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Localism - the way to save Whitehall


With OFSTED reporting that progress in primary schools has been hampered by too many central initiatives, and the the inquiry into events at Stafford Hospital in part blaming the ‘target culture’ of the NHS, today is going to be another bad day for centralism.

As I said last week, there is a debate going on at the heart of government over how far Gordon Brown should go before the election in showing real determination to decentralise. For a long time now I have been encouraging politicians to adapt one of Bill Clinton’s most famous phrases and assert that ‘the era of big central government is over’.

But I sense that the localists in Government are still having a hard time, especially in the face of the unwillingness of large service departments such as DCSF or DWP to give up any of their levers of control. If Labour doesn’t move on this, an  incoming Conservative Government probably would, offering local councils a non-negotiable deal: ‘you won’t get any more money for several years but you can have much more control over how you spend it, and by the way, the buck stops with you’.

But even after news like today's, the way this argument is structured in Government makes the localist case difficult to sustain. It is up to the localists to ‘prove’ that devolving power would improve outcomes. But given its complexity and the confounding variables this is an impossible case to make.

Instead every presentation on this issue to ministers and officials should start with a slide headed ‘myths of centralism’, containing the following bullet points:

1. Centralism does not lead to uniform performance levels or outcomes

2. Every new central initiative/target reduces the salience of existing initiatives and targets

3. The messages sent by the centre (especially if there are lots of them) are very different to the messages eventually heard at the front line

4 There are systematic reasons why opt-in pilots are more likely to succeed than the same policy when it is made a mandatory national programme

There is a big opportunity here for new ways of thinking, but my recent discussions with insiders leave me with little confidence it will be grasped.

For many years now the Cabinet Office has been conducting capability reviews of Government departments. All well and good. But the question not asked is whether the capabilities these reviews are looking for – the ones currently expected of Whitehall departments - are those that will be needed in the future.

A radical devolution of power (and, of course, there need to be safeguards about how this is done and how the centre deals with demonstrable local failure) could be accompanied by an equally radical recasting of the way that Whitehall plies its trade.

Instead of a machine driven by the desire to maximise control, to compete with other departments for money, power and legislative time, and by silo accountability, a modern on-line Whitehall needs to be a place where people get what they want through thought leadership, trust, persuasion, innovation and collaboration.

Most local authorities and other public agencies have no desire for the centre simply to abandon them. But they want supportive and clever leadership rather than mechanical and oppressive interference. If Whitehall doesn’t learn these skills, then, when the inevitable shift of power away from the centre comes, it will not only lose an empire but find itself without the skills to perform a new role.

So, far from devolution being a threat to Whitehall, it can be the opportunity for it to become the kind of centre it needs to be in the 21st century. Most people who think hard about the medium and long term future of Government get this. Sadly, the combined nervousness of Number Ten, intransigence of service departments and limited vision at the top of the senior civil service suggest it may have to be a different administration that makes the shift.

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