17th December 2013
As this series has developed we’ve been really keen to engage people from across local and central government in trying to answer the question of how local and central government can work better together.
We are therefore delighted to feature a post from former Whitehall civil servant Mark Upton who in many ways helped stimulate the idea for this series. Mark believes that we need to create ‘safe spaces’ for public servants across central and local government to get to know each other better and his piece is a thoughtful analysis of the current position and what can realistically be done to improve the situation.
Do you have any idea about how central and local government can work better together? If so, please drop us a line at firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com but not before you’re read today’s post:
From my civil service days I recall a visit to a local authority in the south west, accompanied by a colleague from another government department. Although a seasoned civil servant with responsibilities covering local government, this was his first Town Hall visit. Not an unusual situation and one which provides an illustration of a wider problem. There is not enough face-to-face engagement between Whitehall and Town Hall.
Engagement does happen, more often than not taking place when there is a problem. There have been some welcome developments requiring dialogue such as local area agreements, community budgets and ‘City deals’; while the Department for Communities and Local Government has its locality teams, replicated on a smaller scale in some other departments. But these all touch a relatively small number of people.
Besides, what is lacking is not just engagement in the ‘cut and thrust’ of business, but the informal, public servant to public servant, contact which reflects that as individuals and as a collective, they have much in common and much to learn from one another. Common challenges (e.g. utilising technology), development needs (e.g. project management) and working practices (e.g. policy development) as well as common public policy goals and challenges such as the ageing population.
So why doesn’t face to face engagement happen more often? Well, from a Whitehall perspective there is no single reason. Obviously the ‘day job’ does get in the way. But line managers do not do enough to encourage it. Many civil servants, below senior levels, lack the confidence that they should be mixing in such circles and that they have something worthwhile to say. While the policy making process within Whitehall to varying degrees is too inward looking, and conducted all too often ‘by correspondence’.