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Central – Local 10: Testing the assumption

Written by Gareth Young on . Posted in Our blog

19th March 2014

Over the past six months or so we have been running a series of posts looking at how the relations between central and local government can be improved. Underpinning all the posts has been an assumption, which we still stand by, that relations between central and local government are less than optimum. Indeed, we believe them to be downright broken.

However, what if this is not the case?

At the recent ‘Yes Minister; Yes Councillor’ event I asked the four panellists what could be done to improve local and central relations and, realising that I’d stated my prejudice without caveat, whether they agreed with the premise of the question. Surprisingly to me, most of the panel disagreed with the premise and said that, on the contrary, they thought that relations between central and local government were good. What’s more they were of the opinion that there was actually a lot of movement between the two sectors.

Now, a panel speaking at an event about working in local and central government is always going to more aware of the cross-fertilisation between the two sectors but nonetheless it is important to consider the assumption that we’ve been working with for the past few months.

There were three key arguments that I picked up from the panel against our presumption:

1) There are lots of people in the civil service that have previously worked in local government and vice versa

This has not been my experience at all but the more I thought about it the more I wondered whether the reason was due to seniority. The panel were fairly senior and perhaps there is more movement between the sectors at the more senior levels (a point that intuitively makes sense due to the closed nature of civil service recruitment at the more junior levels).

If this is the case then perhaps this mitigates some of the lack of cross-fertilisation further down through the civil service and town halls. However, I still believe that this relationship between local and central government and their staff needs to happen far earlier in individual staff member’s career.

2) Consultation between central and local government is actually fairly good

Again, my experience is very different but then again it would be. You can’t expect central government to engage with all 400ish local authorities on every policy. Instead they rely on relations with a few trusted contacts and peak organisations such as the LGA.

Whether or not the LGA do that job as well as they could is an issue for a different post.

But if central government are, quite rationally, conducting their consultation with the peak organisations and a few select councils then this is an issue for local government and not central. How local government organises itself to effectively engage with the centre is the key issue here and how we, as a sector, address this seems to be to be increasingly important.

3) Politicians are meant to disagree a little but this is no more or less worse than in previous years

Perhaps it feels worse because there are massive cuts accompanying the disagreements but this point seems well made. As a non-politician it’s not really my place to comment but if there are to be changes to improve relations between local and central perhaps the officer level is the one where real improvements can be made.

What is clear is that the issue of relations between central and local is not as clear cut as we had implied in our previous posts. Indeed, it does seem that at more senior levels the relationship is better than at junior levels.

Does this mean that our series is now going to ceremoniously dropped in the WLLG trash can?

No, for two reasons:

1) Because even if the relationship is pretty good there is always the potential for it to improve and,

2) Because despite the very real challenges of the esteemed ‘Yes Minister, Yes Councillor’ panel to our supposition we still believe that, from the evidence we have seen that there is a problem here.

Despite the positive elements outlines by the panel central government often makes policy without local input and central civil servants are rarely seen in the local councils where their policy is to be implemented. Likewise, local bureaucrats don’t always understand the motivations that underpin central policy and could learn a lot from their central colleagues.

And more importantly than all of this the challenges of the future government of this country, and the provision of public services, will require more joined up working rather than less.

 

We hope that our small series will have helped contribute to the debate about how we can take that forward.

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