Ever devolving circles: Distracting from service delivery or essential democratic evolution?
Eduserv's Jos Creese says digitally-based devolution can help address the underlying costs of public service provision -but depends on a national digital agenda to support it
"Devolution" is, unarguably, the current government buzzword - a move away from Westminster-centric decision-making, which the Conservative administration has placed at the centre of its economic, social and democratic policy planning.
Much of this is driven by political expediency, as well as the unprecedented and somewhat unexpected fallout from the Scottish referendum, coupled with a general dissatisfaction with the level of public policy centralisation in London.
It's easy in hindsight to have seen this dissatisfaction brewing in the background. But the truth is it was not anticipated and the government is now on the back foot trying to respond. Since the Conservative government has been a champion of both open governance and of putting the public more in control of public services, it should be philosophically in favour of devolution, too.
Devolution is shaping up to be a fundamental rebalancing, and to some extent things are going full circle. The Victorians, for example, had a much more of a decentralised model of governance with huge autonomy in city regions and global protectorates. It proved to be a particularly successful model, defining us as a nation and driving economic prosperity.
So we shouldn't be frightened of the consequences of local independence. The trick is to avoid anarchy of systems, unexpected inefficiency, or lack of economic, fiscal, and security join-up - and, of course, a 'postcode lottery' of public service provision across the UK.
Devolution is going to go further and deeper than we are currently considering; the real agenda here is about federalising much further - to communities and, ultimately, to all of us as individuals.
I can foresee a future where communities take decisions about how taxes are spent (and collected) locally, about planning priorities, about local education provision, and about who runs services, such as libraries. I see a growing army of volunteers underpinning public service delivery in ways that would once have been unthinkable given the perceived encroachment on professional territory. And I see a future where all of us can and must take more control of our lives - deciding how and when we need support, and then using digitally enabled on-line services to fulfil those needs. This is all devolution.
This does not imply faceless, dehumanised public services where we are controlled by digital delivery that dictates how we interact. Neither does it mean every region will be in competition and every service becoming an island. Quite the reverse in fact.
Devolvement to communities and regional government should based on common digital platforms which adhere to recognised standards of usability, safety and design. It should allow intermediaries to act on behalf of others and in more personal ways. It must facilitate shared services and safeguard data to preserve public trust. It needs to join up national services, but deliver them in a way which reflects local priorities. Think health and social care, or police and local government or job centres and education.
Furthermore, digitally-based devolution can help address the underlying costs of public service provision - which are mostly local, such as adult social care, troubled families and economic under-performance.
All of this is possible, but depends on a national digital agenda to support it. For example:
- We need to see services and information joined up at a national level for our civil and economic protection. Economies don't respect geographies, and whilst cities are often powerhouses of economic regeneration, the infrastructure and workforce around the are key to their success. An integrated health and social care record must have a nationally agreed template and controls.
- We need a presumption that the way data and information are held, used and shared, will protect that data - safe and secure with total respect for privacy. This is not only essential for public trust, but also to needed for local public services can genuinely collaborate and work together.
- We need devolution to people and communities in ways that do not add to costs unintentionally through duplication or insularity: think of the downsides of every school procuring every service individually, buying individual insurance, doing buildings management, IT, HR, procurement, audit and more.
So, let's encourage devolution from top to bottom, replacing the dependency on London and the South East with a model for public service delivery which is closer to the people it serves.
But let's do that in a way which joins up those services better, not just locally but also nationally. Let's also make sure devolution resists the tendency for organisations to only believe it can work from the tier above them. And let's ensure, at its heart, devolution is about all of us as citizens playing a bigger part in local democracy and how we choose to use the public services on which we depend.
Jos Creese is principal analyst at Eduserv's newly established Local Government Executive Briefing (LGEB). He was formerly Hampshire's chief information officer and chief digital officer