It ain’t what you (can) do it’s the way that you do it

How can devolved governments deliver distinctive policies?

Just because a government has the power to do something, it doesn’t always mean that it can actually do it. So what makes the difference?

We explored this question in a recently published article which we wrote with Steve Martin. The question matters because making policy and law consumes time, money, and policymakers’ attention – and if you use those resources trying to do something that won’t succeed, you can’t use them to do something that will. It’s an especially important question for a government like the Welsh Government, which has layers of government above it – the UK Government and, previously, the EU – which might constrain what it can do.

We approached our question by looking at two case studies of Welsh Government policymaking from the mid – 2010s. The first study was of reforms to homelessness legislation  which gave councils a new duty to help people who were threatened with homelessness to keep their homes. This has been seen as quite a successful reform and has been the model for similar legislation in England.  The second study was of Minimum Unit Pricing (MUP) for alcohol –  a price per unit of alcohol below which a drink could not be legally sold. There is evidence that this can reduce problem drinking by raising the price of the cheapest alcoholic drinks, and it was in fact introduced in Wales in 2020. But our study looked at the first attempt to introduce it, in 2014 – 15, which did not succeed.

The classic way of looking at the ability of a government to do things is in terms of the legal powers and the formal and informal policy tools that it possesses. Essentially, this means two things:

  • What things is a government responsible for? This is a particularly important question for a devolved government like the Welsh Government, whose areas of responsibility are limited;
  • What can a government do about the things it is responsible for – for example can it make law, raise and spend money, collect and distribute information, use its own staff and equipment to get things done, persuade other people to do things, and so on? And can it do these things as it wishes, or does it need to get permission from another superior government?

We argue that although this approach is important and useful, it only tells part of the story. If you use this framework to look at our two cases, the Welsh Government should have been able to achieve them both. Homelessness is part of housing policy, and MUP was intended to promote public health; and both housing and health are devolved. Both cases required primary legislation, which the Assembly (as it was then) could pass, and although the Welsh Government couldn’t itself directly implement either, it had good relationships with other people – third sector organisations and councils – who could. So why did one succeed and the other fail?

A vital part of the answer is about the Welsh Government’s political capital and legitimacy in the eyes of important actors in each case. Nobody doubted that homelessness was devolved. The homelessness reforms had no real direct implications outside Wales and all the significant other actors involved – councils and other housing organisations – focussed their work at a Welsh level.  The Welsh Government had built up longstanding relationships with them and provided the legal framework, and a lot of the funding, for their work. As a result, they accepted that the Welsh Government had the power to make homelessness policy and recognised that it was in their (and their service users’) interests to work with it.

MUP was different. The Welsh Government had good relationships with alcohol charities, health bodies, academics, and councils, all of whom broadly shared its approach to problem drinking and supported MUP.  But it did not have the same relationships with the major alcohol producers and retailers. These had consistently opposed MUP because they thought it would harm their sales and their business models: when the Scottish Parliament passed MUP legislation they challenged it under (then) EU competition law and this was still going through the courts at the time of our case. Importantly, these businesses operated on a UK or international scale and their political focus was on those levels of government. This mattered in the Welsh case because the UK Government tended to see problem drinking as a matter not of public health, but of crime, disorder, and licensing – and those policy areas are not devolved.

So when, as Wales was developing its plans for MUP, the UK Government announced that it believed that MUP was beyond the Welsh Government’s devolved powers, and would challenge any Welsh legislation, Welsh Ministers had to decide whether to go ahead. The challenge to the Scottish law was still undecided (in the end, it failed), and fighting the UK Government in the UK Supreme Court would absorb a lot of additional time, money and capacity. The Welsh Government decided that it could not justify the extra costs for an uncertain outcome, and the MUP plans were, for the time being, dropped.

We believe the basic difference between our cases comes down to this: in the case of homelessness reform, the Welsh Government had a lot of political capital with all the major actors, and they accepted that it was the legitimate authority in the policy field. In the case of MUP, the Welsh Government had a lot of political capital with some of the actors, who accepted its legitimacy, but others – big industry players and the UK Government – were prepared to challenge its legitimacy in a way that could make the policy unacceptably costly.

Our research raises further questions – most obviously, how did Wales later succeed in introducing MUP.  But we believe that its main insight for policy makers is that decisions about pursuing a policy need to consider not only what formal and informal powers and levers are available, but how interactions between them, and the strategies of other interested parties, could affect the policy’s chances of success.


Our article How can subnational governments develop and deliver distinctive policy agendas? is now published online by International Review of Administrative Sciences. It is an Open Access article and is available free of charge. We have explored related themes in articles in Policy & Politics and The Political Quarterly: these require a subscription but pre-publication versions can be accessed for free at Cardiff University’s ORCA repository, here and here.  A report for WCPP also set out some practical recommendations from our research.