We have recently published two outputs from our ESRC-funded research into the powers and policy levers available to the Welsh Government. Both are based on our case study of recent reforms to the Welsh statutory homelessness framework, but they highlight a number of important transferable themes for the study and understanding of policy making and implementation in Wales and beyond.
How Can Subnational Governments Deliver Their Policy Objectives in the Age of Austerity? Reshaping Homelessness Policy in Wales, published in the Political Quarterly and now available online as an Early View article, builds on a paper we presented at conferences in Paris and Cardiff in December 2016. In it we drew extensively on interviews with key policy actors, as well as on documentary data, to think about how the Welsh Government managed to achieve substantial policy changes which extended the responsibilities of the state at a time of financial constraint. We used Hood and Margetts’ NATO (Nodality, Authority, Treasure, Organisation) typology of policy tools to analyse the resources available to the Welsh Government. In this case Treasure (financial resources) was constrained by the Welsh Government’s dependence on a grant set and paid by the UK Treasury, and Organisation (the people and materials that government directly controls) was limited in part by financial constraints, in part by the historic development of the Welsh Government and its predecessors, and in part because housing and homelessness service delivery are a local government responsibility.
Authority is the power to make binding decisions, including the power to legislate, and was important here because although housing and homelessness are devolved matters, the pre-existing framework for homelessness services was heavily dependent on legislation passed by the UK Parliament. Although many of the limitations of that framework had been apparent for some time, it was only in 2011, when the National Assembly gained full primary legislative powers, that a distinctive Welsh framework became a possibility. But while legislation can change the rules, it will not necessarily change practice; and to legislate well you need a really clear understanding of the issues you want to address. This is where Nodality (being in the middle of a network) came in. We argued that by fostering effective networks which included local authorities, the third sector, and in some cases non-devolved agencies, the Welsh Government transcended constraints on its Treasure and Organisation to shape and implement effective legislation-based policy. In this case, it had adopted a Nodality-based policy style in the early days of devolution, in part because it then had very few formal resources. But once those resources were increased (notably, once it had greater Authority after the devolution of primary legislative powers) the connections built up in those early years came into their own and made significant, and (so far, apparently) successful, change possible.
We have developed our thinking further in light of a policy reunion which we convened earlier this year, and the report of which is now available on our website. There, we brought together seven leading actors in the development and implementation of the homelessness reforms, with Professor Alex Marsh of University of Bristol as academic discussant, to reflect on their experiences. The discussion explored in more detail the place of networks and relationships in the policy process, and also identified other themes such as the relationship between evidence and policy change, the interdependence of ‘hard’ policy levers like legislation and ‘soft’ levers like networking, and the way that Ministers’ own perspectives and actions could shape policy change.
Our reunion participants confirmed that the quality of networks and relationships within the homelessness sector had been hugely important in this policy episode. Over time a high degree of trust had developed between institutions and individual actors in the sector, partly in response to the shared challenges of shaping new policy, and some of the rhetoric of co-production appears to have been justified. The Welsh Government developed an approach to homelessness policymaking which enabled different skill sets to be brought to bear on a number of practical tasks, and supported cultural change. The ‘small country’ nature of Wales supported this approach, but it would not in itself have guaranteed success. Evidence, too, had been important: the Welsh Government had seen it as an essential underpinning for new primary homelessness legislation, and it had been generated in collaboration with local practitioners. Consequently, these practitioners felt some ownership of the recommendations that were developed from the evidence that they had helped to produce. The personal contributions of relevant Welsh Government Ministers were also important in the development of policy. These contributions reflected their own beliefs and experiences, as well as the wish to do something innovative that would leave a legacy- what one participant described as ‘an appropriate level of ego’.
This was, as far as we know, both the first time that a policy reunion has been held on a specifically Welsh policy, and a rare example of the use of the policy reunion method to explore a policy which is still unfolding. We are now reflecting on the methodological challenges that this approach presents, with a view to refining our practice and making the method part of our future research toolkit. However, the quality of the data which we gathered, and the value of the reflective experience which our participants reported, have been very encouraging.
Meanwhile, we believe that the value of the findings in both the article and the policy reunion report is not limited to the specific case study of homelessness reform. They tell us a lot about how a small devolved government can make the most of its resources to produce policies that make a real difference- a question we will continue to explore in future outputs from the research programme.
About the author: Dr Andrew Connell is a Research Associate at PPIW. Andrew works alongside Emily St.Denny works on an ESRC funded research programme on the changing relationship between the Welsh and UK Government, and the powers and policy levers available to Ministers in Wales