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What are intergovernmental relations?

Intergovernmental relations (IGR) are, at their most basic level, the relationships between different governments within a single country, for example, when ministers or officials from the Scottish Government meet their counterparts in the UK Government. The term intergovernmental relations encompasses both forums where meetings take place – sometimes referred to as the machinery of IGR - and the processes and practices used to guide information-sharing, decision-making and how to resolve disputes.

IGR can be characterised in different ways:

  • As vertical, between a devolved or local government and the central government, or horizontal, between governments that operate at the same tier of government (e.g. between the Welsh Government and the Scottish Government).
  • As bilateral, between two governments, or multilateral, when more than two governments take part. The Joint Ministerial Committee is an example of a multi-lateral intergovernmental forum.
  • As formal and structured, for example with regular, scheduled, ministerial summits, with clear remits and agendas, or informal and ad hoc, with meetings taking place less frequently and only when deemed necessary, and often with a more casual approach.

Most federal countries have quite formal processes of IGR to help the governments to share ideas, coordinate their activities and resolve their differences. By contrast, the system of IGR in United Kingdom is quite ad hoc. When devolution was introduced, it led to new governments in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Some forums were created to foster communication and cooperation between them and the UK government. But these met infrequently, have few rules and generally lack a purpose.

IGR in the UK are now widely regarded as not up to the task of managing relations between governments that are led by different political parties, often with competing political priorities. This became particularly evident during preparations for the UK’s exit from the European Union and in response to the Covid-19 pandemic. This has led many academics, parliamentarians and the devolved governments to call for a more effective system of IGR.

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