’s broad strategies or should it get its hands dirty looking at the outcomes?

2. What would be the role of Scottish-level groups? The evidence to date suggests that most ‘lobbying’ to the Scottish Government and Parliament is done by (a) other parts of Government and (b) professional and interest groups – representing local authorities, local authority professions, the medical and health professions, businesses, business groups, the third sector, and so on. When policy is made at the Scottish level, those groups organise at the Scottish level – establishing bases in or near Edinburgh and spending their ‘lobbying’ time in consultation with civil servants. One consequence of devolving power locally is that these groups must reorganise, to shift from lobbying one national government to 32 local governments. For example, the SCVO role may shift from a national voice for hundreds of small groups to a national resource to aid those groups when they engage locally. There is nothing wrong with that, but it should prompt us to consider the local dynamics of consultation in at least two ways. First, there are likely to be clear winners and losers in this new setup. The well-resourced professional groups will be OK. However, the groups working on a shoestring budget, with one or two members of paid staff, only able to lobby the Scottish Government and Parliament, will struggle. In other words, the reforms may benefit the ‘usual suspects’. Second, who will take the place of the smaller groups? The ERS’ suggestion is that more local devolution produces a more active local population, but we need to know more about how and why people organise. It seems intuitive that local communities may organise on an ad hoc way to address major issues in their area, but the thing about professional groups is that they have a constant presence and that they often get a handle on the details of policies over time (at a level, such as Scotland, which allows a relatively efficient way of doing things, with fewer overlaps).

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Filed under public policy, Scottish politics

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