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Local – Central: Time to sum up

Written by Gareth Young on . Posted in Our blog

25th March 2014

When we started writing a series about relations between central and local government we did not have a firm plan; indeed, if we had one the series probably would not have taken over six months to get to where we are.

 

However, six months later we have, along with our guest contributors looked at this issue from a number of different perspectives and come up with a series of proposals which we believe would help strengthen this relationship. Before we summarise our proposals it is worth reminding ourselves why this matters.

It is no longer the case, indeed I am unconvinced that it was ever the case, that local and central government are providing different services to tackle different problems. Instead as our society becomes structurally more diffuse the ability of either central or local government to do anything on their own is constrained and limited. Only by better working together can the two parts of our democratic structure ensure that the outcomes demanded by the people who vote for them are delivered.

And yet, too often this is not the case. As we said in our first post:

‘Despite this recognition and general commitment to make these parts of our government work better together I think we can all agree that there is still massive room for improvement. The more we think about this the more we think that some of this might be cultural rather than specifically structural. After all, Governments of all stripes have made noises about greater devolution of powers to local authorities and more importantly about linking up services between the local and the central. One only need look at the graveyard of community budget projects (Total Place anyone?) to know that the commitment is real.

And yet, despite this commitment, progress is glacial.’

Our series was predicated on the idea that by understanding the barriers and then proposing some modest ideas for how these could be overcome we could contribute to a debate that needs greater prominence. Whether we have achieved that or not we will let others decide but taken together we believe that the following can contribute to a greater understanding of this topic:

Our first post proposed internet dating for bureaucrats to facilitate better understanding and relationships between the sectors; an idea we believe could have some legs. We then proposed a more substantial programme of secondments between the sectors and pitched a more focused co-design process for central government policy making.

It is not the case that no local – central work is underway and our fourth post publicised the work of the Public Sector Transformation Network. Another guest post, this one from Mark Upton, argued that we need to create ‘safe spaces’ for public servants across central and local government to get to know each other better and discussed some examples of where this was already happening. 

Our sixth post argued that part of the problem here was a lack of trust between central and local government before another guest poster, this time Claire Webb, argued that change was incumbent on each of us working in the public sector; change will only happen if each and every one of us make it happen.

Picking back up on the Learning and Development theme we then pondered the value of development days between local and central government and featured a post from the organisers of the ‘Yes Minister Yes Councillor’ event who discussed the different strengths in central and local government and what each could learn from the other. 

Finally, we pondered whether the assumption and premise of this series was correct (we still believe it is).

Collectively, this series represents a lot of writing and a range of ideas. We are not really placed to turn them into reality but would gladly work with anyone who wanted to take a shot at doing so. Indeed, if someone wanted to turn these into reality without involving us at all that would be cool too.

 

As well as developing new ideas the one thing we learnt from this process was that while the structures might not support more co-operation people really want to get involved. Whenever we spoke to people we were left with the impression that if something was in place to help build these relationships they would be keen to get involved; no-one told us they’d rather the relationship stayed as it is. That’s a real positive and whilst we imagine that relations between central and local government will always be a little strained we hope that, with these ideas or others, the next 5-10 years will see a real improvement in relationships and from that a real improvement in the services that we provide and the challenges we collectively try to address.

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