Public services, brought to you by…?

While the commentariat has been focused on the strife wracking the Labour Party, the government have been quietly completing the second phase of their vast UK-wide effort to decentralise governance in the UK.

On the back of the major devolution settlement with Greater Manchester, the Government has been overseeing the creation of a new wave of elected city and city-region mayors and expanding the powers of PCCs. These changes are being carried out in order to bring decision-making closer to the people; yet we hardly stop to consider this new architecture of government from the perspective of the individual citizens for whom it is being introduced.

The Chancellor has been unwavering in his view that cities and city-regions will only receive devolution settlements if they agree to establish a mayoral system of governance. These new mayors will be yet another tranche of elected officials created under Cameron’s Premiership, following on Police and Crime Commissioners – the first of whom were elected in 2012 with the lowest turnout of any British election in peacetime history: 15.1 per cent.  While there are strong arguments for Mayoral systems, it is important that citizens feel a sense of involvement in the process of establishing new structures of governance and, at the very least, that they understand how they work and why they exist.

Individually, devolved power structures are designed to localise power, but collectively – if they are ill-designed or explained poorly – they can make governance less clear and thus government less accountable. Accountability is dependent on clear causation between an authority and the actions for which they are accountable.   A clear link between decision and consequence allows people to judge the performance of their governments and hold elected officials to account.

If this link is not clear from the perspective of citizens, it can help institutions take credit for successes and avoid criticism for failures. Take the example of the division of power between Holyrood and Westminster in Scotland. A 2013 poll found that only 14 per cent of Scots think they have a very good idea of which powers sit with Holyrood and which sit with Westminster.

Ahead of the EU Referendum next year, the importance of understanding where responsibilities lie will become more apparent than ever. So what can we do in the future to make the relationship between services, decisions and institutions clearer?

First, when we design new institutions, we could do much more to ensure that the powers that they wield are clear and well delineated, without significant overlap with other authorities. In Birmingham in 2012, the unsuccessful referendum on whether or not to have an elected mayor was held before the powers a mayor would have were defined. Currently, there are significant variations in the powers of mayors between cities, and often mayors have control over certain funds within or parts of an area of policy – such as housing or transport – without having full control over that area.

Second, there is an urgent need to improve the level of political education in the United Kingdom. If the localism agenda really does put more political power in the hands of citizens, then the case for more extensive, statutory political education in schools has never been stronger. Indeed, in a 2009 YouGov poll, 43 per cent of 14-25 year olds wanted their school to spend more time teaching them politics. No student should leave school without knowing what powers their elected officials have, how they exercise those powers, and how their power can be challenged.

The government’s efforts to decentralise government and localise power are driven by a desire to put citizens at the centre of governance. This will only be a victory for democracy if it is accompanied by efforts to improve our collective understanding of how we are represented and served at all levels of government.