Why not walk a mile in a civil servant's shoes?

Swapping staff can give employees an intuitive understanding of the way other people work, and the problems they face. Paul Gosling gets a second opinion
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The Independent Online
The UK has "tighter barriers around public-sector career structures, less mobility across career streams, than places such as Scandinavia, France and the United States", says Michael Clarke, head of the School of Public Policy at Birmingham University. The result is a narrowness of outlook and experience that is harmful to the individual public servant and to the operation of government.

Professor Clarke believes seconding officials between different types of organisation can oil the wheels of public administration. But while exchanges of staff have improved relations with the private sector, less importance has been placed by central government on links with local authorities.

"There is a real problem in this country, because officials do not have first-hand experience of other levels of government. There is not that intuitive understanding of problems, issues and opportunities, and the way other levels work," says Professor Clarke.

The Secondment Initiative Programme, launched three years ago, could have put some of that right, by giving high flyers in the Civil Service and local government experience of each other's sectors. The initiative, though, has failed to make much impact. In 1993 there were 408 civil servants seconded to business, with more on short-term attachments and as non-executive directors, but just 44 seconded to local government, and 47 borrowed by the Civil Service from councils.

It was Professor Clarke who developed the SIP in his previous job as chief executive of the Local Government Management Board, and his study on the reasons for its lack of success has just been published*.

Since 1979, a vicious circle of distrust and hostility has developed between central and local government, encouraging senior civil servants to see little advantage in improving their understanding of how councils work.

At the same time, contracting out - and the creation of the Whitehall and Industry Group (Wig) - has broken down the barriers between the public and private sectors. Wig offers a model as to how central and local government relations could be improved, says Professor Clarke, by having dedicated staff, a pounds 90,000 annual budget, and commitment from the highest levels of business and the Civil Service.

One of the other lessons from it is that the participants are committed to achieving value for money, which means that only highly competent staff are used. Secondment programmes elsewhere have been devalued by organisations lending executives who have been over-promoted. More employers should ask themselves who would gain from a secondment, and why.

"I would like to see two things," says Professor Clarke. "More long-term secondments, which are good and useful things. But we need to be realistic, there are formidable problems. The number of people in longer-term secondments will always be limited. I would like to see many more people in short- term exchanges."

Short-term exchanges, simple swaps between two employers, may last no more than a few days, and officials may be given a single discrete task to undertake for which their experience qualifies them.

'Breaking Down the Barriers, inhibitions to secondment between central and local government', by Professor Michael Clarke, published by LGC and the Joseph Rowntree Foundation.