Devolution and communication – what’s the deal?

What does devolution mean, and what does it mean for communicators?

A couple of weeks ago I had a call from a local government journalist about this, and there was a session on devolution at last week’s Public Sector Communications Academy #CommsAcad.

And this morning BBC News ran a piece which showed that many northerners don’t know what the Northern Powerhouse is. So it’s a fashionable topic, but can it be unpicked?

In terms of what devolution, and devolution deals, will mean, the jury is still out.

Evangelists will tell you that, at long last, power and money are being devolved to the regions and local government. Finally, major local decisions will be made at a local level.

Sceptics will tell you that as the Government gives with one hand it takes with another, and the devil is in the detail. The Spending Review later this month may add or remove confusion, and in 2020 the changes in Business Rates are due to come into play.

We still have a very centralised model of local government. Councils do not have many discretionary powers, funding is at the whim of the national Government, and this is being dramatically reduced. So any change is this dynamic is likely to receive a cautious welcome.

And then there are elected metro-mayors. There has been much talk in the local government world of whether or not they are a good thing?

The reality is that if local government wants devolution deals this debate is largely pointless. Earlier this year George Osborne said of elected mayors: “I will not impose this model on anyone. But nor will I settle for less.”

A masterclass in contradiction, but a clear statement that if local government wants devolution then it will have to have elected mayors.

Most politicians now accept this, but it’s taken some of them far too long to see, read, and absorb the writing on the wall.

The Chancellor may want elected metro-mayors because, as he’s said, he wants a single point of accountability, or it just may be that he and his colleagues are fed up of trying to reach agreement with eight, ten, or twelve council leaders, all with their own local agendas.

Whatever the truth, mayors are now part of the landscape, especially if your local councils have signed up to a devolution deal.

So what of the deals themselves, and what they mean to you as communicators?

As a native of Manchester, a current resident and former local government employee in South Yorkshire, and a former employee and consultant in local government and the combined authority in West Yorkshire, all of whom have deals, I find communications around devolution deals equally interesting and frustrating.

Whilst there are differences between areas, there are many common factors too.

It’s no surprise that residents don’t know much about devolution deals. Most of them are relatively recent, and not much communication has taken place. But what do residents want to know?

They’ll want to know what will mean for them, both as individuals and in their local area. This morning’s news report backed this up, with interviewees saying they’d heard of the Northern Powerhouse but they wanted to know what it would mean for them personally.

As a resident of the South Yorkshire City Region, whose combined authority has signed a deal currently worth £30million a year for 30 years, this is what I want to know too.

What have my leaders signed up to, and what will it mean for me and everyone else? I do not want or need to know much about governance structures, at least not until I get a chance to vote in two years time, so keep that bit short.

There’ll be plenty of time for that in future, just as there is for local luminaries past and present to start coming out of the woodwork to position themselves for forthcoming elections. It’s already started, just keep an eye out in your local area.

What I want to know about now is what the deal will mean for transport, skills, and jobs, and when? And I want to know in simple language.

If the deal if going to mean more jobs, then what kind of jobs, where will they be, and how do people get one?

If buses and trains are going to be better, then please break these improvements down to local neighbourhoods. The message has to be relevant to people’s everyday lives.

And if skills training is to improve, then in what, and where do people go to access it?

Please communicate with us about the future, and not the frustration of the negotiations of the past couple of years.

And please be honest about what is communication, and what is consultation. Do not dress the former up as the latter, it’s the cardinal sin. In South Yorkshire they’ve described their deal as subject to government legislation, which it is, and also to public consultation.

I’m confused as to what they’re going to consult about, as they’ve already signed the deal. Isn’t that what elected politicians are supposed to do, negotiate things on our behalf. We don’t need a referendum on everything.

And are they really going to change anything on the basis of the limited public response?

If the answer to this question is no, then please just communicate with me and others and call it that, as calling it consultation would be disingenuous.

In terms of how devolution is communicated, there is a contradiction. Devolution itself should transfer some decision making from a national to a smaller local level, but for local government communicators this creates the need to work more effectively together at a larger regional level.

There may be good examples in some parts of the country, but in the main neighbouring communications teams working well together isn’t one of local government’s strengths. Nor is working with communications teams in the combined authority or local enterprise partnerships.

Where it doesn’t currently work well, this needs to change, and quickly. There need to be regional messages and these also need to be broken down so that they are relevant to each locality. Regional and local communications teams are already well placed to do this.

So the structure and resources already exist, and now it’s time to work together and pool resources effectively.

But please make sure the messages are the ones people want to hear, and not the ones some of you think they ought to know.

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