Finance: Pulling power is here

Uniting our fragmented state bureaucracy is New Labour's `big idea'
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The Independent Culture
Before the election, the Labour Party was thought to be looking for the "big idea" for its first term of office. While constitutional reforms are dominating the legislative programme, they probably do not capture the minds of voters on deprived estates in Hartlepool or Lambeth. Now, it seems, the big idea has emerged: "Joined-up government."

For too long, the argument goes, people have been pushed from the pillar to the post of the state system. No matter that details of a new birth have already been given to the Benefits Agency. They must still, separately, be given to the local council's housing, council tax benefits and housing benefits departments, plus the general practitioner and the Inland Revenue. The government that could connect the state's bureaucracy really might be onto something of a political winner.

We are beginning to see a raft of government initiatives aimed at precisely that outcome. There are a number of new bodies, such as the Social Exclusion Unit, the Performance Innovation Unit and the Cabinet Committee on Public Expenditure, that are directed at overcoming departmentalism. There is the appointment of Jack Cunningham as "Cabinet enforcer", with a remit to knock heads together to ensure that policies are delivered cross-departmentally. And there is the merger of the Cabinet Office and the Office of Public Service to ensure that policy formulation and delivery are overseen across government from one central point.

"There needs to be more emphasis on the corporate management of the civil service as a whole," said Tony Blair in a recent Parliamentary written answer, using words that could have - and probably did - come straight from the new Cabinet Secretary, Sir Richard Wilson. "My objective," continued Blair, "is to meet the corporate objectives of the Government as a whole, rather than just the objectives of individual departments." A report by Sir Richard found departmentalism to be the weak element of government administration.

One of the results of this new approach has been a pounds 150m fund launched last month by the Treasury, the Invest to Save Budget, "to promote joined- up government". "The aim of the ISB is to ensure public services are delivered in a more coherent way and that different parts of government work closer together," said Chief Secretary to the Treasury, Stephen Byers. "By breaking down barriers between government departments, we will be able to provide members of the public with a far better service."

Public bodies can apply to the ISB to fund innovative projects that assist a more co-ordinated approach. Good practice examples quoted have been the borough of Lewisham's one-stop shops that not only allow residents to enquire about any council service, but also ask the Benefits Agency about social security problems, helping to integrate benefits provision. Brent borough has opened one-stop shops for all council queries, and is to create a call centre for telephone questions and an Internet site. While on the Internet, the self-employed can also complete a single electronic form that deals simultaneously with the Inland Revenue, Customs & Excise and the Contributions Agency.

Other examples of inter-agency good practice have been highlighted by the Audit Commission in its new report, "Promising Beginnings". One of the points made by the Commission is the benefits for the consumer in county and district councils sharing offices in remaining two-tier areas, as well as the financial savings and improved joint working for the authorities themselves.

The most junior tier of local government can have its own role. The parish council of Bramshott and Liphook, in East Hampshire, operates a community office with grant support from the district and county councils. The office helps visitors to make contact with the right person in the larger authorities, and hosts surgeries conducted by council planners, the local housing association and Citizens' Advice Bureau.

Local government reorganisation was a spur to many county councils to improve relations with district authorities where two-tiered local government has been retained. This has led to joint working protocols being agreed in several areas.

Cambridgeshire has established the "Further Improving the Three Tiers Group", bringing parish and town councils into the joint working loop. This has involved linking the county and some district councils' phone systems, which is also expected to cut phone bills. Website links have also been developed, bringing MPs, voluntary groups and councils together. Some officers have been seconded between county and district councils to increase co-operation.

Best Value - the Government-imposed scheme to raise standards across local authorities - is acting as an impetus to establish joint commissioning. In Sussex, the Tandridge, Brighton and Hove, and Wealden councils are to jointly procure IT systems. Baroness Dean, chair of the Housing Corporation, says that housing associations will be expected to jointly commission with local authorities in such matters as estate cleansing.

The CWOIL group of local authorities - Cambridge, Welwyn, Oxford, Ipswich and Lincoln - have come together to share good practice on Best Value, creating internal benchmarking standards. This has also allowed their local auditors, on behalf of the Audit Commission, to come together to decide how best to audit Best Value.

The think-tank Demos says that joined-up government will remain a focal point of the Government. While Labour was in opposition, Demos had argued strongly for the need for greater "connectivity" of public services, and current government policy may owe a lot to the appointment of former Demos director Geoff Mulgan to the Downing Street policy unit.

Current Demos director, Perri 6, believes that one of the future focal points may be the way executive agencies relate to the work of government departments, which has already led to the moving of the Contributions Agency from the remit of the Department of Social Security to its new, more logical connection with the Inland Revenue. The way some of the existing agencies work, argues Perri 6, get in the way of joined-up government by supporting departmentalism.

And as far as New Labour is concerned, there are few sins greater than departmentalism.