Intergovernmental relations: Improving devolution capability in Whitehall
The Royal Society of Edinburgh (RSE) welcomed the Dunlop review into union capability, in particular with respect to its recommendations to improve capability in Whitehall and enhance more opportunities for civil servants to move between the four administrations of the UK. However, there is little evidence to suggest that these recommendations have been fully implemented.
Against the backdrop of Brexit, and the UK Government’s adaptations to it, there has been a deterioration of intergovernmental relations (IGR) in recent years. The recent reforms to the machinery of IGR do not appear to have made significant improvements, and are also still to be fully implemented. This suggests a continuing need for greater understanding of devolution and enhanced devolution capability within Whitehall.
The RSE is not in a position to comment on operational matters inside Whitehall (questions 2 – 6 within the consultation) – the lack of transparency on Whitehall structures and working practices suggests that these questions can only be properly addressed by the UK Government. Our response will instead focus on the missed opportunities since the Dunlop review and propose opportunities to do things differently, pointing to international examples of best practice.
There is an opportunity at present, which may not last that long, to change the structures at the centre of government in ways that reflect the union as it is, and recognise its territorial complexity. Historically, more attention has been given to matters of intergovernmental relations and devolution capability during boiling points for constitutional and territorial tensions, such as the Northern Ireland peace process or the Scottish independence referendum. However, the relative calm in the constitutional debate creates an opportunity to embed new cooperative practices that secure consent from the devolved administrations, and potentially lead to a corresponding shift in attitude and culture towards more constructive engagement across central and devolved governments.
The RSE argues that devolution capability in Whitehall remains a weakness at the heart of government. The lack of political will to implement the recommendations of the Dunlop review, as a bare minimum, will be a burden on the machinery of government for years to come. The urgent need to improve devolution capability is not an isolated issue. Instead, it nests within a wider set of issues about Whitehall capability, where there are concerns over the lack of policy development and a loss of confidence and authority. The relationship between failures in intergovernmental relations, political will, and poor civil service advice is something that could be explored further. Understanding the issues of devolution capability in Whitehall as part of that broader picture makes it more relevant.