Revisiting tired debates has no future

17 September 2013

Column originally published in the Local Government Chronicle on 4 September 2013.

One of the eye catching announcements at this year’s LGA conference was the package of ideas for “re-wiring public services”. Amongst its “ten big ideas” was creating a single England Office in Whitehall by merging six government departments.

The LGA recommended this should include communities and local government; transport; environment, food and rural affairs; energy and climate change; culture, media and sport, and “relevant parts” of the Home Office.

Ministers were quick to rubbish this, with Brandon Lewis contrasting the proposal unfavourably, but perhaps accurately, with the ill-fated “super department” experiment that was John Prescott’s Office of the Deputy Prime Minister.

One of the lasting lessons of improvement work is focusing on outcomes, not structures.

Local government and thinktank worlds then lurched into action, conveniently overlooking many of the LGA’s more considered proposals – on Barnett, tax and local growth, the method of grant distribution, and health and social care.

Why was the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills overlooked, we asked? Why would an “England Office” and its inevitable tentacles be any different from the old government offices in the regions? And with the top spending round issue for chief executives being the £3.8bn health and social care integration fund, where were the big beasts, the Department for Education and Department of Health in the equation?

One of the lasting lessons of improvement work across local government is focussing on outcomes, not structures, driving good results for local communities on the ground. The same thinking could be applied to the proposals for an England Office. What would its purpose be, and how could it conceivably improve outcomes – especially without financial clout over skills, health and education spending – the three biggest issues on most councils’ agendas?

We could return to questioning the English two tier system, still something of an elephant in the room in the spending review debates. But with numerous district councils across the country delivering great work, and now in shared management team and shared service arrangements, this is an equally tired debate, and arguably replete with great examples of sector-led improvement without centrally driven reorganisation.

With the remnants of central impetus, interest and policy drive on local government performance and improvement now lost in the chaos of funding reductions, it is up to the sector to take this agenda forward focused on outcomes for citizens. It is time to stop flogging the dead horse of government reorganisations.