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The ultimate ‘policy lab’ - how the four UK nations can learn from each other

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Sir Derek Jones, Permanent Secretary Welsh Government
Sir Derek Jones, Permanent Secretary Welsh Government

As I write, we are in the middle of the pre-election period for the National Assembly for Wales, the Scottish Parliament and the Northern Ireland Assembly (and the next London mayor, too).

This means that my colleagues and I, and our counterparts in Scotland and Northern Ireland, have our five-yearly opportunity to step back from the day job and to reflect. Some of our Whitehall colleagues may too, because, in Cardiff this week I’m hosting a ‘Four Nations’ Policy Profession event to enable discussion and exchange of policy-making experience across and within the four territories. It will be led by Chris Wormald, in his capacity as UK Head of Policy Profession, and is the first Policy Profession event of its kind.

'Learning together'

It has always been part of the original vision for devolution that, by allowing government policy to reflect differences between the nations of the UK, a natural ‘policy-lab' would develop – one administration learning from the innovation and the experiences (good and bad!) of others. The reality so far - in my view - is that we have not taken this approach in a systematic way.

So, with the theme of ‘learning together’, we will be looking back over the history of devolution to date, and forward to what may come next. We will share examples of different approaches to policy-making, and compare notes on how we are striving to make excellence our shared norm. We’ll consider the help that the analytical professions can provide, and we’ll pool experience of ways of delivering stronger local democracy, fairness, social change and well-being.

Lots to share

There’s a lot of experience to share and compare. Devolution has changed the political and policy environment across the whole UK, not just in the devolved territories, with major developments in England over the last year or so.

With different political parties in power in the four parts of the UK (supported as ever by civil servants acting with professionalism and impartiality), we have a situation where:

  • different governments are prioritising different goals
  • they have contrasting general approaches to how they will pursue change – particularly in relation to improving public services
  • policies and, indeed, legal frameworks in the different jurisdictions are diverging
  • non-devolved UK – or GB-wide – programmes have to be implemented alongside complementary devolved activities that differ from one part of the UK to another
  • the various devolution settlements are all different from each other in terms both of legislative and of administrative competence

This means that we have an increasingly intricate policy picture across the UK. Untidy at times, but a wonderful natural laboratory for gauging the effects of different approaches to governance, policy and delivery.

Great scope for learning

I don’t underestimate the difficulty of learning and applying lessons across jurisdictions. We have to get better at evaluating our policies in the first place, in order to generate comparative findings. Context has to be considered when interpreting findings, because of the cumulative effect of policy divergence. The very fact that different governments have different goals, approaches and delivery mechanisms means that some learning is not immediately transferable.

But, having said all that, there is great scope for learning from each other, in what we do and how we do it. There’s also a very good incentive for us to make and maintain connections between policy-makers in different jurisdictions. As pressures on the Civil Service mount, we have to raise our game collectively. Our session in Cardiff is the first policy profession event of its kind, but I hope it won’t be the last.

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