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Devolution not a panacea unless public services are reformed - IfG

Devolving powers to local authorities is not a solution to boosting public services unless it is accompanied by cautious reform on all levels of government, the Institute for Government (IfG) has said.

While the institute argues that devolution is not the wrong policy, its project director, Jo Casebourne, said it must be met with new, joined-up ways of working in local, central and frontline governance.

“The chancellor’s ‘devolution revolution’ will give more power to local government, but our research also shows it will not be a panacea,” she continued.

The body argued that despite the prime minister’s pledge to prioritise public service reform and devolve powers, these services are still not meeting the needs of citizens – and accessing them continues to be a “confusing, frustrating, and time-consuming process”.

Referring to a report published by the IfG today (4 November), she added: “This paper provides a starting point for thinking about how to effectively partner at the local level so this reform agenda meets the needs of citizens.”

The institute’s report offers insight on how to overcome historical barriers to reform agendas, citing the challenging delivery of public services such as David Cameron’s Troubled Families project as an example.

But the paper said joining up services is not easy to do in practice, despite being essential to bolster any pledge of devolution. Five challenges are primarily responsible for hindering collaboration, it argued, such as short-term policies and funding cycles blocking long-term partnerships.

Misaligned geographies and the patchwork of commissioning, funding and regulatory processes can also make it harder for councils to design services around a ‘whole person’.

Other challenges include cultural differences between professionals and organisations, barriers to data sharing and limited mutual understanding of ‘what works’ – meaning lessons learnt from effective models are rarely built on.

However, the report outlined 10 insights to counteract these obstacles, such as using multi-disciplinary teams to focus attention on more complex issues.

Building evidence-based consensus can also help draw in resources from different organisations, and agreeing on outcomes-focused goals can help frontline providers prioritise these resources effectively.

But perhaps most interestingly, one of the 10 insights called for balancing devolved powers with continued support from central government in order to drive sufficient political momentum to get initiatives off the ground.

As well as the advice provided in the report, the IfG said it will continue to look at how public services can be reformed to meet the needs of local people – including through more practical support to local partners currently trying to integrate services on the ground.

Nehal Davison, senior researcher at the institute, has also previously written for the Aug/Sep PSE to discuss how funding challenges in the public sector could be more easily met by integrating services.


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