England & Wales HR, workforce and communications, Technology

Central-Local – It’s good to talk


The National Audit Office (NAO) recently published “Central Government’s communications and engagement with local government”a report on the effectiveness of central government’s communications with local government.

The report found that communication is very challenging as a consequence of the organisational differences between central and local government. This difference brings significant risks of loss of focus and conflict between national and local priorities, which need to be managed by timely and effective communications. However, the NAO found, many civil servants do not understand local government priorities, structures and business well and as a consequence messages from Whitehall can appear in the style of ‘command and control’ overlooking the multifaceted nature of local government. 

Although the report was able to identify good examples of departments articulating and sharing programmes for developing a policy, and many examples of well-designed communications, this was not done consistently with departmental standards and oversight not systematically applied. 

The NAO also found that many policy consultations are rushed with only eight per cent meeting the expected Whitehall standard of 12 weeks, with a disproportionate number taking place just before Parliamentary recess and the holiday periods; and while a summary of views is normally published with the government’s consultation responses, the extent to which local government’s views and experience have been taken into account can be unclear. Since publication of the NAO report the Cabinet Office has hastily issued, without any fanfare, a revised set of ‘consultation principles’ (“Consultation Principles – Guidance”) which water-down the pre-existing code of practice so that for instance, the 12 week period is no longer considered to be the norm.

The report is fair in its criticism of central government; however, what the report does not capture is that the tone and quality of central government’s engagement (both positive and negative) can in part reflect the leadership of the local government sector nationally and through its various professional bodies. It also reflects how Ministers and local government politicians (operating on the national stage) wish to convey their narrative through the media to the general public. Often, over the last two years, this has strained relations with civil servants and officials on both sides, at best, darting about like Red Cross workers in a war zone (with a few taking bullets) and at worst, hiding behind the barricades waiting for a ceasefire. That said, we can’t exactly say practices were so much better in the preceding years; there is a ‘structural’ problem and it is no excuse for the civil service not getting some of the basics right.

As the NAO found there are considerable challenges; many Whitehall civil servants outside DCLG find it difficult to understand the ‘politics’ of local government and that it is often a different politics even within the same political party to the national scene in Parliament and that the Local Government Association has to reflect that, making compromises to reach a political consensus, and that its officers as in individual local authorities serve all political interests and not just the leading party. 

The local government sector and indeed, individual local authorities are not always joined up, often presenting themselves differently to Whitehall. The sector is made up of a number of different professions and sectoral interests which transcend local government each with a different history of reform. Whitehall finds it difficult to get their ‘head around’ this, which might be understandable up to a point, but its lack of knowledge and engagement with district councils is less so.

That said, if central government wants to see its policy objectives implemented, then it needs to face up to the fact that while there are challenges, local government is a crucial part of the delivery chain. So these challenges will have to be met one way or another; otherwise the consequences, as this and other NAO reports have shown, is clear. The trouble is they are challenges which are all too often not recognised by Whitehall or are simply ignored.

For its own part local government should accept that different departments will do things differently, as part of the rationale for that difference is that local government and wider local delivery chains are different, as are departments themselves. There are, for example, strong professional bodies in children’s services and adult social care and they are central to how the Departments for Health and, Education operate. That is not the case in other areas of Whitehall. Nonetheless, as the NAO have alluded, there are a few common standards which could apply. The recommendation that Whitehall adopt a more visible programme management approach to major policy developments is more than sensible, it is essential, and should be adopted immediately.

But there are also a number of issues Whitehall needs to confront which, lie beneath the surface of the report:

  • Civil Servants including those below the Senior Civil Service need to ‘get out and about’ more. Too many civil servants are closeted in their own offices, with few making it out to visit other government departments, never mind a local authority, attend talks and seminars (where they might meet local authority officers); this is particularly worrying among the so-called civil service elite ‘fast stream’.
  • The PRINCE2 project management methodology supposedly adopted by Whitehall is not fit for purpose for much of what Government departments do and is too narrowly focused around structures, documentation and project stages. Crucially it is weak on the day to day management of programmes and the underlying leadership and management practices including stakeholder engagement. 
  • The Civil Service needs to move away from the ‘seasonal’ approach to setting timetables. The NAO found that disproportionate consultations take place just before Parliamentary recess and holiday periods; while this is not by design, it doesn’t happen by accident. Public pronouncements from Whitehall about the timings of policy developments are all geared around expressions such as “by the summer” (which really means by 30 September or if really desperate by mid-October when Parliament resumes). 
  • Stakeholder engagement needs to be seen as core competence of the civil service; while it does feature in the professional skills for government framework, it is relegated as a ‘technical’ exercise as part of project management. And while it might feature in the framework, practice tells quite a different story.
  • Whitehall websites are notoriously stilted and even for a civil servant with the best of intentions getting materials published on them and using the internet as a tool to engage and provide timely information is cumbersome.

Overall there are some good ideas contained in the NAO report and it should provide a good opportunity for the two sectors to ‘get around the table’ to understand each other better. Though, for Whitehall at least there are a few more fundamental issues to be addressed if any improvement is to be sustainable. A dominate theme of what the NAO have found is there are published standards and procedures and they did find a number of examples of good practice, but they are not consistently applied. That requires greater leadership and change in culture, not new guidance and procedures which, along with changing the goal-posts, is the usual Whitehall response.

This post is based on a Local Government Information Unit member briefing by Mark Upton, LGIU Associate. For more information about LGiU membership and briefings see www.lgiu.org or contact chris.naylor@lgiu.org.