Rhys Clyne: Central and local government relations urgently need to be mended

Poor relations between Whitehall and town halls have weakened the UK’s response to the pandemic, the Institute for Government senior researcher says.

To coincide with the anniversary of the first nationwide lockdown, the Institute for Government released a report outlining 10 lessons to be learned from the UK government’s response – at all levels – to the pandemic. We based our recommendations on a series of interviews with politicians and officials from local, decentralized and central government, asking them to reflect on what they had learned over the past 12 months about the strengths and weaknesses of the government. British state.

Many have insisted on the same, unsolicited point: the pandemic has exposed a broken working relationship between Westminster central government and local government across England. These relationships require urgent redress.

The relationship is influenced by the level of funding and devolution to local government. However, on a personal and operational level, the pandemic has also shown that the links between government departments and local authorities – on which much of government depends – have become dysfunctional. They are characterized by “bitterness” and “suspicion” on both sides. As one interviewee – who worked in central government – explained, “There is a shameful and condescending view of local government – that they are less capable, less experienced, more incompetent and more ashamed than members of government. central. They are under the salt.

It matters. The pandemic has shown that the breakdown of the relationship degrades local government knowledge within Whitehall departments – even among senior officials in the Department of Housing, Communities and Local Government – and leads to operational problems and opportunities. missed.

The councils were prevented from making plans for the Covid-19 outbreak last summer because the Department of Health and Social Affairs failed to provide timely data on new cases at the local level.

Consultation limited by the center

The local government has not been able to bring as much knowledge and expertise to the pandemic response as it could have due to the nature of Whitehall’s engagement. We have seen this in its tense negotiations with Greater Manchester CA over the levels of financial support offered to areas under local lockdown, and in the limited consultation on the design of the shielding program by MHCLG and DHSC.

Relations between government departments and local authorities are characterized by “ bitterness ” and “ suspicion ”

The breakdown of relationships fuels an instinct for centralization. The response to the pandemic would have been strengthened if the local government had played a larger role, earlier.

Local public health teams have been implementing various forms of testing and traceability for more than 150 years since John Snow tracked cholera on the streets of Soho in 1854. They have direct access and lines of communication with people. local populations. But the government decided to set up a centralized testing and traceability program, relying on private consultants rather than local public health officials.

After reversing this position, Dido Harding – program manager – told the House of Commons public accounts committee that working with local government was one of the factors that led to “significantly better” contact tracing. , reaching up to 92% of people who test positive.

The government has promised structural reform but is dragging its feet

The more than 750,000 people who signed up for the NHS Volunteer Responders program in just four days in April 2020 were not as efficient as they could have been due to the decision to manage things centrally through the NHS England. It took a long time to match volunteers to work and prevented some local organizations – such as nursing homes – from benefiting because they were not initially linked to the national program.

The government has promised structural reform but is dragging its feet. Last year’s English devolution white paper was postponed and has since been incorporated into the ‘upgrade’ white paper. A much-advertised social protection plan is now expected later this year. And local government relies on short-term financial regulations instead of a long-term approach.

Before these reforms, there are simple and practical steps both sides could take to begin mending the broken relationship. More frequent use of secondments from central government to local authorities, and vice versa, would be helpful. It worked during the pandemic when senior local officials helped strengthen testing and tracing. The Local Government Association’s graduate program and the rapid flow of the civil service are also expected to create more common opportunities for graduates to gain experience on both sides of the fence.

Each department in Whitehall should work with the MHCLG and LGA to review the mechanisms in place to ensure early engagement of local government in the policy-making process. This will help to avoid missed opportunities and excessive centralization. Boards should also review and monitor which teams are working with which government departments, seizing opportunities to improve and join those connections.

The Prime Minister seems to want to delay as long as possible an official investigation into the management of the pandemic by the United Kingdom. But that shouldn’t stop politicians and officials in local and central government from acting now to mend their broken relationships.

Read the full report at https://tinyurl.com/s4uk7fsz

Rhys Clyne, Principal Investigator. Institute for Government

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