The Values of Devolution


Category: devoComment

From the perspective and values of nationalism, the votes on Brexit and the US Presidency are perhaps votes of continuity rather than of change. Citizens want their country, their control. If so, the illusion has been the idea that people’s sense of identity and affiliation has changed so dramatically from the high water mark of nationalism in the twentieth century, simply because of cross-border trade, foreign holidays and access to diverse food and culture.

The challenge of shared values and affiliation has been largely absent from the process and debates around devolution to date, at least in the regions of England. But how effective can devolved governance be if there is not a sense of coherence and consent in favour of those systems of governance?

Let me give a simple example of the affiliation effect. A psychology study here in Manchester staged an accident where someone is running and slips, falls and starts screaming. Where the runner wears a plain T-shirt, only one out of three people who turn out to be Manchester United fans help. When the runner is wearing the United team shirt, almost all (92%) of those people help. No doubt, the same is true for City fans, mind you.

So, who will care for devolution, for devolved government? Will it be in tune with people’s values, or over time be seen to get in the way? Can devolution work if citizens are not engaged in reshaping the services, opportunities and risks that are coming their way?

Values can shape behaviour in a powerful way over time. Think back a century and we find little democracy, few employment rights, no votes for women and widespread racism. These most significant changes to our lives have been led by civil society. Politics rides and shapes the waves. But it rarely, in terms of state action, changes the tide.

The free organisation of individuals around issues of passion – in recent times, the movements for anti-racism, gender equality and environmental protection – is what generates and regenerates the values that holds society together and takes it forward. Their institutional base is in values-rich organisations, such as voluntary organisations, some state bodies such as schools, co-operatives and the best of wider business. They articulate a set of values that take hold in society.

The civil society, or social economy, is primarily about activity and institutions that are ‘other-centred’ – but in the sense of membership rather than simple altruism. What Samuel Smiles called ‘self-help and mutual aid’. It is that precious, public space in which people can be citizens, where acts of citizenship are rooted in association and imagination. Imagination because, as the great historian Benedict Anderson argued, “communities are to be distinguished by the style in which they are imagined.”

Although community is typically seen as distinct from the state, Anderson argues that the force of nationalism was that it drew on the same characteristics of community. The nation is “imagined as a community, because, regardless of the actual inequality and exploitation that may prevail in each, the nation is always conceived as a deep, horizontal comradeship.”

The values agenda is not about the crass and shallow self promotion that characterised the Regional Development Agencies in England. Nor is it an assumption that a Mayor and a binding together of municipal authorities and service agencies will leave citizens with a greater sense of connection than they ever had before – it could after all, like anything novel but complex, do the exact opposite.

The values agenda for devolution, it seems to me, is about four steps, each of which will take time and leadership to achieve.

The first is intelligent listening, tracking values in the region.

The second is patient support for institutions that are key points of influence in relation to values.

The third is about a culture of co-creation over time that allows for citizens to come into services, with an understanding of where their rights stop and their responsibilities start.

The fourth is the integration of values in a best practice way into the devolved institutions themselves, to be at the heart of this.

The Open Government programme coordinated by the participation charity, Involve, offers some great lessons on how to dissolve the boundaries of governance and invite people in. As do authorities such as Oldham and Edinburgh in their exploratory work with the Co-operative Councils Innovation Network. Canada has many great examples of how state institutions can communicate and engage with citizens.

Devolution is an evolving process and it is not surprising that the challenges of economic development, infrastructure, public services in the context of savings are focusing attention. Values, however, are on the horizon.

Leadership on devolution will see the values agenda both as core to long-term success and as a guide to short-term systems design.


Ed Mayo is Secretary General at Co-operatives UK and author of a new book, Values: how to bring values to life in your business.

Values is published by Greenleaf and available on

Leading The Way

Our DevoIntelligence Service keeps you up to date with the latest developments across the UK as they emerge.

Other News