Tuesday, 24 April 2012

Strategic thinking and the local state

Today's Public Administration Select Committee report on 'Strategic Thinking in Government' has received considerable coverage precisely because its critique is that Government in the UK lacks such thinking in any properly developed sense. The Committee has over a number of reports argued the case for 'national strategy' which it distinguishes from policy and from operational strategy and which is characterised as being about the long term and by definition bigger than any single Department. 

Intriguingly the Committee have also fastened on to the idea of 'emergent strategy' which requires a 'directing mind' to steer a process which means that the emergence of strategy moves from being chaotic (its description) to being positive generating effective policies and positive outcomes which reflect the public values that in turn informed and inspired that leadership.

Whilst there is passing reference to issues such as child poverty as being ones that exemplify failings arising from a lack of coherent and relevant strategic aims, the focus is very much on what might broadly be seen as national level questions. 

It is striking that there is no discussion (aside from a general point about national strategy needing to reflect 'all parts of the UK and the devolved policy agendas') about the impact of the lack of strategic thinking on the way that Government deals with what might be described as the local state - the set of organisations including local government that make things happen in places up and down the country. Yet arguably the lack of strategic thinking when it comes to the local state is actually a massive failing on the part of Government. 

The report identifies some of the long standing problems of dealing with issues coherently:

- Departmental silos which place the primary accountability on Secretaries of State to Parliament and which lock Departments in as the 'key unit'

- the commensurate lack of strength at the centre of Government with the means and the influence to act as an effective centre of gravity for national strategy

- the lack of alignment of financial resources with strategic thinking and the lack of longer term thinking about  budgeting linked to where society is going

- the opportunities for a change in the role of Parliament in helping to promote and challenge national strategy (the contrast is drawn with the approach in Canada which includes a review of financial commitments, pressures, priorities etc at the start of the spending round).

All of these issues figure prominently when one analyses the systemic problems that hamper the development of a more coherent approach to the local state. Indeed, work that I have been doing with a colleague suggests that without some rethinking of Parliamentary and local accountability arrangements current Government moves to decentralise and devolve powers to communities are doomed to fail, the Coalition’s objective of promoting ‘localism’ will continue to be more rhetoric than reality and it will be harder to avoid a deepening crisis in public services. 

Major changes are happening including in the form of Police and Crime Commissioners, further directly elected mayors, new plans for ‘City Growth’, and ‘open’ public services.   But these will leave key aspects of our present constitutional arrangements, and a set of critical dysfunctions at the heart of English governance, largely untouched.

The new landscape for local public services currently emerging from Government reforms on health, policing, education, and local government is highly complex.  Accountability arrangements, and the citizen’s question of ‘who decides’ on the allocation of resources, have become virtually unanswerable even to the expert.  

On the financial front, achievement of large-scale public service savings through preventative measures, early intervention, and joined-up delivery remains a distant goal – rarely achieved in practice.  Many valiant efforts have been made, over many years.  Traditional arrangements for accountability to Government and Parliament, and our silo-based systems for delegation of authority, stand in the way.   

There needs to be a rethink of the present national arrangements for financial accountability and devolved decision-making, from Parliament downwards including changes in machinery of government terms. 

There are opportunities to do so but they would be greatly enhanced by a collective will to rise to the challenge set by the Committee to do strategy differently and better.

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