Published on 18 January 2021
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Devolved Institutions: Engaging with the Devolved Institutions

Engaging with Devolved Parliaments - A guide for Academics

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Government powers do not reside exclusively in Westminster and Whitehall.  Engaging with and potentially influencing the devolved governments and legislatures in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland could form part of any UK-wide policy engagement strategy.  As with the UK Parliament and Government to engage effectively with the devolved institutions you need to have an understanding of the political context and landscape including which powers and policy areas are devolved and the processes through which decisions are made.

Devolution is the process of devolving power from central government to regional or sub-regional government.  In the UK the current devolution settlements in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland were initiated in the late 1990s.  This section is concerned with the devolved nations; there has subsequently been a process of devolving some powers to English cities.  The main rationale for devolution was to bring democratic processes closer to the people and improve the transparency of decision making. There was also an expectation that devolution would enable policy solutions better suited to local context.

In addition to having representation in the UK Parliament, the nations of Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales are also represented by their own elected national assembly or parliament and associated executive bodies – known as the ‘devolved administrations’.  The devolved governments of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland each hold different powers and responsibilities and have different decision- making processes and organisational structures.  As a result, each part of the UK has a different relationship with Westminster and different capacities to innovate in terms of policy development.

Devolved powers

The story of devolution is different in each part of the UK and will continue to evolve.  In Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland the devolved administrations are responsible for many domestic policy issues and their Parliaments/Assemblies have law-making powers for those areas.  Areas the Scottish Government, Welsh Government, and the Northern Ireland Executive are responsible for include: health, education, culture, the environment and transport.  Since devolution, Scotland and Wales have moved away from the government departmental structure of Whitehall, which Northern Ireland has retained.  Although, civil servants working for the Scottish and Welsh Government are still part of the single ‘home civil service’ that also supports the UK Government.  Only Northern Ireland has a legally separate civil service of its own.  However, devolution in Northern Ireland has been disrupted by several breakdowns in power-sharing between unionist and nationalist parties and obviously the impact of a potential Brexit on the relationship between the UK and the European Union and between central and devolved governments is yet to be played out.  In addition the Scottish Government has challenged the Prime Minister to give Scotland the powers to hold a second independence referendum.

The three devolved Governments have one important thing in common – they are all small in comparison to the UK Government.  It’s been argued that the smaller nature of the devolved jurisdictions has promoted policy innovation[1] but it also means the chance to engage and potentially influence may be easier as linkages between departments or directorates are less confusing to navigate and have a greater degree of organisational transparency.

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Scientific and engineering expertise in the devolved institutions

As with the UK Parliament and Government to be able to engage with and have impact upon any of the devolved institutions requires an understanding of the different policy contexts and the different ways scientific expertise can be utilised.  Understanding how research is used and what features are unique to a particular policymaking context will be central to your ability to engage effectively.  Nevertheless, the devolved institutions also need rigorous, robust, relevant and timely evidence to design and deliver policies to achieve their objectives.  Equally, devolved Governments and Parliaments have differing reasons for why they may need scientific or engineering academic expertise.  Governments focus more on the details of policy design and implementation, whereas Parliaments focus on oversight and scrutiny.  And both the Welsh and Scottish governments are part of the UK civil service with academic input feeding in via similar ways (see Engaging with UK Government to find out more). The devolved parliaments also use academic evidence to scrutinise legislation, laws and procedures and have parliamentary staff in research services, (Scottish Parliament Information Service, Senedd Research, Northern Ireland Assembly Research and Information Service), who will be interested in your expertise if it is relevant to a current issue on the parliamentary agenda.

Understanding the different dynamics of policymaking in the context in which you are hoping to contribute is particularly pertinent in relation to Northern Ireland where the absence of a functioning Northern Ireland Executive has meant the opportunities to engage were reduced.  However, at the time of writing this an historic deal between the Northern Ireland parties, brokered by the UK and Irish Government, has now restored the power-sharing government again.

Evolution of devolution

The story of devolution clearly faces significant challenges ahead, whatever the outcome of Brexit, and keeping abreast of the changing political context and landscape will be critical for any academic who wishes to engage with policy in the devolved institutions.  The devolution settlements that were agreed in the late 1990s were dependent on the UK’s membership of the EU.  When Britain leaves the EU, powers will return from Brussels.  For the areas which are devolved within the context of the EU framework, it is not yet clear how they will be managed by the UK Government and the devolved administrations  Contested policy areas will include agriculture, fisheries and the environment.[2] It is possible that Brexit could create ‘the potential for significant increase in policy differentiation with the UK’[3] which will clearly have implications for academic policy engagement.  The Scottish Government is also focused on securing an independence referendum in 2020.  Keeping abreast of evolving developments will be more important than ever.

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References on this page:

[1] Institute for Government, (2019), Has Devolution Worked?
[2] Although there has been some progress around the need for ‘common frameworks’ in these areas after the UK leaves the EU. See, for example,
[3] Jack, M., Owen, J., Paun, A. & Kellam, J. (2018) Devolution after Brexit – Managing the environment, agriculture and fisheries. Institute for Government

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