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The central-local balancing act

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I recently read a portentous claim: “devolving decision-making breeds variation, customisation and cost.” 

There was evidence and a warning that we are only at the beginning. The thinking went that it was just a matter of time before this, or another government, would wake up and realise things had got out of control.

I’ve seen another side to devolving decision-making though. Back in 2008-10 I worked on the award-winning online free school meals project. It’s the result of collaboration between the Department for Education, English and Welsh local authorities and other government departments that administer the core benefits determining entitlement (the Department for Work and Pensions, HM Revenue & Customs and the Home Office). Last year we applied the same operating model to support Free Childcare for Two Year Olds and Early Years Pupil Premium (EYPP). 

There are some things that really should be done just once, and should therefore be done centrally; facilitating the data sharing, setting the standards for data securitym, and the mechanics of providing an eligibility service which delivers data in a timely and efficient manner all fit the ‘do it once’ mould.

But local authorities are all different, working in different ways. Each has incredible power to innovate and take things forward in ways that are going to work for them, not ways that central government thinks are going to work at local level.

Having covered the ‘one-offs’, DfE took a step back and played a supporting role while local authorities moved forward, offering online applications themselves, adapted to their own processes and via their own websites or via shared websites such as My Early Learning and LGfL’s Pan-London Free School Meals Checker.

This leads to cost savings for local authorities and now for schools with free school meals responsibility being devolved further. Council staff tell me of decreased average processing time from three weeks to 24 hours, and thousands of paper forms taken out of the process completely.

Getting the balance right should mean improved and constantly improving services, in this case by making applications simpler, quicker and less stigmatising with easier access to early education and nutritious meals. I do believe it’s possible to get that central-local balancing act to work. It needs to mean not blindly passing down responsibility and costs. It needs close collaboration, a shared understanding of where strengths lie and considered thinking about what should be done once and what will benefit from local development.

Caroline Bimson, education client manager, Atkins

Column sponsored and supplied by Atkins

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