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Local – Central: Time to sum up

Written by Gareth Young on . Posted in Our blog

25th March 2014

When we started writing a series about relations between central and local government we did not have a firm plan; indeed, if we had one the series probably would not have taken over six months to get to where we are.

 

However, six months later we have, along with our guest contributors looked at this issue from a number of different perspectives and come up with a series of proposals which we believe would help strengthen this relationship. Before we summarise our proposals it is worth reminding ourselves why this matters.

It is no longer the case, indeed I am unconvinced that it was ever the case, that local and central government are providing different services to tackle different problems. Instead as our society becomes structurally more diffuse the ability of either central or local government to do anything on their own is constrained and limited. Only by better working together can the two parts of our democratic structure ensure that the outcomes demanded by the people who vote for them are delivered.

And yet, too often this is not the case. As we said in our first post:

‘Despite this recognition and general commitment to make these parts of our government work better together I think we can all agree that there is still massive room for improvement. The more we think about this the more we think that some of this might be cultural rather than specifically structural. After all, Governments of all stripes have made noises about greater devolution of powers to local authorities and more importantly about linking up services between the local and the central. One only need look at the graveyard of community budget projects (Total Place anyone?) to know that the commitment is real.

And yet, despite this commitment, progress is glacial.’

Our series was predicated on the idea that by understanding the barriers and then proposing some modest ideas for how these could be overcome we could contribute to a debate that needs greater prominence. Whether we have achieved that or not we will let others decide but taken together we believe that the following can contribute to a greater understanding of this topic:

Our first post proposed internet dating for bureaucrats to facilitate better understanding and relationships between the sectors; an idea we believe could have some legs. We then proposed a more substantial programme of secondments between the sectors and pitched a more focused co-design process for central government policy making.

It is not the case that no local – central work is underway and our fourth post publicised the work of the Public Sector Transformation Network. Another guest post, this one from Mark Upton, argued that we need to create ‘safe spaces’ for public servants across central and local government to get to know each other better and discussed some examples of where this was already happening. 

Our sixth post argued that part of the problem here was a lack of trust between central and local government before another guest poster, this time Claire Webb, argued that change was incumbent on each of us working in the public sector; change will only happen if each and every one of us make it happen.

Picking back up on the Learning and Development theme we then pondered the value of development days between local and central government and featured a post from the organisers of the ‘Yes Minister Yes Councillor’ event who discussed the different strengths in central and local government and what each could learn from the other. 

Finally, we pondered whether the assumption and premise of this series was correct (we still believe it is).

Collectively, this series represents a lot of writing and a range of ideas. We are not really placed to turn them into reality but would gladly work with anyone who wanted to take a shot at doing so. Indeed, if someone wanted to turn these into reality without involving us at all that would be cool too.

 

As well as developing new ideas the one thing we learnt from this process was that while the structures might not support more co-operation people really want to get involved. Whenever we spoke to people we were left with the impression that if something was in place to help build these relationships they would be keen to get involved; no-one told us they’d rather the relationship stayed as it is. That’s a real positive and whilst we imagine that relations between central and local government will always be a little strained we hope that, with these ideas or others, the next 5-10 years will see a real improvement in relationships and from that a real improvement in the services that we provide and the challenges we collectively try to address.

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Taking Paternity Leave

Written by Gareth Young on . Posted in Our blog

20th March 2014

Today is a pretty strange day for me.

Later this afternoon I will walk out of my office and know that I won’t be returning for three months. I am not resigning, taking a long holiday or going on sabbatical. Instead I am taking three months of paternity leave as my wife goes back to work.

When my wife was pregnant and we were discussing our childcare options for the first six to nine months or so the idea of my wife taking the first six months and then me taking three seemed fairly natural. My wife loves her job and wanted to get back to it and the opportunity for me to bond with our son just seemed right. However, the more we looked into it the more we realised that our decision was fairly unusual.

Not only am I the only man that we know taking additional paternity leave but when I made the request at work I found that I was the first man to do so since the law allowing it came into force three years ago. Indeed, the TUC recently reported that less than 1% of eligible men have taken advantage of the opportunity since 2011.

All of this means that I have a weird sense of entering uncharted waters.

Let’s start with the professional element of this. Many small business owners are not too keen on the paternity leave provisions (and certainly not Nick Clegg’s proposed changes to them) and I can sort of see why. Whereas my wife was going to be off for six months and was given a short-term replacement my three month period is a bit awkward for the council; not long enough to get someone in and for them to usefully do anything but not short enough to be easily ignored.

Thankfully, I work for a local authority (thus not a small employer) and my work will be covered within the management team with some additional project support but nonetheless there is a small part of me that is worried that a) I am putting a lot of pressure on my colleagues, b) that they’ll manage my workload easily without me (with all that entails) or c) that some of the projects and pieces of work I really care about will flounder without me there. Logically, I know that each of these is overblown but nonetheless this represents an odd feeling. I know I am leaving but I’ll be back soon.

Personally, I also have an element of trepidation. Although I like to think that I done my fair share of child care duties since our son was born I am self-aware enough to recognise that my wife has definitely been in charge. It’s my wife who has worked out when to increase the amount of milk he has, chosen new activities for him to try, introduced new food, purchased new equipment and clothes, checked on his ailments, researched (with the aid of the Mumsnet gang) every baby related query and generally just been in charge.

That will now fall to me. I am really looking forward to it but the extra responsibility does feel a bit daunting.

Finally, there is the more prosaic concerns that I am sure all parents face; what to do all day. My wife has a bunch of mother and baby activities in the diary, many of which (mother and baby yoga and buggy fit for example) I am not sure I’ll be taking on so I’ll need to replace those activities and make sure I don’t fall into the trap of just staying in all day. I also think that, and I know this is going to sound odd, that I am going to miss work a little; the mental stimulation, social element and generally just the sense of achievement that comes from my job.

The above reads a bit negatively but I would not want it to seem that way. Whilst this does feel like uncharted territory for me I am really looking forward to it. I am particularly looking forward to spending time and bonding with my son which is by far the most important element of this period of leave.

I am also going to take the opportunity to explore my local area a little (and perhaps take a few trips) and spend some time with other members of my family (such as my Mum and Grandparents) who are, as you’d imagine delighted to have a new addition to the family.

 

I am also glad that I am the first person at work to do this; hopefully it will help publicise the opportunity to other men in a similar position. It won’t work for everyone but at least they’ll know about it.

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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.