Who’s accountable now? The public’s view on decentralisation

Decentralisation is firmly in the sights of politicians nationally and locally in the UK, but is it really possible for government to ‘let go’ in such a centralised political culture?

As part of our work with IPPR on the ‘Decentralisation Decade’ we have refreshed our 2009 research exploring who the public hold accountable for public services and for the economy.

Our new research reinforces our 2009 findings: if real powers are transferred to highly accountable bodies then public perceptions of responsibility will change. The public tends to have a relatively good awareness of whether particular bodies have the powers to act in a particular area. But real accountability depends on fully aligning decision-making, budgets and delivery when decentralising.

Key implications

There are three important implications for those seeking to decentralise:

  • Politicians need to hold their nerve: for at least a period of time ‘the centre’ will still be blamed for failures, either being seen as responsible for the act of devolution or because the public didn't notice or understand that devolution has occurred.
  • The public usually needs time to get used to understanding who is responsible for exercising newly decentralised powers. As such, a route map to decentralisation spanning years, not months, is needed to rise to the challenge of letting go of power in our centralised political culture.
  • Decentralisation needs to be a two-way process between central government and local bodies: in particular, local government needs to be focussed when negotiating for additional powers and ensure it has the capacity to make best use of them, as shown in the City Deals process.
  • If perceptions of accountability are to shift, communications and engagement are essential. Building the case for change and engaging the public in the debate on accountability is, therefore, an essential step if we are to deliver a Decentralisation Decade.