Constitutional Reform
4 April, 2007

Dick Sorabji, Deputy Director, NLGN
The Guardian

Constitutional reform is too important to be left to political scientists. Yet in debates on Lords reform the tradition is to pack away views on public service management and polish up Locke, Hobbes and Rawls. The reality is that political theories which ignore the managerial needs of government do not deliver viable constitutions. It has always been so.

The rise of absolutist monarchs in 17th century Europe resulted from more than the theory of the divine right of kings. Gunpowder changed the economics of war. Between 1550 and 1700 armies grew from 20,000 to 500,000, pricing medieval barons out of the market. The new constitutional settlement became possible when political theory and managerial need coincided.

Likewise in the 20th century, political theories of nationalism, democracy and social equality are only half the explanation for a centralised British state. When the Attlee government dismantled the patchwork of welfare states built by local government, it was more than an exercise in tidy political science. World war two had built an infrastructure for managing projects at the national level. Popular demands for the guarantee of a job and access to a doctor were most easily met by going with the flow of politics and management. The result was a centralised welfare state.

Today political arguments for devolution are popular again. On its own this could not produce a new constitutional settlement. What has changed is the type of management needed to deliver the results that people expect of their government.

Today’s challenges to public service require solutions that can only be managed at local level. We want not just more police, but to feel safer on our streets; not just a cure for illness, but better health; not just an economy with many jobs, but the skills and outlook required to gain a job. These challenges are more complex and less certain than those faced by the early welfare state.

To meet them public service needs to be able to join up in partnerships, to let users shape services and to give citizens power over collective choices.

Yet effective partnerships depend on trust and perceptions of competence between local partners. Central control undermines those relationships by locking public servants in silos based on national targets.

Involving service users in delivery requires local variation to ensure equal opportunities to re-enter work for the 55 year old ex-miners and 23 year olds who have never worked.

Collective opinion on acceptable public behaviour, from car use to licensing hours varies by community. Equal empowerment requires different solutions in different communities.

The prospects for a new constitutional settlement that devolves power from the centre are good because political and managerial demands are once again pointing towards the same destination.

They also reinforce each other. As delivery is improved through devolution, so the traditional lines of national political accountability are eroded. Political accountability at more local levels becomes important not only to reduce the power of the centre but also to ensure that local public service management is held accountable.

Yet there is more than one constitutional settlement that delivers devolution.

‘Social enterprise’ claims to deliver devolution directly to the citizen. This model depends on national commissioning frameworks that tap into and accentuate the innovative powers of communities. Yet it also assumes a consensus on what should be commissioned. As society becomes more diverse and less deferential that consensus is becoming more elusive.

The alternative model devolves power to local government. This model recognises that we cannot forge consensus across diverse communities without representative democracy. Without consensus there can be no legitimacy. Instead it raises the question of whether local government is equipped for the challenge.

Both politics and public service management now demand a devolved constitutional settlement. The real debate may turn on the balance between models that revive social enterprise, or rejuvenate local democracy.