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Matthew Taylor: Central failure should face a council commission

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In the rolling debate about how best to distribute power in the British state, we should turn our attention to the systemic problems of the centre.

Years ago while working for Tony Blair, I offered advice to a Whitehall team developing the case for giving more power to local government. The deck presented to me one sunny morning in Downing Street began with slides exploring the pros and cons of decentralisation.

High among the latter was the danger of public service standards varying from place to place, something we know the public tends to oppose. This led me to suggest an alternative pitch.

“Why don’t you start with the truth about central control?” I asked.

This is the fact that even in services which claim to be fully mandated from the centre there are great variations in service levels and bigger ones in performance and outcomes. The centre also hugely overstates the degree to which its corporate messages are heard down the chain of authority.

Civil servants and advisers must carefully choose when to explain to frustrated politicians the chance not all workers in the service they oversee may have read their recent ministerial speech, or even the last departmental circular.

And as I argued at the recent LGC Summit in Manchester, the traditional case for devolving power has been reinforced by two accelerating trends. First, important aspects of the modern world favour governance closer to the people.

Among these are the pace of change – particularly motored by technology – the growing complexity of economic and social challenges, and population shifts like more diversity, higher expectations and declining trust in other people and institutions.

These changes are strongly linked to a second shift: the growing crisis besetting our national democratic system.

There are many dimensions to this – and many symptoms too – but an important element is how political party leaders have been forced to be more responsive to internal pressures within their parties.

Many attacks on politicians are lazy, but the public perception that ambitious politicians regularly put the prejudices of their party colleagues and activists above any calculation of the national interest is only too accurate.

Not all national politicians are rogues and few local politicians are saints.

Nevertheless, it is no accident that across the world mayors tend to be more popular than prime ministers and presidents.

Not only is local politics generally more pragmatic and less sectarian than national, but many city leaders have an implicit model of change that better fits the modern world. Based on our own analysis of social change, the RSA offers advice to organisations on how to think like a system and act like an entrepreneur.

People like the principle. The challenge is that most public sector organisations are not set up to work this way. It is a stretch for city hall – a virtual impossibility for Whitehall.

Yet those arguing that greater decentralisation might help counteract populism, polarisation and policy failure face a problem. Government power is much more devolved in the US, Italy and France than in England, but those countries have a national politics just as messy as our own.

The sad truth is that even in systems that give regions and cities more protection from national imposition, local leaders are unable to blow away the noxious clouds emanating from national or federal government.

This takes me back to Downing Street and my attempt to reverse the conventional logic of the case for localism. After years of being inspected, regulated, disparaged and starved it is time for local government to grab the keys off the jailers.

I propose an independent commission, sponsored by local government, not to make the case for devolution but to forensically inquire into the political and policy failings of central government. For case studies we could perhaps start with the EU referendum, universal credit, Transforming Rehabilitation, the NHS reforms, and the austerity programme.

Enjoyable though it would be, this would not simply be a hatchet job. The task would be to propose a root and branch redesign of Westminster politics and policy with the aim of a national system sufficiently functional to allow local government to restore public faith in politics and government from the ground up.

I am, of course, very happy to offer the RSA as the secretariat, with the working title ‘the local government commission for democratic renewal’.

Matthew Taylor, chief executive, the RSA

 

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