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FRONT LINE FIRST - BORING QUESTIONS

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It is funny how it is the little things in relationships that can really start to annoy you. Divorce courts appear ...
It is funny how it is the little things in relationships that can really start to annoy you. Divorce courts appear too full of people who cannot stand the fact that their spouse never puts the cap back on the toothpaste. There appears to be a similarly small niggle that is spoiling the marriage between central and local government.

A few weeks ago I asked chief executives and senior managers in Society of Local Authority Chief Executives to comment on whether the number of government questionnaires and forms they now receive has become a problem. Both the number of replies and the vehemence of some of the statements shocked me. It seems that even the smallest authority now can expect to receive one or two questionnaires or forms to fill in every week. Some of these are trivial, but it seems that a large bulk comes from various arms of government and have an almost mandatory feel about them.

It would appear that, for example, the Home Office, DTLR, the Department of Health and indeed the government office for the regions all spend a lot of time collecting data from individual authorities.

Perhaps this is somewhat inevitable since there are at least seven secretaries of state who feel that they have a legitimate interest in the goings on within a local authority. The tragic part is that they appear quite often to be collecting the very same data blithely unaware that another arm of government asked the same question only a week before. This points to a rather un-joined-up approach to information within central government. I am informed that it has now got to the stage that one or two councils are effectively refusing to fill in forms and give information because it has become almost a full-time job for one member of staff.

Underlying all this must be the question: why is all this information being collected and what is going to be done with it? There seems to be two underlying issues. The first is a very understandable need to know what is going on but the second is that a

lot of it derives from the government's lack of trust in councils.

Well, while it might be true councils need to work harder to earn the trust of central government, perhaps here is one burden that central government could lift. Colleagues from DTLR and within SOLACE are already working hard on lightening the load that comes from the plethora of statutory plans.

Would it not be nice if one department was charged with collecting sufficient data about individual councils, for there to be a central pool of information that anyone in government could tap to learn about an authority's profile and activities? In this age of e-government, it must be possible for some government office to keep real-time management information about councils, which can be shared with department colleagues in Whitehall and Westminster.

Such a client-handling role might well fit with DTLR or indeed the government offices for the regions. I do not think anybody denies that ministers need to know facts about services that matter to them which are being delivered by local government. The bit that does seem to peeve my colleagues in local government is that when ministers find something out they won't tell any of their friends in other departments. Being asked a question once is fine and might even be flattering, but being asked it once a week becomes a little tedious.

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