PLC Public Sector reports:
Given the government’s aim to devolve more power to a local level with new freedoms and flexibilities for local authorities, the National Audit Office’s (NAO) report, Central government’s communication and engagement with local government, is a timely reminder for Whitehall of the importance of properly engaging with local government. The changes set out in the Localism Act 2011 and Open Public Services White Paper will only be achieved if a less directive relationship with local government is taken and (as the report highlights) central government effectively communicates and engages with local government.
The report sets out the key findings of the NAO’s examination into the effectiveness of central government’s communication and engagement with local government. These are as follows:
- Organisational differences
Communication is very challenging as a consequence of the organisational differences between central and local government. While government departments focus on particular policies, local government, with over 1,300 statutory duties, has wider responsibility across a broad range of policies that affect their communities. 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 with local government.
- The timing of engagement and consultation with local government
Where departments are designing local services, there is a risk that any programme will fail due to government departments not consulting delivery partners at an early stage. Not doing so, brings a high risk of misplaced optimism and wasting time and resources, which can result in programme failure. In this respect, the NAO cited its 2011 report on the cancellation of the fire and rescue control rooms project. The report makes clear that the operational experience of local authorities is an important aspect of the effective design and implementation of programmes. The report gives the example of the missed opportunity for local government to input into the Department for Education programme on converting maintained schools to academies at an early stage but applauds the fact that this has now been rectified by the creation of a joint research project between the Department and the Local Government Association (which is elaborated on in a case study within the report). However, the report makes clear that there is no consistent approach across government to drawing on local authorities’ experience at the outset of a programme or policy initiative.
Some policy consultations are rushed. In two thirds of consultations conducted in a two-year period to January 2012, the NAO found that seven government departments included in the report’s analysis allowed less time than the 60-day consultation period suggested in their own code of practice. The report commented on the fact that a disproportionate number of consultations are issued by departments just before parliamentary recess and the holiday periods of Easter, Summer and Christmas which meant that many local authorities find it difficult to co-ordinate their work on these consultations with their own political and business cycles and to involve communities or local organisations that may be directly affected by the proposed policy. The report emphasises that local authorities would like to see clearer feedback on how their views and experience have been taken into account.
- The ongoing information flow
Although the NAO was able to identify good examples of departments articulating and sharing programmes for developing a policy, it was apparent that this was not done consistently. Some policies left local government and its partners with gaps in the information that was needed to plan effectively over the course of a policy’s initiation, development and implementation. The report emphasised the need for comprehensive, up-to-date information on major policy proposals and implementation, including key facts, objectives, timescales and progress, which would also support wider dialogue with local people and organisations likely to be involved in, or affected by, a proposed change.
Local authorities find government department websites generally helpful in content and design. However, the NAO found that three of the five departments’ websites examined had limited functionality specifically to help local authorities.
- The quantity and quality of communication
The large volume of communications between central and local government - some 700,000 e-mails were sent in March 2012 by the government, its agencies and non-departmental public bodies to local government - meant that poor quality communications had a significant impact on the effectiveness of those communications. Although the report emphasised that well-designed communications, such as the newsletters issued by the Department for Communities and Local Government and the Department of Health, provided helpful signposting to local authority officers, local authorities are “exasperated” by the poor signposting of some communications they receive from central government departments, which wastes the time of the people who receive them. Local authority managers are particularly concerned about this issue given that, they are working with fewer staff as a consequence of budget reductions, but need to be able to understand and act on these communications quickly.
- A lack of a systematic approach
Although the engagement between staff in central and local government, and the involvement of representative and professional bodies, is extensive and diverse and helps local authorities access the right people in government departments, it is not systematic.
What needs to be done
The overall conclusion of the report is that communication and engagement between local and central government is inherently challenging given the differences in scale, function and accountability to elected representatives. Although the report does highlight good practice, there are areas where central government could do better by tailoring its communications to fit local government partners and fulfilling its commitments on engagement, most notably consultation. The report therefore recommends that government departments:
- Monitor standards of written communications, to ensure the messages they contain are focused and clear.
- Assess the need for changes to the volume and flow of communication with local government.
- Review how department websites can be made more useful for local authorities, by providing information such as the roles and contact details of key staff.
- Share their knowledge and experience of local government within and across departments.
- Fulfil their commitments on engagement and consultation with local authorities by:
- providing clear, accessible policy intentions at early stage;
- managing the volume and timing of consultations to allow local government to give considered responses; and
- clearly setting out how local government’s contribution has, or has not, altered policy proposals.
The NAO warns that only when these issues are addressed can the knowledge of both central and local government be used to best effect to achieve the joined up services that local communities need.