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'This could radically change the nature of our government’

Peter Gillson | Published:

TOMORROW sees the States meeting to debate the Policy & Resources Plan, including one proposition from P&R which warrants closer examination because, although it seems reasonable, when you look deeper it becomes less transparent.

(Picture by Ruslan Grechka/Shutterstock)

In essence, the proposition is to create ‘policy supervision boards’ to facilitate cross-committee working.

A good idea, isn’t it?

After all, tackling many of the major issues facing the island involves more than one committee so creating boards which work across committees has to be a good idea – we all want an end to silo working.

It could be that these policy supervision boards are a good idea. Unfortunately, we cannot tell because the propositions tell us virtually nothing about them.

To explain this, I’ll analyse the proposition, sentence by sentence.

Here goes:

‘1 (b) The Policy & Resources Committee to design...’

This gives P&R the authority to design the policy supervision boards.

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‘... in discussion with Committees...’

The other committees are involved – to a degree. Note that P&R only have to discuss with the committees – their agreement is not needed, so P&R can totally ignore any issues or concerns the committees may have.

‘... political “policy supervisory boards”...’

The new political boards – more about these later.

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‘... with political members who are authorised to discharge relevant functions of those Committees under section 2 of the States (Reform) (Guernsey) Law, 2015, within the context of specific policy objectives resolved by the States’.

Quite a mouthful. This refers to a law which makes it possible for a deputy from one of the principal committees to sit on a policy supervision board and have the authority to bind their principal committee, without having to refer back to the principal committee.

What is important, and I find a little concerning, is what is not included in the propositions.

The biggest question has to be: what will be the role of the new boards? They are called policy supervision boards, so surely they must supervise?

Ok, but are they going to supervise policy implementation, or are they going to supervise policy development?

I don’t know the answer because there is nothing in the propositions to tell us, but there is a world of difference between supervising policy and actually developing policy.

Buried in Section 5.16 of the report is a sentence which adds some clarity, that P&R would be able to take ‘… policy letters to the Assembly on behalf of the policy supervisory boards’.

This makes it clear the intention is for the policy supervision boards not to be limited to coordinating policy, but also determining policy and taking proposals to the States.

Perhaps they would be better called ‘policy determination boards’?

The concern here is that this may effectively disenfranchise four members of each principal committee – remember, the one member on the policy supervision board can bind the whole principal committee.

But what does it matter, because surely deputies can vote against the proposals when they are presented to the States?

True – IF all new policies go to the States.

But not all policy changes do. If the committees have the money, and there is no need to change the law, then a new policy may not need to be approved by the States.

Reference is also made to ‘… accelerate delivery ...’. The implication is that the policy supervision board can make decisions about implementing already agreed policies, which again, on the face of it, is good.

One of the major headaches of being on a principal committee is that of balancing the competing needs of the areas the committee is responsible for – a matter of balancing needs and resources.

A policy supervision board, by its nature will have a narrow mandate and therefore not have to balance differing priorities, but the committees which it can bind will still have the constraint. We could actually see a different type of silo working develop with the principal committees being relegated to implementing policies the policy supervision board have determined.

The other concern is democratic accountability.

One existing cross-working committee exists which has non-States members on it so it is safe to assume these policy supervision boards will do also. A quirk of the States rules is that a non-States member on a principal committee has no vote, but a non-States Member on a sub-committee can have a vote.

So, if the policy supervision board can make active decisions to determine policy or direct the allocation of resources, we could be disenfranchising four elected deputies from each principal committee, yet giving the vote to non-elected, non-accountable, non-States Members.

I am not overstating it by saying that approving the proposition has the potential to radically change the nature of our government. Deputies will be giving P&R a huge amount of authority to change when, how, and who determines policy. Effectively changing the structure of government, all on the back of a few vague paragraphs which provide little in the way of details.

Perhaps P&R will explain during the debate – that would be ok, wouldn’t it?

Well, not really. What matters is the wording of the resolution. It is that, and that alone, which is the decision of the States.

Am I being overly worried, or scaremongering? Perhaps. Perhaps these new boards will be the best thing since sliced bread. On the face of it, they do sound like they could be a good idea, but the point is that we just don’t know.

It must be very tempting for deputies to support it, after all everybody wants to work together.

Yet, is it responsible for the States to be asked to agree to empower P&R to design and implement a new structure without knowing the details of how the new structure will work in practice? I think not, especially when often the ‘devil is in the detail’.

Because so much is unknown, I would not be able to support the proposition unless it included the requirement to return with full details to the Assembly.

Fortunately, there is a rumour of an amendment to ensure P&R returns with their plans for the Assembly to consider them when all of the details are known.

Let’s hope such an amendment is passed. Such a significant change may be needed, but such an important change needs proper scrutiny – scrutiny which P&R should not be afraid of. Indeed, they should welcome it.

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