Devolution is genuinely fascinating (even without the offer of cake)

Head shot of Belinda Volans in snowscape wearing woolly hat
Belinda Volans, FCO

This week has been Devolution Learning Week, and colleagues in Cabinet Office have been encouraging us to think up innovative ways to capture the attention of our colleagues.

My first instinct was to ask: how can I make this a ‘hot’ topic? How can devolution learning become something that everybody actively wants to do? I’ve seen how family or work connections drive people to find out more about devolution (I’m from Edinburgh, so have a natural curiosity about what’s going on with Scottish devolution). But we need to reach out to those who don’t think they have a connection – because they do.

The challenge

The thing is, I work in a reserved department: EU and international affairs are reserved, and that’s what the FCO does. Three-quarters of our officers are overseas, and two-thirds are employed locally (so usually aren’t British). The challenge isn’t just expanding our existing knowledge – for some, it will be about discovering what UK devolution means, and then getting to grips with how we represent devolved issues overseas. And often, as with many policy issues we don’t all deal with on a day-to-day basis, we don’t seek guidance until something falls on our desks with ‘Scotland’, ‘Wales’, or ‘Northern Ireland’ on.

In addition, devolution is here to stay – the Civil Service is on a devolution journey, and we need to sustain interest over years, not just days.

A sponge cake inside a red circle cut by a diagonal red lineA colleague suggested the tried-and-tested bribe-with-cake method. I am not a huge fan of this, as while I do like (good) cake, I don’t want to undermine the issue. Either I am presenting this is a serious matter, about which we want and need to find out more – or it’s not, and we can just eat cake, good cake, without the learning bit.

Devolution stuff you didn't know

So, I thought, we have an ongoing devolution engagement strategy. And we reach out to policy desks who we feel need to engage more with the Devolved Administrations. This is the stuff we do all year round. But let’s make it fun. For Devolution Learning Week, let’s see if we can show the lighter side of devolution learning. Let me see if I can show colleagues why I think that this is an inherently interesting issue that I would want to know about – even without cake!

And so was born hashtag #devolutionstuffyoudidntknow. Yes, catchy - though this is an internal FCO hashtag, so you won’t be finding much on Twitter. It’s early days, and we have a following to build up.

Black and white image of large building
The Parliament Buildings, Stormont, during World War II

But what isn’t to find interesting in the fact that the National Assembly for Wales was the first legislative body in the world to have equal numbers of female and male members? That the building at Stormont now housing the Northern Ireland Assembly was camouflaged during WW2 using a smeared mixture of cow manure and bitumen? Or that one in four computers has a part made in Northern Ireland in the UK’s largest nanotechnology centre?

Devolution is here to stay, and to answer Andy Robinson’s blog, there’s no need to worry: this devolution thing is pretty exciting, and if you want to learn about it, just start with the basics. You might be surprised at what you find out!