Effective cooperation between central and local government needs bridge-builders
John Copps argues that successful joint working between central and local government relies as much on people with the empathy and knowledge to navigate the differences in approach, culture and decision-making as it is does on any hard skills. A version of this article was published by the MJ here.
As we approach autumn's Comprehensive Spending Review, and the Government refocuses on domestic policy, it is worth reminding ourselves of a simple truth around public services: that central and local government are reliant on each other to get things done.
Anyone that has worked in the public sector for any length of time knows that Westminster and town halls do not always see eye-to-eye. Tension is a familiar state of affairs in the relationship.
A key question for civil servants looking to implement the policies of the day, and for council officers on the ground, is how these tensions can be overcome to ensure successful delivery.
There are no shortages of examples of central and local government working together, with varying degrees of success. In the usual business of government, Whitehall departments (like the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government or the Department for Education for example) run programmes where they set priorities and distribute resources to councils, whilst coordinating learning and evaluation activity from the centre. Examples of this include the Troubled Families Programme and the Children’s Social Care Innovation Programme.
This division of labour acknowledges the strengths and weaknesses of the different parts of government. One of its core principles is that the closer an organisation is to a community, the more able they are to understand what is best for it and how to implement effectively. On the other hand, someone needs to ensure a programme remains faithful to its aims and have an eye on the bigger picture, which is better done at a distance from front-line delivery.
A consistent feature of the most successful of these programmes is trusting relationships between central and local government partners, with good communication with honest assessments of what works and what doesn’t.
These relationships are created where there are people that understand both parts of government and can be the bridge between them. This might be public servants that have experience on both sides, or it might be advisors that can join the dots between the two.
For example, Mutual Ventures’ work on the DfE’s Social Care Innovation Programme regularly sees friction from the divergent approaches across the levels of government. Council’s frustration to ‘get things done’ is matched with need for the Department to be assured around expenditure and retaining a focus on the aims of programme. A critical feature is the mediating role between the two and ensuring both sides go on a journey together – identifying, translating and understanding issues before or as they arise.
To understand why this is so important depends on knowing that local and central government do business in a different way, and have different cultures, decision-making processes and skillsets. These differences mean that that empathy, experience of both approaches, and an ability to overcome differences, is the real key to running effective programmes – and at least as important as hard project management skills.
As the domestic policy agenda starts to accelerate and communities recover from the impact of COVID-19, the effectiveness of any work involving local and central government relies on the skilful art of building bridges between them. It is a lesson that no-one designing future policy programmes can afford to ignore.
Our report - Building bridges between central and local government: a report with lessons on implementing change – is available for download here.