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Central-Local 5: It’s good to talk

Written by Gareth Young on . Posted in Our blog

17th December 2013

As this series has developed we've been really keen to engage people from across local and central government in trying to answer the question of how local and central government can work better together.

We are therefore delighted to feature a post from former Whitehall civil servant Mark Upton who in many ways helped stimulate the idea for this series. Mark believes that we need to create ‘safe spaces’ for public servants across central and local government to get to know each other better and his piece is a thoughtful analysis of the current position and what can realistically be done to improve the situation. 

Do you have any idea about how central and local government can work better together? If so, please drop us a line at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. but not before you're read today's post:

From my civil service days I recall a visit to a local authority in the south west, accompanied by a colleague from another government department. Although a seasoned civil servant with responsibilities covering local government, this was his first Town Hall visit. Not an unusual situation and one which provides an illustration of a wider problem. There is not enough face-to-face engagement between Whitehall and Town Hall.

Engagement does happen, more often than not taking place when there is a problem. There have been some welcome developments requiring dialogue such as local area agreements, community budgets and ‘City deals’; while the Department for Communities and Local Government has its locality teams, replicated on a smaller scale in some other departments. But these all touch a relatively small number of people.

Besides, what is lacking is not just engagement in the ‘cut and thrust’ of business, but the informal, public servant to public servant, contact which reflects that as individuals and as a collective, they have much in common and much to learn from one another. Common challenges (e.g. utilising technology), development needs (e.g. project management) and working practices (e.g. policy development) as well as common public policy goals and challenges such as the ageing population.

So why doesn’t face to face engagement happen more often? Well, from a Whitehall perspective there is no single reason. Obviously the ‘day job’ does get in the way. But line managers do not do enough to encourage it. Many civil servants, below senior levels, lack the confidence that they should be mixing in such circles and that they have something worthwhile to say.  While the policy making process within Whitehall to varying degrees is too inward looking, and conducted all too often ‘by correspondence’.

If truth be told there is little interaction between civil servants in different departments. It happens in the course of business, though too much is done by email. Informal contacts – save around personal relationships (and sometimes literally) is almost non-existent.  Unlike in local government there’s isn’t the professional networks.

But it is ‘good to talk’.  Because collaboration produces better results, for example when consultation is also conducted face-to-face (as well as in writing) it minimises the risk of misunderstandings that can trip things up. While co-produced solutions produces stronger results. For individuals, it increases their knowledge, builds their emotional intelligence and creates networks which will be useful to them throughout their careers.

To bridge the gap we need to create ‘safe spaces’ where public servants can come together. Not just at the most senior levels. But down through the ranks; not only policy makers, but other specialists whether in finance, ICT or communications etc. Collaborating not only on the day to day business of government but also to provide opportunities for the more informal contact.

This is not an issue susceptible to some kind of central strategy. There is no silver bullet. Rather it needs to be encouraged organically, with a number of players making a contribution, for example:

·         Professional bodies could look to create new opportunities to bring their members from across the sectors together.

·         While those bodies which only exist in one sector, could consider extending their memberships to embrace the other.

·         Think Tanks could renew their efforts to bring both central and local government officials together through their work.

·         Whitehall departments could host ‘open days’ inviting local government officials into their buildings. Individual councils could also reciprocate.

·         Whitehall departments could also follow the lead of DCLG and invite expert speakers, including from local government, to give staff talks to provide an external perspective to their work.

·         The Local Government Association could provide a limited number of free and targeted passes to enable civil servants to attend their Annual Conference, and their year round events programme. A reciprocal offer could be made for the annual ‘Civil Service Live’ events.

·         Training and development providers could look to redesign their offer so that the separate development of civil servants and local government officials becomes the exception rather than the norm.

·         While the Cabinet Office and the Local Government Association could explore specific interchange and engagement opportunities between the Civil Service ‘fast stream’ and the local government national graduate schemes.

I think the single biggest contribution would come from tackling the Whitehall policy making process. I very much agree with Gareth’s earlier blog that Whitehall departments should ensure that their major consultations are conducted face to face, as well as by correspondence and adopt more collaborative models of policy making. While you can point to some good examples, they tend to be confined to a small number of major policy initiatives. It needs to be applied more broadly. Is there a role for an organisation such as the Institute for Government to help develop and implement such models?

But I am also intrigued by ‘bottom up’ approaches. I was therefore interested to hear about the Social Care Curry Club which brings those with an interest in adult social care, up and down the country, together to discuss and debate matters of mutual interest over something hot (curry) and something cold (larger). It sounds like a fantastic initiative, which might provide a template for others to use elsewhere.

Of course we should not exclude those from the business, voluntary and social enterprise sectors. The business of government and the delivery of public services is diverse affair; though there are some particular ‘fault lines’ between central and local government that need bridging. But it does not have to be an entirely exclusive affair.

Throughout my career I have been a passionate advocate of using dialogue as a means to problem solve and to produce more intelligent solutions. Even if it was to phone a local government official, whom I didn’t know, to gain some insight. Not everyone I came across in Whitehall shared this belief. But there are more than enough that do, to give it a go.

 

Mark Upton is a public policy and public affairs consultant (www.publicpolicystrategies.co.uk, Twitter @PublicPolicyS) and former civil servant.

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