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“We don’t do the minutiae of policy well in England”

29 January 2015

This was Lord Heseltine’s concluding comment at a recent meeting of the All Party Parliamentary Group for Social Inclusion which was concerned with issues of devolution in England. I have to agree. Politicians, special advisors, think tanks and many central civil servants might be good at broad sweep of strategy and policy with a ‘big P’. But the acquisition of an Oxbridge degree in politics, philosophy or economics and experience in a Whitehall office doesn’t equip you well with the critical task of writing detailed policy with a ‘small p’ and it’s this detail that provides the essential link to implementation in a way that ensures that government’s intentions are realised. Without the detail being worked through thoroughly, we enter the domain of unintended consequences and confusion. This is not to say that creativity cannot flow from a more evolutionary approach to policy implementation, but rather that the detail must be confronted at some point and inconvenient truths revealed rather than simply ignored. Nowhere is this tension more pertinent than in relation to the current proposals concerning the devolution of skills, as premised in the city deals being developed in Manchester, Sheffield, Leeds and more generally through local enterprise partnerships (LEPs). Much of this inconvenient detail was identified in Julian Gravatt’s excellent briefing including: What comprises the “skills” budget? Does this include any or all of the following: university funding, apprenticeships, Department for Work and Pensions support to the unemployed, language training for immigrants or 16-18 funding for University Technical Colleges and schools? What happens to the 60% of the country not covered by the major cities? What happens to the provision that colleges within the major cities make outside of their cities? How do you devolve loans funding where the entitlement is personal to the learner in either HE or FE? How can funding for apprenticeships be devolved in two different directions at the same time, i.e. to a combined authority and to employers (many of which will be national players)? How are standards to be assured across the country so that skills acquired are portable outside of a city, region or LEP area? Comparators with the devolved nations are perhaps an unreliable guide in confronting these issues. The geography in England is much more complex and there is a difference between training a nation of more than 53 million people and training one of nearer to five million with more clearly defined boundaries in Scotland. But such difficult detail must be confronted in a determined, open-minded and constant way if we are to achieve an affective re-balancing of power away from the centre. The alternative outcome is the traditional English temporary and partial oscillation of powers with the gravitational pull of the centre eventually re-asserting itself. The minutiae matters! On a related note it might also be useful if, in the devolution agreements, 21st century words like influence, shape and facilitate were used in favour of 20th century words like direct, control and own. The former are much more likely to induce a constructive reaction from colleges to devolution proposals. A subject for a future blog perhaps…..