How might lower-ranking officials have a greater impact on policy development than previously assumed?

How can small-territory, subnational governments make the most of their position? Subnational governments like the devolved governments in the UK combine some of the opportunities and limitations of the national and the local governments between which they sit. They have some ‘national government’-type responsibilities and resources, like legislative authority and funding powers, although those resources are limited by their subordinate status. On the other hand, because their territories are comparatively small (Scotland has just under 5.5 million people and 32 local authorities, Wales just over 3 million and 22) they might able to cultivate ‘local government’-type relationships with a comprehensive range of local groups.

So can this allow them to operate in a distinctive way? In particular, is there something about their combination of powers, (constrained) formal resources and positioning which could shape their ability to practice metagovernance– the creation and management of policy networks?

In our Policy & Politics article, we explored this question by studying the development of homelessness legislation in Wales. Although the Welsh Government had been developing homelessness strategies almost from the very beginning of devolution in 1999, there was little that it could do to change the statutory service framework, which was embedded in Westminster legislation. That changed in 2011 when the National Assembly received full primary legislative powers in devolved matters. Almost immediately the Welsh Government began developing what became the Housing (Wales) Act 2014. This Act, which emphasises homelessness prevention, has reduced the numbers of people becoming homeless in Wales and has inspired similar legislation at Westminster.

Our research showed that very strong policy networks, encompassing third sector, local government, and Welsh Government groups, were vital in developing shared understandings of problems and solutions in respect of homelessness policy reform. These networks were fostered and supported over time by Welsh Government officials and ministers: and to understand how they did this we applied a typology of metagovernance developed by Eva Sørensen and Jacob Torfing. This proposes four categories of metagovernance tool: designing the network and steering its goals and framework (‘hands off’ categories concerned with shaping interactions rather than participating in them) and actively managing and participating in the network (‘hands on’ categories).  Sørensen and Torfing also suggest that while any network group or individual that commands the necessary resources can act as a metagovernor, state groups/individuals tend to enjoy advantages as metagovernors because they can usually deploy more and stronger resources to underpin their authority.

Our research supported this last claim: the Welsh Government is a hugely important funder of homelessness services (most of which are provided by third sector and local government groups who were represented in the networks) and it alone could drive through the new legislation essential for fundamental reform. Indeed, we found that, as it acquired more resources, other groups saw it as increasingly important that they should be involved in networks to help influence the outcomes that those resources would deliver. But we also found that in the operation of the networks, the boundaries between the categories of metagovernance activities were blurred.

Of course, these categories are to some extent ideal types, and Sørensen and Torfing suggest that, in practice, a combination of tools at different stages of the network’s operation, might be most effective. But in our case, we saw that tools had been deployed concurrently, and many interventions could be fitted into more than one category. This distinction between ‘hands off’ and ‘hands on’ categories became especially blurred: officials shaped, steered, managed and participated in networks at the same time, playing what we have called a ‘governor-participant’ role. And it was a very small group of officials who did this: the Welsh Government’s homelessness policy team, which carried out most of the day to day metagovernance of the networks, consisted of no more than three officials, none of them particularly senior. This, too, is a divergence from Sørensen and Torfing, who suggest that, generally, more senior policy officials are likely to possess metagovernance skills.

In short, then, we found that the Welsh Government’s formal resources gave it decisive advantages as a metagovernor, and it deployed all four categories of governance tool identified by Sørensen and Torfing. But it did this in ways that had not been described in the existing literature, with the governor-participant role of relatively (hierarchically) junior officials being especially notable. In Wales, there were quite short ‘chains’ linking policy development and policy delivery, and quite small numbers of groups and individuals involved in these processes. This meant that many of these groups and individuals were involved both in shaping and implementing policy, and this was true inside as well as outside government.

It would be useful to look at other cases and other subnational governments to see if these conclusions can also be drawn elsewhere. But meanwhile, our research suggests that the size and position of a government can make a difference to how it manages networks – and to who does that managing.

This blog was originally published in the Policy and Politics Journal Blog in September 2019