Skip to content

With great power comes great responsibility (for evaluation?)

arrow down
WWG mayors blog

Last week saw the final local government elections before the next general election. Amongst councillors changing places – or staying put – across the country, these elections ushered in two new metro mayors: one for York and North Yorkshire, and one for the East Midlands.

This brings the proportion of the English population living under a mayor to 50%, and demonstrates the shifting model of English local government and its relationship to central government. This changing relationship is most pronounced in the cases of the two ‘trailblazer’ devolution agreements for Greater Manchester and the West Midlands. These give mayors a single departmental-style funding pot from 2025, rather than multiple different earmarked streams of funding with strings attached – a step change in the way local areas in England decide how to spend on policy.

But increasingly, many voices are calling for the next government – whoever it will be – to go further, and make wider local devolution in England a priority, including instituting a more sustainable model for local government finance. This is an important debate, and one which should increase in prominence – in part because of the upcoming election, but also because of the continuing challenges facing local governments, particularly around funding.

But increased discretion over spending for local government raises questions about who will evaluate policy, and how. Currently much evaluation is conducted by the central government departments responsible for the funding. How this will change if more areas have devolved power over their funding is an open question – but well-conducted impact evaluation, and the coordination and sharing of evidence from them, will be vital for the success of devolution. Evaluation matters both for individual local areas, and for local government in aggregate.

For individual places who have newfound discretion over single pots of money that can be used for multiple purposes, how much they can do with this money will depend on funding achieving policy results cost-effectively. Places that can direct their spending to the most impactful interventions will be able to achieve more.

In addition, one of the potential benefits of local devolution is policy learning through iteration and experimentation across different areas. As places use different approaches to tackle similar problems, so the argument goes, we can see which approaches are better, allowing all places to learn the best way forward. This only works if there is good impact evaluation of these approaches, and well-coordinated dissemination of their findings to allow for that overall policy learning.

As we move towards the next election, and as discussion continues over the future for local government finance and devolution, how evaluation sits in this picture is an important part of the debate. Local and central government need to keep in mind not only how any new settlement will be structured in terms of funding and powers, but how areas can learn the lessons which allow better policy to happen.

Effective evaluation and evidence dissemination cannot be an afterthought. It must be embedded in and fundamental to any new settlement. In a devolved context more than ever, understanding what works as different places try new things will be vital to improving outcomes for all.