You don’t get me – we’re part of the union: devolution as a policy laboratory

 

To paraphrase the famous Strawbs song all those years ago (apologies to younger readers!), fewer people seem to be ‘getting it’ when we talk about developments in other UK jurisdictions. While the debate on our future relationship with the European Union dominates the airwaves, we think it’s time to focus on the local union of England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales. With the release of today’s report on ‘Devolution as a policy laboratory: evidence sharing and learning between the UK’s four governments’, we argue devolution has great potential to test out new policies and allow all parts of the UK to learn from each other. However, our four nations may be missing out on exchanges that could result in more effective approaches to tackling shared policy challenges.

We believe there is not enough sharing of learning and best practice between the four nations to develop smarter policy-making and improved public services. It’s clear to me, with the increasing devolution of powers to the regions, it’s becoming more difficult to understand and learn from developments in our nearest (and dare I say dearest) neighbours. Let’s just take a really simple example, can you name the first ministers in our various governments? I guess the Prime Minister and the Scottish First Minister come readily to mind – but can you name the first ministers of Northern Ireland and Wales, never mind the more exotic bailiwicks and other dependencies of the UK?

Yes, it’s not easy! We seem to be becoming less interested in the affairs of the devolved nations and more self contained in our networking. I suppose many people may shrug their shoulders and question why this is such a problem (particularly if you live in the Whitehall bubble) but we think we’re missing a trick in not making the most of the rich learning available across the UK nations. It would appear we underrate this accessible experience compared to the lessons we seem to prize from exchanges with other European countries and the US, India and China for example.

We believe devolution has the potential to provide a more useful opportunity to test and share approaches to public policy-making. However, in our new report, we argue the UK has failed to live up to the promise of becoming this ‘policy laboratory’ for exchange and innovation. Instead, learning across the UK, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales governments appears to be ad hoc with few structures in place to support evidence exchange amongst policy makers. In addition, we think the cultural differences in political control and policy style between the four governments act as a disincentive to effective learning and sharing.

These concerns are not new and have been examined in a number of reports including a study by Jim McCormick (commissioned by the Carnegie UK Trust and Joseph Rowntree Foundation) in 2013 which found that 41 per cent of policymakers have a ‘great deal’ of interest in drawing upon more evidence from peers in the rest of the UK but, worryingly, very few know what is going on in other jurisdictions. In addition, only 20 per cent report they know a great deal about their sector elsewhere in the UK.

In October 2015, the Alliance for Useful Evidence and Institute for Government held a joint roundtable in Cardiff, exploring opportunities for evidence exchange and policy learning between the UK and devolved governments. We brought together senior civil servants and other experts from Whitehall and the devolved administrations to consider what can be done to increase UK-wide evidence exchange and policy learning.

You can read about this discussion in our report and consider the conclusions which we would welcome your feedback on. These include the need for increased interchange of staff between the four governments; the development of more consistent measurements of policy performance across the UK; a greater willingness to share data and evidence, including negative results; greater involvement of devolved governments in developing UK strategic research priorities; the creation of a new What Works Centre for Northern Ireland; and more public recognition of good practice by the civil service leadership.

The report is published by the Alliance for Useful Evidence and the Institute for Government, in partnership with Carnegie UK Trust.

Peter O’Neill is Northern Ireland Manager at the Alliance for Useful Evidence.

@A4UE