Policy makers do not need to introduce formal structures to achieve political innovation

Drawing on a case study of English Devolution in the UK, Dr Sarah Ayres, Centre for Urban and Public Policy Research, examines the role played by ‘informal governance’ in shaping political innovation.

Informal governance can be defined as a means of decision-making that is un-codified, non-institutional and where social relationships play crucial roles. Research evidence suggests that an analysis of informal governance is essential if we are to fully understand how political innovation occurs.

The issue of informality in policy-making is particularly timely as public managers seek to manage multifaceted policy problems within contested and uncertain environments. One view is that political decision-making has increasingly moved away from the national level of government to a more spatially diverse, temporal and fluid set of arrangements. From this perspective, policy-making is increasingly taking place in arenas where there is no generally accepted rules and norms according to which politics is to be conducted. Some argue that it is the surge of ‘wicked problems’ that have prompted this type of leadership, as multiple actors come together to solve complex policy problems. These developments raise important questions about how informal governance operates in this transforming policy landscape and the impact it has on political innovation. Yet, there is comparatively little research on the role of informality in policy-making, partly because of the complexity of studying it.

The case of English devolution in recent years provides us with an interesting example of the complex interrelationship between formal and informal policy making. In the case of English devolution, evidence confirms that informal governance has created an ‘innovative space’ to explore new possibilities and develop trust between critical actors. Elected politicians had a pivotal role in creating an ‘innovative space’ for senior administrators to develop new high trust relationships and working practices. Back stage, administrators were using informal governance to (re)configure institutional arrangements.

Evidence also confirms that informal governance was used to enhance the autonomy and discretion of administrators, leading to an ‘innovative oriented culture’. This shaped both the intention to be innovative and the creation of a permissive environment for change. Informal governance was used by a closely-knit group of well positioned and highly skilled boundary spanners who were motivated to use it in pursuit of securing government objectives. It was used as a tool to break deadlocks, promote political momentum and complement a weak formal bureaucracy. The ‘formalisation’ of informal working at critical points was utilised to secure political innovations that had traction.

Finally, research data confirmed that informal governance led to more responsive problem solving and a shared commitment to new policy goals. Central-local relationships were viewed as more collaborative and there was enhanced diversity and creativity in local policy outcomes. However, while informal working was viewed as a route to policy innovation, some respondents acknowledged the negative impacts regards transparency and accountability. Whitehall officials could be accused of using soft power to enforce the ‘shadow of hierarchy’ in nebulous ways, thus undermining the ability of local actors to secure real influence.

This research tells us that when formal structures and procedures are weak, political innovation can still thrive. Indeed, operating ‘back stage’ offers a number of distinct advantages for political innovation, although these must be mitigated against the pitfalls associated with increased informality if policy effectiveness is to be achieved without undermining democratic legitimacy.

This post is taken from a recent article by Dr Sarah Ayres entitled ‘Assessing the impact of informal governance on political innovation’ published in Public Management Review. This was written as part of a Special Issue on ‘Political Innovation’ and edited by Professor Eva Sorensen (Roskilde University, Denmark).

Dr Sarah Ayres has also co-edited a number of other reports on the role of ‘informal governance’ on devolution to England’s cities, including ‘Policy-making ‘front’ and ‘back’ stage: Assessing the implications for effectiveness and democracy’ and ‘Territory, Power, Statecraft: Understanding English Devolution’.