In the context of English devolution, policy makers need to think more explicitly about the interplay between front stage politics and back stage negotiations. Central government’s purposeful strategy of informal negotiations with very few formal objectives has resulted in a lack of public awareness and low levels of stakeholder support that could derail devolution in parts of England.

That is the finding of research conducted by Sarah Ayres (Bristol University) and funded through the Regional Studies Association’s Fellowship Research Grant Scheme. The project, titled Assessing the impact of ‘informal governance’ on devolution in English cities has undertaken interviews with senior practitioners from central and local government involved in the recent round of devolution deals in England.

Findings reveal that the Conservative government is committed to extensive devolution of power to local government. Yet, there has been very little formal guidance shaping the scope and direction of the policy. The Government has negotiated a range of ‘devolution deals’ with localities, each of which has been individually brokered – a combination in reality of formal ‘front stage’ politics and informal ‘back stage’ negotiations. ‘Front stage’ describes the activities of visible and accountable office-holders in elected bodies, constrained by established bureaucratic rules. ‘Back stage’ describes the world of unseen decision making where public officials are less constrained by formal rules and public scrutiny.

English devolution deals have been negotiated almost entirely via informal governance at the back stage. This has helped participants make great strides in a policy area with a long history of impasses, high passions and low trust. Evidence shows that back stage decision making has brought a number of advantages. It has helped to manage some of the complexity and uncertainty surrounding the devolution agenda, not least what might be devolved and securing agreements over territorial boundaries. The involvement of a small group of negotiators from central and local government has avoided the inefficiencies of coordinating a large number of actors. It has also helped to build trust amongst key figures and maintain policy momentum, especially when championed by the previous Chancellor, George Osborn. Operating back stage contributed to breaking deadlocks, exploring innovative policy options and allowing actors to consider what might at first have seemed like the unimaginable – not least the imposition of elected Mayors in areas that were overtly hostile.

However, the transition from back stage negotiations to the front stage has been flawed, which could serve to undermine the benefits of informal working over the longer term. The government’s failure to clarify policy objectives and the inability of central and local ‘insiders’ to generate buy in from wider stakeholders means that the transition to the front stage has not gone to plan, with a number of devolution deals subsequently collapsing.

Research evidence points to a number of ways to improve the transition between front and back stage decision making. For example, central government’s apathy towards public engagement is evidenced by the speed at which devolution deals were made, leaving very little room for local consultation. Building public awareness and providing opportunities for consultation is an essential part of managing the transition between back and front stage. Central government also needs to ensure that adequate resources, particularly human capital, are available to service the deal making process. Personnel with the right levels of skill and seniority need to be in place to ensure ‘parity of opportunity’ to all local areas. This would avoid some localities feeling marginalised in the deal making process. Finally, the secrecy surrounding the deal process undermined any potential for local areas to share information and best practice. While some areas of the negotiation might best remain back stage, the blanket ‘shut down’ in local dialogue undermined the potential for policy innovation – a point that should be redressed moving forward. Moreover, allowing some elements of the bids to be discussed more openly would permit a ‘softer’ transition between back and front stage.

For further information on the role of informal governance on the devolution deal process please see:

Ayres, S. (2017) ‘Assessing the impact of informal governance on political innovation’, Public Management Review, 19, 1, 90-107

Political Studies Association (2016) Examining the role of ‘informal governance’ on devolution to England’s cities

Sarah Ayres, Bristol University, UK

Further information on the project can be found here: http://www.regionalstudies.org/funding/report/assessing-the-impact-of-informal-governance-on-devolution-in-english-cities