Learning Lessons from the Continual Process of Devolution

From the UK to Japan, devolution has been a growing trend over the last few decades in an attempt to further democratise large nations. Decentralising state power to the regional and local levels seeks to develop greater representation and accountability to the population of a nation state. The process of decentralising and reallocating resources and power is not a straightforward task and can present many challenges along the way.

Meg Munn is an independent governance consultant and former UK Minister. From 2014 – 2017 she worked as an associate of Global Partners Governance on their Basra project focused primarily on decentralisation. In this post, Meg discusses some of lessons learnt in the processes of devolution and her recent work in Basra,

Whether it’s more self-government for Scotland and Wales, boosting economic prosperity through the Northern Powerhouse or the failed attempt to introduce regional government in the early 2000s, devolution for the UK remains a live issue.  One argument is that different geographical areas need different responses; for instance, needs in dense urban areas are different to those of rural populations. In some countries tensions between different ethnicities or religious groupings necessitate a system that gives every group a say in the services they receive. Devolving powers is a means to keep a country of disparate interests together.  Equity may play a part – centralised countries, such as the UK, may find that economic power located primarily in one area leads to a lack of balance in wealth, with overheating in that region and economic problems and unrest in other areas.

Definitions and different models

Over the last three years I worked on a project supporting the process of decentralisation in the Basra Governorate of Iraq for Global Partners Governance. Changing the law on decentralisation led to high expectations in Iraq’s regions about the authority they would acquire over a range of services that had been previously been run from Baghdad.

During our first contacts with regional politicians there was a strong desire for the process to take place quickly. Indeed, the act of decentralisation embodies the belief that services would be better if those in charge of the finance and resources were closer to the recipients. However, there was a lack of understanding of the complexities involved in the change, and the need for detailed preparation. Most often we were told the problem was that Baghdad would not let go of the power and the finances, that Basra just needed to be given the money and they would get on with the job.

The first problem is often that of definition – what is being devolved and how will this change service delivery? In the UK, the government agreed a number of devolution deals, each with its own differing range of powers creating the potential for confusion. In Iraq, it was the case that many routine administrative matters had to be agreed at the highest level – for example all public employees would have their leave applications approved by the relevant central government minister. A level of centralisation beyond anything the UK has experienced. So in Iraq it meant that some saw decentralisation as merely devolving responsibility purely for routine administrative matters. Other countries have been highly centralised in their political structures. At a regional conference organised by Global Partners Governance in the Middle East, for the Jordanian participants decentralisation meant establishing locally elected councils for the first time.

 

Preparation

The first step for any process has to be a shared understanding of the desired model – including the powers, finances and resources, and its relationships to the central body. While the law passed in Iraq was never in dispute, there continued to be discussion and debate about what it meant in terms of speed of implementation. Hostility due to confusion is unhelpful, inevitably leading to a fraught process.

As the full potential of decentralisation became clearer to the politicians in Basra they began to appreciate the need to ensure they had detailed plans for each key area. The project team worked with them to develop a simple monitoring and evaluation tool to assess each of the service areas and the plans and preparations. This assessment process included issues such as the new staffing structures, financial and human resources and premises as well as any plans to change services and how they would be delivered.

 

Learning from others

In the UK, we have been learning and adjusting the process of devolution to the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly and the Northern Ireland Assembly for the best part of twenty years. This journey is a continuing one, a new stage for Wales being marked with tax raising powers being discussed. Politicians and senior staff members from the Basra region found a visit to Wales and the London Assembly were crucial in helping them fully understand both the challenges and opportunities.

The change in thinking from one of simply demanding money from Baghdad, to contemplating the potential, was summarised by one Basra councillor when she said, “We had no goal for decentralisation.” On their return to Iraq they set up a new decentralisation unit in the Governor’s office, along with units in each service directorate to implement the changes.

 

Changing services

One senior politician from Basra said following their visit to the UK, “We thought we were at the end of the decentralisation process but now we realise we are at the beginning.” Initial discussions have shown an appetite to shape services locally and the next steps are for the service directorates to make a real change to the lives of local people. However, one director reflected that the politicians locally needed to engage fully with services, a change purely from the purse strings being held by Baghdad to being held in Basra would not be sufficient.

While the decentralisation process is still ongoing in Iraq, there are positive results elsewhere. In Kenya, a recent newspaper report set out how investing in health through a devolved structure had led to significant changes, particularly in access to services in rural locations. Counties now hold the budgets and can take account of local cultural differences. For example, providing local facilities for expectant mothers has increased the percentage of mothers receiving skilled help at births in just one year – from 43% to an impressive 61%. The infant mortality rate per 1000 births has also dropped from 42.4 to 35.5 in five years.

 

Conclusion

So as the Basra regional government moves closer to taking on devolved powers it has grasped key issues. Decentralisation, or devolution, is not a one-off event but rather a process continuing over time. This may include gaining further powers, but will certainly include further negotiating and discussion with central government. There will be a need to work out where new laws have an impact, and how to respond to changing circumstances. Continual engagement with the public will be required to ensure their confidence and support remains, and crucially, that a sense of remoteness from central government doesn’t turn into remoteness from local politicians. Devolved services should be better services, but this will only happen if all involved turn the potential benefits of closer engagement into services that are more responsive to local need.

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