A new report from the UK’s National Audit Office (NAO) examines Central government’s communication and engagement with local government (PDF, 44 pages, 500 Kb) and concludes that central government needs to have better engagement with local government, particularly when further services are devolved. On page 4 the paper issues a warning “We have said to Parliament that we will expand gradually our programme of value-for-money examinations to consider local government more explicitly”, so a much-needed panoptic view of local government should eventually happen. As the report states on page 6 “insufficient engagement with fire and rescue authorities was one factor that led to a major project to replace control rooms being cancelled in 2010. The project did not have the support of the majority of the end-users essential to its success, which wasted a minimum of £469 million”, similar events should not recur!
As has been stated on this blog, and is stated on page 7 of the report “government departments focus on particular policies, whereas with over 1,300 statutory duties local government has wider responsibility across policies that affect their communities”, politicians and staff in central government frequently forget the scale of local government and hence the need to deal in a different manner than they would in their own departments and also on page 7 that “work across government has demonstrated that not consulting delivery partners early brings a high risk of waste and optimism bias that can result in programme failure”. In fact it has and does result in failure and waste!
In terms of recommendations, many would be solved by central government having better intranets or a good intranet – do they even have such a thing. If one is to share institutional data across the greatest volume of people what better means is there? Another proposal is for the DCLG to work closer with other government departments when dealing with local government, which is a pretty sound idea - it worked pretty well for the Local CIO Council.
In the list of local authorities on page 12, the study manages to ignore the small but democratically important town and parish councils, which are largely elected and have an important role in representing communities. They also have to be consulted by higher tier authorities on matters such as planning. It does, however, manager to emphasise that districts are not subservient to counties, similarly this applies to town and parish councils.
The effect of staff changes in central government are highlighted and I for one recall the nuisance value that the regular changes of government and departmental CIO have had on communication when one incumbent hade gone to the trouble of establishing a communication channel through the Local CIO Council and others saw it as a lesser priority! The frequent ‘game play’ of senior civil servants and relocation of them to other jobs is similarly unhelpful for continuity!
A key example in the report is on page 19 as ”the prospective change to Council Tax Benefit in April 2013 [case study]. Practical issues that were considered to require greater clarity included coherence between Council Tax Benefit and Universal Credit, time to effect changes to IT and business process, and managing the overall impact on existing benefit recipients.” Again, this has been mentioned on this blog before and no doubt we will see the results of any communication, or otherwise, when the changes occur!
This report is short and concise enough for it to be compulsory reading for Ministers and Department heads in government. I hope it is effective in changing their ways, and potentially could save a small fortune along with a lot of embarrassment in the future. However, if government departments are failing in consultation with the tiers of governance nearest the citizen, how does consultation with the citizen stand up to review? Well done to the NAO on this occasion, an ever bigger task awaits!