Central government needs to have better engagement with local government, particularly as more services are devolved.

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The National Audit Office has today published a report on the effectiveness of central government’s communication with local government.

The report recognises that, now more than ever, it is essential that central government communicates and engages well with local government. Responsibilities such as public health are moving to local government, local authorities are playing a vital role in the Government’s decentralisation agenda, and substantial reductions in staff are causing pressure.

It is clear that there is goodwill on both sides and that they are directing considerable energy at improving how they communicate with one another. However, the organisational differences between central and local government make communication very challenging. Where departments are designing services for local delivery, the operational experience of local authorities is important to the effective design and implementation of programmes.

The NAO’s work across government has also demonstrated that not consulting local delivery partners early brings a high risk of waste and ‘optimism bias’ that can result in the failure of programmes. For example, a July 2011 NAO report cited how insufficient engagement with fire and rescue authorities and failure to gain the support of most end users contributed to the cancellation in 2010 of the major project to replace control rooms.

Some policy consultations are rushed. In two-thirds of consultations by seven departments analysed by the NAO, the departments allowed less than the 60 working days suggested in their own code of practice. Departments also issue a disproportionate number of consultations just before parliamentary recess and holiday periods of Easter, summer and Christmas. Many local authorities therefore find it difficult to co-ordinate their work on these consultations with their own political or business cycles.

Though most individual communications between central and local government are of good quality, there are so many that poor ones can still have a significant impact. Departments’ standards for, and oversight of, their communications with local government are not systematic enough to eliminate the risk of some poor communications slipping through. Local authorities are also exasperated by the poor targeting of emails to relevant audiences, wasting the time of the hundreds of people who receive each one. This is of particular concern to local authority managers working with fewer staff following cost reductions.

"As the local delivery of services becomes an ever greater concern of central government, how departments and local government communicate with one another becomes all the more important.

"Communication and engagement between central and local government are inherently challenging, especially given the differences in priorities, ways of doing business and pressures. Communications need to be clear, timely and take account of these cultural differences. Moreover, consultation needs to be done in a way that shows that central government ‘means it’, with enough time for the results to be meaningful, and for local government views to be reflected in the projects which go forward.

"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."

Amyas Morse, head of the National Audit Office


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