Untangling the web

29 Apr 10
Over-centralised government is at the root of many problems. But all parties remain trapped in a mind-set that prevents public services from breaking free, argue Roger Latham and Malcolm Prowle. In this final article in their series, they call for real devolution of decision-making
By Roger Latham and Malcolm Prowle

29 April 2010     

Over-centralised government is at the root of many problems. But all parties remain trapped in a mind-set that prevents public services from breaking free, argue Roger Latham and Malcolm Prowle. In this final article in their series, they call for real devolution of decision-making

As the general election campaign enters its final phase, dividing lines between the main political parties are emerging on two particular tensions: government intervention versus private choice and centralism versus localism. Unfortunately, our ­Westminster-fixated media confuses the two and melds them into one.

It is, in fact, possible to be a supporter of large-scale government intervention and still prefer government decision-making focused at the regional or local level rather than in London. Similarly, it is possible to want a minimalist approach to government involvement but prefer, where it is essential, for this to be centralised.
While the first tension largely involves ideological issues, particularly those around equalities versus choice, the second should be more concerned with having the best organisational and managerial arrangements to achieve desired outcomes. In the previous two articles in this series, we concentrated on the difficulties relating to UK public services and the economy. We are firmly of the view that these problems cannot be resolved by having ‘more of the same’.

The late Labour politician Robin Cook once suggested that the UK was the most centralised country in Europe. Others have alluded that it is one of the most centralised in the developed world. This model of government clearly does not work, as evidenced by the constant failures of public policy in the UK and the parlous state of our economy and public finances. There is an imperative to move to much greater regional and local decision-making. Changes must be made to the constitution, the system of government and the public finances. At the local level, a wider range of management skills will be needed.

In terms of constitutional reform, we should get rid of the idea that the unwritten constitution of the UK represents a real constitution with effective checks and balances on an overpowerful and arrogant executive branch. One radical change would be to move to a federal structure with elected regional government in England. Hand in hand with this, there would need to be a massive ­reduction in the size and responsibilities of the central tier, including the numbers of MPs and civil servants.

A less radical change could be to establish, in statute, new arrangements between central government and local authorities to ensure local priorities and choices are respected.

There are many concerns about our ­existing governmental arrangements. First, why do we need so many ministers when comparable countries manage with much fewer? Secondly, should civil servants be less concerned with protecting ministers and more focused on formulating robust policy? Thirdly, how can we get ministers and MPs to stop interfering in detailed operational aspects of service provision at the local level and leave this to locally elected representatives or local agencies? Fourthly, is the civil service ‘fit for purpose’? Some might question how much it has really changed since the 1968 Fulton Report found it to be unsuitable for the twentieth century, based on a cult of the amateur or generalist and with too few skilled managers. Today, we need fewer ‘incredibly bright’ people and more who can get things done.

If we are to have greater local responsibility and accountability for the effectiveness and efficiency of public services at the local level, then local revenue-raising powers should be considered. It seems unlikely that we can have a healthy local democracy until local elected representatives have significant revenue-raising powers and can be held accountable for their use of such funds.

Finally, we need wider management skills at the local level. Managers and service professionals will need to identify areas where changes can be made to ­improve services or save money.

So is any of this likely to happen? The recent experience of Total Place is not encouraging. This initiative takes a ‘whole area’ approach to public services, with the aim of identifying overlap and ­duplication between public bodies and producing service improvements and ­efficiencies at the local level, as well as across Whitehall.

Total Place should be about giving local public service organisations the incentive to work together in new ways for the benefit of their clients and citizens and the opportunity to tell government how it could behave differently to make this kind of collaborative action more likely.

The report on the 13 pilots suggested that significant efficiency savings could be made – up to 20% was reported. These were seen as coming from: reducing duplication between different layers of government and agencies; improving the co-ordination of budgets and outcomes at a local level; and reducing the overheads of inspection and regulation regimes, as well as greater investment in prevention to avoid heavy later costs.

These findings did not come as a huge surprise as similar themes had emerged in earlier academic work, including:

- the idea of replacing the ‘supply-push’ approach to services, ie, one-size-fits-all, bureaucratically designed and provided, with a ‘demand-pull’ model where ­services are customer- and citizen-led 
- saving overheads by decentralising decision-making and ending bureaucratic, hierarchical, ‘command-and-control’ arrangements
- changing the culture of service ­provision by viewing organisations less as machines and more as organic structures.

While Total Place is potentially an exciting development, the danger is that it will become merely another tool of central control. In spite of the level of savings suggested, the report failed to emphasise the importance of cultural change in achieving this. Instead, it stuck to the traditional ­approaches that have dominated public services since the Second World War.
Although the report spoke of a new ­culture, it did not seem to want to take on the enormous change programme needed to break away from the stifling consequences of over-centralisation. The proposals for change that are made are just a modest readjustment of the existing arrangements. There is a failure to embrace the idea of new self-organising, whole-system change. As a result, the report is weak on the visions and objectives that are critical to a Total Place approach.

Instead of central government ­increasing its demand for data from those providing services, a Total Place approach should emphasise the importance of giving frontline service providers themselves the freedom to react to the data by improving their services. Similarly, instead of adding to the bureaucratic systems of inspection and regulation, Total Place should involve giving local bodies ­genuine freedom to provide the ­alternatives ­required by their communities.

Will any of the main political parties address these issues? Probably not. Whoever takes power does so during a crisis and will probably not feel capable of considering major changes in constitutional and governmental reform at such a time. This is unfortunate because it still leaves in place major barriers to public service efficiency.

Roger Latham is a former chief executive of Nottinghamshire County Council and a visiting fellow at Nottingham Business School.
Malcolm Prowle is professor of business performance at Nottingham Business School

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