Public Services Management: Taking the twee out of twinning: Central government lags behind its local counterparts in developing an increasingly important international outlook, says Liza Donaldson

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AS THE WORLD shrinks to a smaller place, British public servants and their political masters are adding a new string to their management bows - an international outlook.

But some sectors of the public service network have responded faster than others to a new international role, and in particular to events in Central and Eastern Europe. Local government and the locally administered health service have often shown niftier footwork than the civil service as a whole.

The city of Coventry, for example, flattened in the Second World War, is twinned with war-torn Sarajevo. Coventry is on stand-by to do whatever it can to lessen the human tragedy unfolding in the former Yugoslavia. It has already acted to turn the flood of public compassion for Eastern Europe's plight into practical help, by sending a mercy mission in May to another of its twin towns, Volgograd in Russia.

They received an overwhelming response from the people of Coventry to first-hand reports from Volgograd of tearful old women begging in the streets for food and of families trying to beat starvation by feeding up pigs on tiny apartment balconies.

Actions like this have taken the twee out of twinning. However, the city recognised that sending its two 38- tonne lorries, carrying pounds 100,000 worth of aid, was a small and temporary measure. Like others, Coventry is turning to central government, the European Community and sources like the British Council and World Bank to provide longer-term, practical help.

Central government indeed acknowledged the need for advice and expertise in Eastern and Central European countries by launching the Know How Fund in 1989. This year some pounds 50m has been allocated to aiding those countries move to a free market economy and, more important as far as British public servants are concerned, to start democratic systems. The cash enabled pioneers like Leicester Polytechnic, now De Montfort University, to run a pilot scheme in 1990 training Polish officials and councillors. This year the university won a consortium bid to teach financial management of local authorities to Poles. The university shows its visitors councils like Leicester and Stafford - headed by a chief executive of Polish extraction.

Professor John Greenwood, director of the university's unit for local democracy, says new markets for public servants' skills, like South Africa, are opening up all the time. He suggests: 'There are widening links between English local authorities and others. It is not simply a question of jollies and gins and tonics. It is partly a belief we can do something positive and partly that international links are seen as good in themselves.'

This year, after initial legal hitches were ironed out by the Department of the Environnent, pounds 700,000 Know How money is earmarked exclusively for councils to carry out technical projects.

Chorley in Lancashire, one of only three authorities to win technical money last year, is helping advise on converting former Red Army barracks in Hungary into starter units for small business. The council's environmental experts are also looking at ways of monitoring air quality and reclaiming a polluted Hungarian lake. Council chiefs see the project as a way of widening their experience, paying for research into air quality they could not otherwise afford and helping the Hungarians.

Some authorities have gone ahead with their own international links, independent of government cash. Humberside County Council last year helped set up two business schools in Poland. The council says the scheme was carried out on a shoestring, with exchange difficulties over the Polish zloty making any thought of immediate gain unrealistic. However, the deputy education director, Trevor Thomas, maintains that many management lessons were learned as council chiefs pulled together in a corporate effort to bring off a project they believe will bring long- term benefits to Humberside in terms of economic development. Essex County Council went further afield when it signed a friendship accord in July with the Jiangsu Province in China. Both sides promise to develop exchanges and cooperation in economic development, science, technology, education, sport, culture and tourism. Essex, with Stansted Airport on its doorstep, is offering expertise on the design, construction and management of airports, on road building and, using its countryside new town South Woodham Ferrers as a showpiece, on rural town planning and design.

A former chairman of Essex council, Paul White, argues that China is a long haul but the potential market in a province of 68.4 million people is enormous. He says we have been slow as a nation to seize the opportunities in China. But Essex, suffering some of the worst effects of the recession, is doing its bit. 'It is important for local government and its managers to have wider horizons. You can do a lot at a local government level that government cannot.'

John Chatfield, chairman of the Local Government International Bureau, supports this view. Political changes in Europe and elsewhere mean that the international scene is more important for local government. Councils, he points out, have to implement global agreements like agenda 21 agreed at the Earth summit in Rio. 'Twenty years ago the idea of local government being involved abroad was unheard of. Any sort of involvement outside its own boundaries would have been seen as municipal junketing on the rates. Today We are wiser, we see that problems in one country are not awfully different from any other.'

In the health sector, this is a lesson that Dr Errol Pickering, director of the International Hospital Federation, cannot emphasise too much. Sharing management expertise and experience across the globe could help avoid disastrous mistakes and save millions of pounds, he says. He cites an all too frequent phenomenon: 'As I leave one country where they are having a wake for some kind of health services programme which was tried and failed, I arrive in another to find a champagne party to welcome the introduction of the same scheme.'

So what is central government doing? Baroness Chalker, the Minister for Overseas Development, last year signalled a sea change by allowing up to pounds 50m to be awarded to promote training of foreign public administrators in 'good governance'. The Civil Service College is doing more European training, some courses mixing Dutch, French, German and British civil servants. It also gave 10 South Africans a six-week crash course in British government at the request of Nelson Mandela. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office is setting up talks in September with the Office of Public Service and Science to discuss what British public administrators have to offer in Central and Eastern Europe.

But some believe more action should have come sooner. At RIPA International, once business arm of the former Royal Institute of Public Administration, acting director Donald McGregor is among the critics charging lack of central co-ordination. He said: 'Central government has not woken up to the fact there is a tremendous amount of interest in the Thatcher revolution, in Next Steps and the executive agencies. The central government machine tends to be rather introspective. Yes they are aware there are major management changes within it, but they are not really concerned what the rest of the world thinks about them.'

Consultants clearly see major markets waiting to be tapped. It would be a pity if they were to cream off the benefits of a growing global village in public services, when public service managers have so much to gain by getting involved themselves.

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