Powers and Policy Levers – What works in delivering Welsh Government policies?

As Wales marks twenty years of devolution, our latest report, Powers and Policy Levers: What works in delivering Welsh Government policies? presents the findings of a research project into the way that the Welsh Government has used the powers and policy levers available to it. Having outlined the policy context in Wales over the last two decades, the report discusses two case studies of policy making since the devolution of full primary legislative powers to the National Assembly in 2011. We draw specific conclusions from the two cases, and offer four general findings from the project. We hope that they will be useful to policymakers and to others with an interest in the way that governments- in particular, small governments with limited powers and resources, such as the Welsh Government- go about developing and making policy.

The two cases are contrasting examples of devolved policy making. The first is the development and implementation of a new statutory framework for homelessness services. The Welsh Government could not implement the new framework by itself, as local authorities are responsible for homelessness services. But by developing strong networks with local authorities and the third sector, ministers and officials added the resources of their partners to the Government’s own limited resources. As the Government planned the new framework, the partners would share their experience and their expertise, in particular in respect of identifying and analysing problems, and assessing the practicality of proposed actions. After the legislation was passed, the Welsh Government worked with them to develop statutory guidance, to train staff in implementation, and to monitor progress. The Welsh Government could do all this because there was no doubt that homelessness was a devolved matter; there was agreement about what should be done; and Ministers had the legislative and, although they could not increase the homelessness budget significantly, financial resources that were needed for local agencies to get to grips with homelessness.

Our second case is the first, unsuccessful, attempt to introduce a minimum unit price for alcohol in Wales. Once again, the Welsh Government did not possess the resources to implement the minimum price, but local authorities were confident that they could enforce it. And the Welsh Government had strong relationships with some of the stakeholders in the alcohol sector, including academics, third sector groups, and health actors. All these agreed that there was a need to set a minimum unit price for alcohol to reduce problematic drinking. But the Welsh Government did not have such a good relationship with the drinks industry, and the policy encountered opposition from the industry, as well as from the UK Government. Although the Welsh Government believed that alcohol policy was a public health matter and therefore devolved, the UK Government insisted that it was a policing and criminal justice matter, and that it was therefore beyond the competence of the Welsh Government. Welsh ministers came to the conclusion that a political and legal battle with the UK Government and perhaps other well-resourced opponents would require them to dedicate more resources than could be justified at the time, and so the proposed legislation was withdrawn.

The two cases show that policy makers need to consider, on a case by case basis, what policy tools are most suitable to achieve their aims. Although legislation and funding are necessary conditions, they are not sufficient on their own, and policymakers need to understand how to use informal powers to achieve things. We highlight two concepts that can help them to do this. Meta-governance considers how governments can make the most of their particular resources to create and manage networks. The NATO Typology highlights four main types of policy tool, Nodality (‘the property of being in the middle of an information or social network’), Authority, Treasure, and Organisation. The typology can help policymakers understand the distribution of their policy tools and their relationship to one another.

The last part of the report presents four general findings from the study:

  • First, we recommend that policymakers should recognise the constraints on the Welsh Government and concentrate on achievable policy objectives. This does not mean ceasing to be ambitious, but it shows the importance of taking a realistic and creative view of what can be achieved.
  • Second, they should consider at the outset which policy tools are required so that they can marshal and use them appropriately. Looking realistically at the mix of policy tools available can help policymakers to decide whether a policy initiative is likely to succeed.
  • Third, since the legislative, financial and material resources of the Welsh Government are still limited, it is important that it should look for ways to supplement its formal resources by bringing other organisations on board.
  • Finally, it should make the most of the advantages that the Welsh policy context offers. For example, the high level of political stability means that it should be possible to look beyond the next electoral cycle, and the comparatively small size of Wales should make it easier for the Welsh Government to know what is happening on the ‘front line.