Tony Blair's attempts to co-ordinate Whitehall initiatives with local demands may prove to be one of his lasting legacies, writes David Omand
The coming contest between new Labour and a new Conservatism may be swayed by which party can convince the electorate that it knows best how to tackle public concerns such as crime and disorder, drugs, social exclusion and terrorism. A concerted attack on such "wicked problems"
involves integrating central and local resources across government to a common strategy: that is, exercising "joined-up government", to use the Blairite catchphrase and theme of this collection of essays.
Political strategists and students of government would benefit from a close reading of these contributions on the theory and practice of joined-up government by distinguished academics and past practitioners, drawing together papers given at a 2001 British Academy conference. There are useful lists of references after each essay but, regrettably, no index.
As editor Vernon Bogdanor comments in his synoptic introduction, no previous government has adopted so systematic and continuous an approach to joined-up government as the Blair administration. Many of the resulting improvements in public administration, including recent civil service reforms, will be of benefit to any future government. These essays, however, explore unresolved tensions in the pursuit of joined-up government, and help explain persistent underperformance in service delivery.
A historical perspective on the problem is provided by Christopher Hood, usefully illustrating the trade-offs needed in pursuing ambitions of joined-up government.
The enthusiasm between 1997 and 2001 for tackling cross-cutting issues is seen as a reaction to the fragmentation of government under the so-called new public management with complex issues falling between organisational boundaries and departmental budgets. Early results from joining-up initiatives such as the Social Exclusion Unit and Rough Sleepers Unit were encouraging, but subsequent appointment of central "tsars" to oversee joining up, for example on counter-narcotics, less so.
Edward Page describes the impact on the civil service, including being subject to exaggerated criticism for alleged "silo mentality", and concludes that civil servants are more likely to be part of the solution than part of the problem given the frequent absence of consensus at the political level. His analysis challenges some conventional wisdom over Civil Service reform, concluding that it is better to base improvements on the civil servants we have than aspire to a type of civil servant we have not.
Insufficient sense of history may have led some Blairites to feel that they could avoid, in Hood's words, "having to pay any price for co-ordinated activity in reduced local autonomy, confused lines of accountability and weakening of the specialisation and expertise that is conventionally associated with the much-deprecated 'silo principle' of functional departmental organisation". Rudolph Klein and William Plowden in their essay remind us too of their 1988 inquest into the Central Policy Review Staff's approach to social policy in 1975 that also generated initial enthusiasm and high-level patronage yet died. Their list of obstacles remains relevant: uncertainty over how much autonomy Whitehall is prepared to concede locally; proliferation of initiatives from contending units; complexity of bureaucratic negotiations; conflict between vertical accountabilities and horizontal responsibilities; and multiplicity of funding streams. As Page points out, after 2001 the focus shifted.
According to the rival doctrine championed by Michael Barber, first in the Department for Education with the literacy hour and then as head of the Prime Minister's Delivery Unit, anything could be delivered, provided there was sufficient prime ministerial backing, a clear line of sight down to the departmental "owner" of the target, and rigorous application of delivery planning and performance management to a standard methodology. This approach provided Whitehall with useful managerial discipline but focused resources on top-down achievement of the big single-department political objectives. The effect was to undercut the horizontal cross-cutting, lateral initiative and bottom-up public entrepreneurship that are the engines of joined-up government.
Page reports, and this reviewer can confirm, that searching the Cabinet Office website for "joined-up government" provides only the following:
"This information is being maintained for archive/historical purposes. It will not be updated." We must hope it has not succumbed to what professor of social policy Perri 6 calls "the historical cycles of effort followed by exhaustion". Christopher Foster, in examining the consequences for Cabinet government, argues that in the absence of traditional Cabinet committee co-ordination effective joining up needs a (simpler) executive centre using prime ministerial power directly, supported by a strong Cabinet Office co-ordinating minister.
The longest and most demanding essay is an English-language academic literature review by Perri 6 of experience of joined-up government in the West beyond Britain. His reminder that many nations are trying out new concepts in public administration, especially at levels below central government, is salutary. Perri 6 looks beyond co-ordination of the efforts of government agencies to a genuinely holistic approach, starting with clear and mutually reinforcing sets of objectives, and working back to a set of instruments that are appropriately integrated.
It is left to Geoff Mulgan in the final essay, drawing on his experiences as director of the Prime Minister's Strategy Unit and later as head of policy at Number 10, to remind us of why joined-up government was so important to the incoming government in 1997, of the scale of ministers'
ambition in the targets they set, thereby accepting responsibility for social phenomena such as crime, health, poverty and deprivation. He also looks at what the Blair administration has actually achieved.
His list of reforms is substantial, but on the evidence of these essays the results might have been even more impressive if there had been a greater appreciation in the centre of historical context and international experience, of an understanding of the social dynamics of effective organisations, of the ethos of public service leadership and the value of local initiative and choice.
Have these lessons been learnt? In his essay on the effect on local and regional institutions, Gerry Stoker quotes Ed Balls's assurance (as chief economic adviser) that new Labour has learnt that a simple top-down model of command and control cannot work in the long run. With far fewer central targets set in the last Treasury Spending Review, and with more cross-cutting objectives ranging from services for children to homeland security, we may now see the beginning of a new synthesis of the differing institutional styles that Perri 6 analyses in his paper. Even so, Stoker notes the unresolved dilemma over whether it would be better to continue promoting local flexibility, subject to central steering, in the interests of effective achievement of the central agenda, or to accept that the local level itself has a wide role in determining priorities and in expressing the concerns of communities in partnership with other stakeholders. The impression given, correctly, is that there are still issues unresolved over the balance between central strategic direction and local autonomy.
The British Academy deserves thanks for following up its original conference with this book, which one hopes will encourage research and reflection within government on these issues.
Sir David Omand was a permanent secretary, 1996 to 2005, at GCHQ, the Home Office and the Cabinet Office. He is a visiting professor at the department of war studies, King's College London.
Editor - Vernon Bogdanor
Publisher - Oxford University Press/The British Academy
Pages - 187
Price - £11.99
ISBN - 0 19 726333 X