Powers and Policy Levers: what have we done with them in Wales?

Andrew Connell introduces a new report which explores how Welsh Ministers can use their powers and policy levers to make and deliver policy

Many clichés become clichés because they are true, and Ron Davies’ famous observation that devolution in Wales is a process rather than an event has proved to be no exception. In the twenty years since Wales moved from a very limited model of administrative devolution to an – initially – almost equally limited model of political devolution, the devolved institutions have grown hugely in power, confidence, and public legitimacy. The partial devolution of income tax last month is only the latest in a series of steps that have seen the institutions in Cardiff Bay and Cathays Park develop from resembling a slightly enhanced County Council to being an increasingly autonomous subnational government and legislature.


But as more powers have flowed from Westminster to Cardiff, what has been done with them? There have been some notable successes, from transforming Wales’ recycling rates and introducing the UK’s first carrier bag levy, to pioneering approaches to homelessness and organ donation. But in other instances Ministers have not been able to achieve all that they hoped. With funding from the Economic and Social Research Council, the Wales Centre for Public Policy has been looking at how Welsh Ministers can use the powers and policy levers which they possess to make and deliver policy, and in our latest report, Powers and Policy Levers: What works in delivering Welsh Government policies?, we set out some practical suggestions for policymakers based on our findings.


Our first suggestion is that policymakers should recognise the constraints on the Welsh Government and focus on policy objectives that are achievable. This may seem like an elementary point but because Ministers and policymakers usually want to make a difference, there can be a natural temptation to try to do more than can be achieved. For example, it is difficult for the Welsh Government to tackle poverty, as such, because major policy tools like macroeconomic policy and welfare payments are not devolved. Recognising constraints does not mean being unambitious or playing it safe, but it does highlight the importance of looking realistically and creatively at what can be delivered, and how. So, in the case of poverty, there has been a period when the Welsh Government has moved towards more specific, and perhaps more tractable, aspects of deprivation and disadvantage.


Second, thinking early on about which policy tools are needed can help to ensure that they are marshalled and deployed properly. We suggest that a conceptual framework such as Christopher Hood and Helen Margetts’s ‘NATO’ (Nodality, Authority, Treasure, and Organization) typology can help do this. In this typology, formal tools like Authority (the power to make decisions and laws), Treasure (money), and Organization (a government’s own human and material resources) sit alongside Nodality (the influence that comes from being at the heart of policy or information networks) – a ‘soft’ tool which can be extremely useful.


Third, it is important that the Welsh Government looks for ways to supplement its formal resources by bringing other organisations on board. We undertook a case study of the reformed Welsh statutory homelessness framework which shows the value of this. The Welsh Government could not develop and implement the framework alone. In terms of the NATO typology, it did not have the Organization– the people and materials of its own- to implement the framework. But it built on its central position (Nodality) to develop and manage strong networks with local authorities and the third sector. This allowed it to combine its partners’ resources and expertise with its own to identify problems, assess the practicality of proposed actions, produce statutory guidance, train staff in implementation, and monitor progress. Crucially it could do this, not only because people had worked hard to build relationships, but because it possessed formal powers like legislation (Authority) and funding (Treasure), which nobody else in the networks possessed and which meant that partners saw the value of collaboration. In our report we suggest that the concept of meta-governance, as described by the Danish scholars Eva Sørensen and Jakob Torfing, can help us understand more about how governments can foster and manage networks in this way.  


Finally, policymakers should seek to maximise the advantages that the Welsh policy context offers.  For example, since devolution there has been a high degree of political continuity and a broad, cross-party consensus about many of the challenges facing Wales. These could allow governments to take a longer-term policy perspective which is not limited by the electoral cycle. And in theory at least, Wales’ small size and its close-knit policy communities should make joined up working between Welsh Government and local public services easier than in larger countries where ‘delivery chains’ are longer and local services more remote from the ‘centre’.  It should also be easier to achieve cross-government working within a comparatively small civil service body which does not have the ingrained institutional structure of separate ministries and departments that exists in Whitehall. Things like these are not necessarily unmixed blessings: there is plenty of room for debate about the effects of the unbroken dominance of a single party in government, and we know that being able to get everybody together in one room does not guarantee that they will work together well. But they are part of the current Welsh policy context and while they persist, policymakers should try to make the best of them.


Photo by Cesar Carlevarino Aragon on Unsplash

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Andrew Connell is a Research Associate at Wales Centre for Public Policy.

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