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CEOs and senior officers have their say on devolution

We asked public sector CEOs and senior officials where they were on their devolution journey at the launch of our Making Devolution Work report. Here's what they had to say.

When we launched our Making Devolution Work report at the SOLACE summit the audience included serving chief executives, senior council officers, up and coming stars of the future and fellow professional service firms. As part of the session we sought the views of the audience via live voting on key questions.

The anonymous voting enabled people to say what they really thought and, as one Twitter commentator put it, there was 'much honesty' in the room. Here's the results of the questions we asked the audience:

Question 1: where are you on devolution?

  • 5%
    A Existing deal in place
  • 42%
    B Firm proposals and conversations with the centre underway
  • 12%
    C Proposals in place but no/ limited dialogue with the centre
  • 18%
    D Outline prospects but lacking consensus/ evidence
  • 9%
    E Still working on it
  • 11%
    F Watching and waiting
  • 3%
    G Not interested

Just under half of our CEOs and senior officers are well underway with devolution proposals and in discussion with the centre. Perhaps no surprises here – this was a conference plenary on devolution after all. I'm just glad we didn't get a consensus around the final option.

Question 2: what has been the biggest challenge?

  • 26%
    A Getting the right partnership
  • 27%
    B The governance question
  • 15%
    C Capacity to support discussions
  • 9%
    D Developing an evidence base
  • 9%
    E Managing expectations
  • 14%
    F Other

Things got a bit more interesting when we asked about what had been the most difficult aspect of the first round of devolution proposals (table 2). Getting the right partnership and 'the governance question' received  about a quarter of the vote each, but subsequent panel discussion brought into focus that actually, all of these things are going to be issues at some point of the negotiation process and part of the challenge is creating the capacity amongst senior leaders to manage them as they arise.

We asked who had been driving devolution conversations – officers or members? A little chuckle rippled across the room that gave a hint what the result might be before the voting results were in, and indeed just over a third of people said that officers were in the driving seat. However, the role of members was emphasised in subsequent discussion with one CEO recognising that they've got an exceptionally tough and unenviable job as part of the deal-making process.

Moving on, around half of the people in the room were only 'somewhat' clear on what the centre expects as part of devolution negotiations. There's an obvious point here around the difficulty of negotiating when motives are unclear, but more importantly we heard surprise from members of our discussion panel who felt that actually, central government's motives are fairly transparent: economic growth, productivity and managing the fiscal deficit.

Question 3: how strong is consensus across your devolution partnership?

  • 8%
    A Strong
  • 19%
    B Strong enough
  • 24%
    C Partial
  • 37%
    D Fragile
  • 12%
    E Illusory

This was the most surprising result. Over a third of attendees felt that consensus across their devolution partnership is 'fragile' and one in 10 pushed the 'illusory' button. There's a real message here about the new-ness of emerging devolution partnerships, many of which are taking their first foal-like tentative steps – certainly they are a long way away from galloping at the speed of Greater Manchester.

If local authorities feel that way about their partnerships, then why should central government have the confidence to devolve to them? What happens when things get difficult down the line and relationships get tested by more than the process of developing joint proposals?

Later in the session we had more than half of respondents saying that the 'many-headed beast' of health had been the most difficult bit of the local public service landscape to engage in devolution discussions. This resonates with one of the key findings from our report: that there is hesitancy and a sense of 'watching and waiting' when it comes to devolution of health and social care.

Both Clinical Commissioning Groups (CCG) and provider bodies seem to get criticism for lack of engagement from the local government partnerships that I have been speaking to recently and I'm not always sure it's fair. I think local government needs to challenge itself on whether the opportunities to engage that it makes available are the right ones, and represent value to health colleagues. So I was pleased that one CEO defended local health partners saying that they had been closely engaged in work on mental health, and other more positive stories quickly emerged.

We heard that 40% of attendees thought that their economic geography was clear, well-evidenced and unlikely to change and a further 30% took the view that it was clear and evidenced but might include others in the future. This suggested a stronger grip than I had perhaps expected in terms of the sense of 'place'.

Closing remarks on devolution

In retrospect, there were two remarks that really hit home– one during closing discussions and one that I picked up on Twitter straight afterwards.

Firstly – one CEO pointed out that discussion of customers, residents and service users had been conspicuously absent.

Secondly – a commentator on Twitter noted lack of discussion about outcomes; the real point of all this.

The fact that neither of these things got sufficient airing is a warning shot across the bows for people like me, and senior officers involved in devolution submissions, who can get too wrapped up in the technocratic and geeky details of devolution. Which brings me back to the key question in our report – the first question that local leaders need to ask: what can we do differently and better for our area?

Words: Martin Ellender, Senior Manager, Local Government Advisory. You can follow Martin on Twitter @MartinEllender