11th March 2014
A few years ago, when we were churning out a new post every day, we wrote a post about the collapse of the corporate centre within local authorities. In that post, which was three years ago (how time flies!), we commented that roles like ‘policy officer’ were being reduced rapidly as council’s were looking around for savings.
I had forgotten about this whole debate until, whilst at the recent, and excellent,Yes Minister; Yes Councillor event at the Cabinet Office one of the speakers mentioned that the big difference between local and central government was how well central government did policy (the implication being that local government wasn’t quite as good). Thinking that this disparity was only going to grow as the teams that do policy are reduced I tweeted it out.
We got a couple of responses from clever local government policy types and then received this tweet from Dominic Campbell - he of Futuregov fame - who said:
‘Way too much policy, mostly bad IMO’ (sic)
Ann Griffiths replied saying:
‘depends what you call policy. To me it’s as much relationships, evaluating, innovating as process and docs.’
I tend to side with Ann but wonder whether the difference between Dom’s comments and Ann’s reflect a recent change in the way that policy is being delivered in local government.
As the size of the central ‘corporate’ teams has shrunk and the need for policy directly linked to actual delivery has increased the old fashioned ‘reports and templates’ role of the central policy team has, in all but the largest local authorities, seen a massive overhaul. Thus, instead of policy work being delivered in a way similar to that of central government, local authorities have been forced to develop an entirely new model; one based more on practical application, relationships, innovation and crucially, implementation.
Indeed, if this is the case then it would fit more neatly with the type of role identified by Richard Vize in this piece where he described the role of a future local government officer as evolving to be more one of an entrepreneur.
I’m not a policy person (although have a love of public policy) so I don’t know if this analysis is merely based on my limited experience, and a pretty substantial dose of optimism, rather than a real change across the sector. However, if there has started to be a real shift in the way that local authorities conceptualise and develop policy I wonder whether this might be one of the positives of the current austerity drive.
Local authorities have always been under-staffed policy wise compared to their central government colleagues and that has often led to a ‘follow-the-leader’ approach from councils. Policy then often became about interpreting and responding to the centre rather than doing anything interesting; all of the interesting work being done centrally. This did no-one any favours; especially not the policy professionals.
However, if local government is starting to develop a new model of policy, more reflective, responsive, innovative and distinctive from central government then I believe this represents a real opportunity; firstly to craft a local government policy profession that is more directly useful to the councils and populations they serve, and linked to that to demonstrate a better way of providing the bridge between policy and practice.
Policy won’t die; but I hope the way we think about it will continue to evolve.