As regular readers of our blog will know we have recently embarked on a small mini-series of posts about the relationship between local and central government and how they can be improved. So far we’ve discussed secondments, internet dating, the possible abolition of the DCLG and the Barnett formula. This week we wanted to think a little about how the things that central government do could be more pro-actively developed in partnership with local government staff.
In local government circles we often talk about co-design and co-production of services; in effect arguing that the services we provide would be far better if we were able to engage the people using those services in the design, and often the delivery, of them. And yet, when it comes to the relationship between central and local government this sort of aspirational co-design is replaced by ‘consultation’ and Government ‘consultation’ is a far different beast.
Although there are notable exceptions to this the standard Government consultation works something like this. Sometime just before the end of July the Government will publish a consultation document with a deadline to respond sitting just the other side of the summer holidays. The content of this will have already been thoroughly, and complicatedly, developed within the Government and respondents will be asked to answer a series of pre-defined consultation questions. Whilst all of these responses will be responded to and some changes made the framework for that decision making will rarely, if ever, shift and when it does it usually has little or nothing to do with the formal consultation.
It should be said that the consultation is not the sum total of local government engagement but even the more formal consultative bodies and other small bits of engagement with the DCLG are not exactly what you could call examples of shared policy development.
But it doesn’t have to be that way.
Central government could, if they wanted to, commit to the idea of co-production and co-design of policy; making sure that whether it is housing regulations, pension rules, grant settlement formulas, complex reforms to social care or any number of other things the design and policy making could be done in real partnership with the people who work in that area and can contribute some front line knowledge to the undoubted policy expertise located in Whitehall.
When central government is developing policy between government departments I like to think that they make sure that there are civil servants from all departments involved. The same should apply when the policy effects local government. Officers and councillors should be brought in to co-design the policy. This would mean taking staff away from the local government day job but perhaps the fact that more staff would be engaged from local government would free up civil servants in the various government departments. Perhaps they could provide backfill!
Of all the suggestions we have made this one seems the easiest to implement. Much of this is about mind-set and approach rather than structure. And yet, it is for exactly this reason that my guess is that this will actually be the hardest of all.
In local government we’ve learnt that co-design can be time consuming and difficult to get right. However, it’s surely got to be better than what we have currently.