New Labour adopted joined-up government as a key element of its approach to public policy. It made great efforts to link together different parts of central government, and to link them with the rest of the public sector.
Joined-up government is depicted as the mature way forward, just as joined-up writing replaces the block-letter style of infancy. But the infants' style is usually understandable, while joined-up writing is often an incomprehensible jumble.
Many mechanisms promoted co-ordination, both politically and administratively. Ministers were
co-ordinated by the Cabinet and its networks of committees. Cabinet ministers were appointed to
co-ordinate other ministers. Junior ministers were allocated a co-ordinating role, and inter-ministerial meetings proliferated to pull departments together.
The chancellor co-ordinated the spending of other ministers through his control over their resources, while the prime minister was the grand political co-ordinator of the whole system.
Civil servants were busy co-ordinating through the Cabinet Office, the Treasury, and numerous official steering committees that shadowed meetings of their ministers. Private offices of ministers co-ordinated their ministers with their departments and with other departments. Whitehall was riddled with inter-departmental committees tackling issues that involved more than one department. Opposite numbers across departments dealt informally with each other to smooth the passage of business. For 'wicked issues' royal commissions or departmental committees were established. Our Rolls Royce generalist civil servants were much admired for their essentially diplomatic skills in processing government business, and their careers encouraged co-ordination as they moved every two or three years within and between departments.
The reason the UK seemed obsessed with
co-ordination was two-fold. First, because the key constitutional concept was of unitary crown government - each part of government had to say the same. Crown departments could not speak and act inconsistently. Second, the Cabinet had to present a united front against its Parliamentary opponents keen to find chinks in the armour of collective responsibility. This horizontal
co-ordination - centred on the Cabinet as the place where the buck finally stopped - was favourably contrasted with the presidential system of the USA, whose top-down or vertical co-ordination, failed to produce co-ordinated government.
The Conservative governments of Margaret Thatcher and John Major championed not co-ordination but competition between fragmented entities. Cabinet government and collective processes were disrupted by prime ministerial interventions, the role of generalist civil servants was demoted, while departments were dislocated by privatisation, quangoisation and the setting up of next-steps agencies for operational activities separated from core divisions handling policy formulation.
New Labour wanted to reassert co-ordination, but the two big mistakes of New Labour were to blend
co-ordination with centralisation, and to think that the way to improve delivery of public services is through detailed central interventions. A grave error was to follow American presidential top-down methods instead of enhancing horizontal collective methods. But Mr Blair and his closest advisers had had no experience of government, and admired Mr Clinton's style. They copied his approach, transforming the Labour Party into New Labour, and gaining unprecedented victories in both 1997 and 2001. They deployed this winning approach to transform the UK. Mr Blair's chief of staff - an American term - Jonathan Powell, revelled in adopting a Napoleonic system, and diminishing 'baronial' ministers in their silos.
The centre of government - No 10 and the Cabinet Office - was strengthened. Ministers and their departments seemed sidelined, as the two key words shaping policy were 'Tony wants'. The deference of ministers to prime-ministerial rule was because they had had no experience of government. They loyally supported the prime minister, who had wisely appointed them and controlled their future careers and was an election winner, and civil servants loyally followed the lead of their political masters. Bi-lateral dealings between the prime minister and ministers seemed more important in policy-making than Cabinet and its collective processes.
The main danger of this centralised, prime-ministerial government is it frustrates joined-up government. In a Cabinet system the political heads of various departments gather to discuss and decide on the collective line that is to bind them all. Different perspectives on a policy problem can be brought together and probed. Ministers hear varied opinions and come to an agreed conclusion.
A presidential approach cannot pull together the heads of departments nor penetrate their departments as well as a Cabinet can. One president cannot cover the range of matters as well as a group of Cabinet colleagues. Horizontal co-ordination is more effective at joining up than vertical co-ordination.
Some signs indicate sense may prevail. Mr Blair told the chairmen of the Commons select committees that Cabinet and ministerial government are still alive, the new cabinet secretary has tidied up the Cabinet Office - which still supports the whole of government and not just one person - and next-steps agencies are being urged to connect closer to policy-making in their departments.
But to achieve joined-up government there needs to be a fundamental change of approach politically. Concentrating on refining bureaucratic processes is superficial. There will be no effective joined-up government until there is a return to Cabinet government.
Professor of government, London School of Economics
& Political Science
The UK's public services spend about 40% of GDP, employ over five million people and provide a bewildering array of services.
At the top of this leviathan sits a civil service of
around 500,000 people, of whom probably not more
than about 5,000 or so are seriously engaged in the direction of policy. Within that core, probably less than 500 senior policy mandarins are organised in the Treasury and the Cabinet Office - the centre of government.
The public service is divided vertically - into spending ministries, national agencies, quangos and the NHS. It is divided horizontally in to regional government, regional offices, local government and a host of local services organisations.
There are literally tens of thousands of organisational units within this constellation, many more since many services were disaggregated in 1980s and 90s.
Many of the structures of government and public services follow no obvious pattern, in the sense that they are the result of successive, muddled reorganisations, political fashions and the odd serious attempt at rational restructuring. Boundaries and functions overlap, often in fairly haphazard ways.
And to add to this heady mix, the growth of supra-national institutions - the European Union, IMF, OECD and a host of other agencies - has changed the policy-making, and in some cases service delivery, environment requiring international co-ordination.
Is it any wonder that UK government has problems
co-ordinating what it does?
When New Labour came to power in 1997 their experience of opposition had been shaped by the need to get a well co-ordinated message across to the media and then public - their famous Excalibur computer system in Millbank symbolised this joined-up approach.
From Labour's point of view, the Tories had allowed themselves to become dangerously un-joined up. This was partly due to the fractious internal politics of the Conservatives post-Thatcher, but many saw a deeper problem at the heart of government. As the civil service system had been repeatedly reformed, the traditional policy co-ordination of Whitehall had been undermined -although some doubt it was ever quite as good as it was alleged to be.
So the first dimension of joined-up government under New Labour was very much about getting a co-ordinated message into all policy initiatives. This was both about PR and about policy substance, although sometimes the habits of opposition seemed to make it appear that spin was all that mattered. This is not to say there were not serious attempts to address important policy problems, many of them wicked issues which fell between different policy silos.
But some aspects of joining up policy were somewhat more tractable than others. A lot of effort has gone into joining up the tax and benefits system, for example, an area which has relatively little impact elsewhere the system. Attempts to produce more co-ordinated criminal justice policies, on the other hand, have big consequences for not just all the obvious agencies - police, prosecution, courts, prisons, probation - but also for others like local government.
The second dimension of joining up is mainly about processes - how things get done. The messy structures of public services often produce messy processes, with all sorts of inefficiencies and dysfunctions. Criminal justice was a very good example: 'Justice delayed is justice denied,' often seemed less of a cautionary aphorism and more part of the mission statement.
Much of the delays were due to relatively simple problems about information sharing across the various bodies dealing with offenders.
The solutions this problem have been a mixture of
joined up on 10
joined up from 9
structure and systems. The structural changes have focused on getting criminal justice agencies more closely aligned - geographically in the case of police, prosecution services and probation and in terms of national agency status for prisons and probation. The systematic change has been to introduce cross-cutting reviews of criminal justice in the biennial spending reviews and set joint public service agreement targets. The jury is still very much out on whether these solutions will work long-term, but there are signs of progress.
The third dimension of joining up looks at the problem from a users perspective. Studies of life episodes - death of a relative, moving house or trying to set up a new business - show what every citizen already knew: government appears as a hugely fragmented system when you actually try and use it. Multiple agencies often require virtually the same information from us which we are obliged to submit over and over again.
The idea of one-stop shops, pioneered it has to be said in local government back in the 1980s, had also been attempted in areas such as welfare to work and small business registration.
If effort were a measure of success, then joined-up government would be a policy triumph. In the Cabinet Office there have been a succession of joining up units on drugs, social exclusion, rough sleepers, and so on. They have also contributed a series of new units aimed at public service reform - the Performance & Innovation Unit, Delivery Unit, Public Service Reform Unit etc. In the Treasury, interestingly, there appears to have been little internal structural change. Instead the effort has gone into new systems, most importantly the cross-cutting reviews and joint public service agreements in the three spending reviews so far conducted.
The view in Whitehall is clearly that the Treasury has been the dominant player, but it has not had everything its own way. The apparent lack of co-ordination between the Treasury and the Cabinet Office at times - in the latter case even between its various units - appears amusing from outside. At the front line of public services, especially locally, it is a bit more difficult to see the funny side of the machinery of government dumping ever more, and apparently ever less joined up, initiatives onto their hapless shoulders. The role of local government was traditionally, in the UK at least, to provide joining up where it was necessary between local and national services. Maybe it is time that role was reasserted.
Professor of public policy, University of Glamorgan