Whitehall oversight risks stifling local service reforms, warns think tank

Fear of being penalised for failings with local service redesigns is stopping councils from fully sharing their experiences with peer organisations, according to a new study by the Institute for Government.

Researchers at the think tank investigated how local authorities exchanged insight on their service integration work with peer organisations and found that in some cases concerns over being judged harshly by central government departments and regulators contributed to a reluctance to acknowledge mistakes that others could learn from.

The study looked at examples of integration in social care, health, and welfare – all of which have a strong IT component – and found that barriers to openly sharing details of failures as well as successes risked a repetition of past mistakes that could stall government plans to rein in public spending. 

The report authors said interviews with practitioners found that local areas were particularly keen to hear “messy” evidence about pitfalls that authorities had  encountered that could be learned from, but that such information was often hidden. 

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“Interviewees explained that they can be reluctant to share progress, challenges and frustrations in forums convened by central government, regulators or national arm’s-length bodies, because of concerns that the information could be used to assess and sanction performance,“ they said.

“This is particularly the case when it is unclear whether a national or central government team is playing an assurance or support function.

“We heard that one particular learning scheme had low take-up because local areas were anxious that any information shared could be used to criticise performance, even though reassurance that this would not occur was provided at the outset.”

The report, Public Service Reform: Supporting learning to integrate services and improve outcomes, said it was vital that government departments and regulators encouraged peer-led learning models that delivered real-time insight on challenges and setbacks faced by practitioners.

It said such a result would be best achieved through face-to-face learning opportunities that were peer or sector-led.

The report added that central government should use the resulting insights to make changes to national policy and regulatory, legislative and funding frameworks that currently hinder local public service integration. 

IfG programme director Dr Jo Casebourne said that at a time when capacity in local government was declining it was ever more important to ensure that useful information on service redesign was shared between local authorities.

“Better collaboration between local organisations is crucial to improving public services,“ she said.

“But those on the ground still don’t have the support they need. 

“Particularly with money and resources so stretched, the government must invest properly and only fund programmes that we know actually work.”

Jim Dunton

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