14th January 2014
Over the past few weeks we've been focusing on how we can improve relationships between central and local government. As part of this series we've featured a number of guest posts and today I'm excited to say that we have a post written by someone who has worked in both local and central government; Claire Webb. And she has written a cracking post too with just hint of challenge to us all.
I’d signed the official secrets act and got slightly too excited about the “for your eyes only” option on the email system (I’m a James Bond fan, what can I say); and so began my two and a half year stint as a civil servant, on secondment from Southwark Council.
I had taken the secondment back in 2006 to get a better understanding of central government and make some contacts, which I did. What I hadn’t expected was to also learn so much more about the space which Chief Executives and Strategic Directors inhabit.
All credit to Communities & Local government for having local government secondees, but one swallow does not a summer make. The detachment of central policy making from what happens on the ground, was already familiar to me. Much of this is of course driven by what the politicians ask for and the perceived and accepted tools of central government, to demonstrate they have “done something” - legislation, regulation, and sub-regional contracting such as the work programme, all blunt instruments which rarely hit the mark. This is compounded by the silo working between different government departments, and even the teams within them.
Yet I was still surprised and disheartened at times, by how big the gulf was. My aim is not to embarrass anyone, so the example I give is deliberately rather vague. A colleague had completed their part of the white paper and drafted the instructions for the legislation to be written, when they said something that didn’t quite ring true. So I asked them if they had actually been to a council and seen first-hand what they were setting policy on; the answer was no. So off I sent them to their local council; their observations when they came back showed that they understood practically nothing of what they had been writing about.
A colleague, who I bought over on secondment from CLG to Southwark council a couple of years later, had similar reflections on how they had actually understood the challenges of local delivery from being part of it, and now understood why some legislation so widely missed the mark.
As is often the case though, our similarities far outweigh our differences. Local government officers and civil servants alike face many similar challenges, and are after all just human beings.
Mark Upton’s blog sets out a great list of practical steps that could happen tomorrow to tangibly improve central/local relations. I also really like the idea of ‘speed dating for bureaucrats’ that Gareth suggested. Similarly, building on the micro tasking format would enable you to post ‘jobs’ such finding a host for a day’s shadowing, or a chat over coffee, or someone to join a workshop. While formal arrangements such as secondments or job swaps are great, in the current climate they feel a bit too much of a luxury. Furthermore, they always risk being stifled by the very ‘norms’ they are intended to challenge. These more organic approaches are better suited. And for those who don’t need a structure to make contact, LinkedIn is the perfect tool. Now none of us have an excuse.
I would also like to pick up on the issue of policy making, made earlier in this series. It is either arrogance or extreme folly to think that a council can set policy or design services without working hand in hand with those that are impacted by it, or have a role in delivery. The same goes for central government. Yet it is the norm. Improved central/local relations is only a means to an end, and that end is getting the right solutions to some of the biggest social challenge that public services have ever faced, this requires us all to work together.
Ever the optimist I have high hopes for the open policy making drive. Part of the civil service reform plan, its aim is more collaborative policy making. Spurred in part by my experience of central government, I have pioneered collaborative policy making approaches ever since; involving real people directly in framing problems and identifying solutions. There are many advocates and practitioners of this, but not yet enough to get a critical mass. Change will only happen if we all take a bit of a risk, start taking a more collaborative approach, and focus on what it really important – getting the right solutions that work on the ground.
But crucially it also means the people at the top making a change. Senior civil servants and senior local government officers need to openly acknowledge that they don’t have all the answers, and to stop focussing so much on protecting ‘their service’. It’s about enabling all the available brain power to come together to tackle a problem. Central government has access to research and external expertise that local government can only dream of; local government has access to real people and a first-hand understanding of day to day delivery and the important realities of day to day life that policy has to work with. Just think what we could achieve together working alongside residents, service users and those from different fields of expertise.
So who are you going to make contact with?
Claire Webb, Director, Cinnamon Bubble, former Head of Policy Southwark Council