This year, I was at Civil Service Live to share what I have learnt about working with Devolved Administrations. I was joined by my counterparts in Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland who shared their side of the story.
What do you think when you hear the word ‘devolution’? That it’s complicated? Or something other civil servants have to worry about? I thought those things too. Then last year I was promoted to a Deputy Director role in Defra responsible for devolution, so I had to 'get' devolution fast.
I soon learnt that understanding what powers have been given to the Scottish and Welsh Governments and the Northern Ireland Executive (the Devolved Administrations) was not my key learning – important though that is. My key learning was to really understand how I needed to be working with my counterparts in the Devolved Administrations.
Here’s a taster of what I’ve learned so far: my 6 'C's for getting devolution and intergovernmental working.
Know them. Find out who your counterparts are in the Devolved Administrations and get in touch. You’re doing similar roles, (potentially with similar goals) but taking different paths to delivery. Share knowledge and know-how and keep in touch. Counterparts have local knowledge that you probably don’t and vice versa, so that’s a win-win situation. Know your counterpart and understand their views before forming your advice and taking decisions.
I thought I had a good understanding of national politics but now I realise the different politics at play across all parts of the UK. I tap into a much wider range of media and political commentary, and when I meet my counterparts who work for the Devolved Administrations it’s easier to understand what’s driving their priorities.
You might need to share factual data or news of a publication with your counterparts. Share it at the right time. If you involve counterparts early enough, chances are their expertise will inform yours. And if you want genuine engagement with your counterparts across the UK you need to give them enough time to review the information and provide a considered view.
I’ll sneak an extra ‘c’ in here, for confidentiality. Always be mindful that there will be occasions when you can’t share information – perhaps your ministers haven’t yet had the opportunity to consider options – but on routine business, much of the time, you can. If in doubt, ask.
I used to think that policy differences between UK administrations meant we couldn’t work together but that’s simply not true. You may already have set-piece meetings and committees to enable intergovernmental working – sharing information and exchanging views, developing options. Now is probably the ideal time to beef those up so they can withstand any pressures that EU Exit will exert. And if you haven't got the right structures in place, start a conversation in your department about establishing them.
Establish shared outcomes and common ground and then work together to deliver a joint product. You need to think carefully about the areas where there is real agreement on the key objectives and then put the effort in to have meaningful collaborative partnerships. Place a strong emphasis on personal relationships; and if you have communicated well, cooperated on key issues and really put effort into identifying common ground, it’s more straightforward to collaborate.
Upskill the team, particularly those who have most interaction with Devolved Administrations in policy and delivery areas. That’s why Defra Group took part in the Civil-Service-wide week of devolution learning in March and is beginning a devolution learning campaign across the Defra Group.
Even if you’ve never considered the constitution of the United Kingdom before, chances are you’ve thought about how EU Exit will impact on the UK – maybe that’s become the focus of your work. Or maybe you have a personal view on how governments should operate in the UK. Many of us who never knew we had a lurking constitutional gene suddenly find ourselves fascinated by these interesting times. I hope my learning helps yours.
You can find out more about the Devolution and You learning campaign on GOV.UK/devolutionandyou.
Follow UK Governance and Devolution Team on Twitter: @CSDevoTeam.