Devolution and user involvement

10 May 2016

Peter Beresford

Peter Beresford

Peter Beresford, speaker at our upcoming Leaders’ Forum, looks back at the existing evidence on devolution and participation, and how this may work in practice.

Devolution can take many different forms and current developments in decentralisation need to be considered as part of a much longer history. We should also be cautious about assuming that devolution is necessarily the harbinger of greater democracy and participation. That mistake has often been made in the past. Present developments must also be considered in the context of other broader developments, for example, ideological debates about ‘big’ and ‘small’ state, ideas and policies around globalisation and the current referendum and political interest over the UK’s membership of the European Union (EU). Certainly devolution cannot be considered in isolation and it would be a mistake to think of it as other than at best ‘neutral’ in relation to policies and practices of participation, public, patient and user involvement.

A very helpful, if at first sight, very different case study is to be found in UK social policy history from a generation back. This was a development which I was fortunately enough to be closely involved in as a researcher and activist and there are big lessons to be learned. At that time, in the early 1980s, there was much talk of the benefits of decentralising local services, with ideas like ‘neighbourhood offices’ and localised services gaining professional interest. These ideas were particularly developed in social services, where the high profile Barclay report explored decentralising ideas of ‘community social work’ and ‘patch-based’ social work.

We carried out a participatory research project in East Sussex, where policies for patch-based social services were particularly developed, focusing especially on the perspectives of people as service users. There were a number of major findings from this project published as ‘Whose Welfare?’ which have clear implications for present initiatives for devolution. For example:

  • People’s ideas of physical neighbourhood and community were very small ‘from a few streets to just part of a street or a few houses’ (p93).
  • People were generally not involved in setting up the new decentralised arrangements and had little awareness of them.
  • While there seemed to be a transfer of responsibility to ‘look after each other’ to local people, there was no corresponding transfer of power.
  • While increasing ‘user involvement’ was the rationale for making these changes, there was little evidence of any greater involvement of service users, carers or other local people in policy or provision.
  • Rhetorical emphasis on local control of services coincided with developments reducing the scale of local services and moving to their privatisation.

So if there is one point to be made as we move towards greater devolution (perhaps at any level), it is that it does not result automatically or more readily in increased participation. Indeed if we want such participation to happen, then we have to work for it with a special intensity and determination.

This may not be a popular message, but by and large it is what the evidence tells us, whether we are talking about initiatives for devolution which take the form of creating crime commissioners, local mayors or even new regional areas. All these might seem to bring democratic structures closer to the grassroots to traditional politicians, but as we can see from much of the resulting voting behaviour, not necessarily so to the ‘grassroots’ themselves. One conspicuous exception has been the Scottish vote on independence, which resulted in a massive upsurge in local democratic involvement and activity and there are important lessons to learn from that.

If we really want to see devolution trigger greater political participation and user involvement, then we will have to learn from the knowledge, experience and evidence of service users, their organisations and movements. It will mean working for diverse and inclusive involvement, reaching out to people rather than expecting them to come to politicians and policymakers and a shift away from traditional meetings/bureaucratic methods of user involvement. We already have lots of evidence about how to achieve this. For example, from the Shaping Our Lives Beyond the Usual Suspects project, but policymakers and politicians will have to show a new commitment to taking notice of it. They will also have to show that the smaller state doesn’t just mean a greater emphasis on central control rather than on support. Then devolution may truly signal enhanced democratic control.

About the author

Peter Beresford is emeritus Professor of Social Policy at Brunel University London, Professor of Citizen Participation at the University of Essex and Co-Chair of Shaping Our Lives, the national independent disabled people’s and service users’ organisation and network.



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