Thursday, March 22, 2012

Three types of localism

Did you know that major provisions in the Localism Act 2011 are starting to come into effect this year?

If, like me, you're slightly vague on how the Localism Act 2011 changes the nature of local government, it's worth reading the Plain English Guide, browsing the website or even (good luck) read the Act itself.

This post isn't about the Localism Act. It's about what kind of thing we might want local government to be.

I think this is timely, because, given the widespread public indifference to the Act (citation needed!), I've got a strong suspicion that there's a greater disparity right now than for many years between:
(i) public perceptions of local government;
(ii) the functions and powers of local government as laid out in legislation;
(iii) the customs and practices of local government.

To be honest, though, you're probably better off talking about "what kind of thing we might want local government to be" with all those councillors who grapple with this question day-by-day. But I'm still trying to think things through; hence this post.

I'd like to distinguish three types of localism.

1. Robotic Localism

"I think you ought to know
I'm feeling very depressed"
The first type of localism occurs when local government is large and involves efficient but uncreative administration of rules and procedures laid down by central government. The details of all possible services and decisions are carefully circumscribed. The goals are always those of central government. Anything other than minor local variations in choices is illegal. The decision-making processes are also strictly defined. There's limited discretion over income and expenditure. The role of the local voter is to assess the efficiency with which local government operates. Although this "Robotic" type of local government can be as big or as small as central government decrees, "Localism" is portrayed as occurring when local government is responsible for many large, complex, and important budgets and decisions.

2. Autonomous Localism

"Greasing the wheels"
The second type of localism is very market-oriented. Companies, institutions, charities, communities, and other organizations do pretty much what they like, within broad parameters laid done by central government. Similarly, local government has a high degree of autonomy to decide on what services it wishes to provide, and the mechanisms by which it provides them. It distributes and regulates contracts for its services, funded by the taxes it decides to levy. This type of local government can be as big or as small as it wishes to be. The role of the local voter is to assess the choice of services, the mechanisms by which they are provided, and the subsequent judgements. Central government may choose to regulate particular markets in additional ways, and set minimum standards for services, contracts and taxes, but otherwise largely leaves local government alone.

3. Delegation Localism

"The first rule of management is delegation.
Don't try and do everything yourself because you can't."
The third type of localism is characterised by central government delegating as many decisions as possible, to individual industries, businesses, hospitals, schools, and so on. As in Autonomous Localism, central government may choose to regulate particular markets in additional ways, but otherwise tries to keep out of the way as much as possible. Funding of organizations by central government is decided by formulas that may take account of particular circumstances to a greater or lesser degree; but organizations are encouraged to develop new income streams to maximise their power and to set up mechanisms for accountability to stakeholders. Similarly, central government delegates to local government as much as possible - the choices of taxes to be collected, of services to be provided, and of decisions to be made - without interfering in the operations of local autonomous organizations. As in Autonomous Localism, the local voter can judge local government by assessing the choice of services, the mechanisms by which they are provided, and the subsequent judgements; but since so many services are provided by local autonomous organizations, it is the stakeholders who have the primary role. Where accountability to those stakeholders fails, it is typically central government that takes the blame, rather than local government.

By the way, if you liked the caption for the above diagram, you might like to know it's a quote from that great sage Anthea Turner (!) Perhaps you might prefer "Surround yourself with great people; delegate authority; get out of the way". That's Ronald Reagan.

Concluding remarks

I think it's clear that, in broad brush terms, England is moving away from a kind of Robotic Localism that unashamedly wanted the whole country to receive the best services currently available ("‘We have lived too long with a system good for the few but not for the majority") and so set national targets ("It is not an arrogant government that chooses priorities, it's an irresponsible government that fails to choose."). And it is now moving towards a kind of Delegation Localism ("The Big Society", "core principles for modernising public services: choice, decentralisation, diversity, fairness and accountability").

It's also fairly clear that there are problems with Delegation Localism, particularly the limitations on local accountability and the limitations on control over what local services are funded and how.

There are also obvious problems with Autonomous Localism, but it seems to me there has been a lack of public debate about what type of localism we actually want, and how the particularly limitations are to be addressed.

Question for the reader: what other types of localism should we consider?

  • "Robot" by Andy Field (Hubmedia) [CC BY-NC-SA 2.0]
  • "Local government gears" by LonWon. [CC BY-SA 3.0]
  • "Delegation localism" by LonWon. [CC BY-SA 3.0]

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