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Local government is best placed to make 'governance' a reality, but Whitehall will not relinquish control, says Ton...
Local government is best placed to make 'governance' a reality, but Whitehall will not relinquish control, says Tony Travers

We all grew up knowing what 'government' was. People were elected into office - centrally or locally - and then oversaw the administration of a series of public services that were paid for through taxes.

The government was largely based in London and was headed by the prime minister. It was opposed by the Opposition. That, by and large, was all you needed to know.

But during the 1990s a new concept emerged: 'ment' was gradually replaced by 'ance'. Step by step, academics and other commentators began to talk about governance, a wider - and evidently more sophisticated - concept than government. Indeed government came to be seen as a bit old-fashioned, locked in a past when power was over-concentrated in a small number of elected bodies. Governance, on the other hand, was inclusive and new. Modernisation was on the way.

Books about local government published in the late 1980s don't mention governance. At this time, students of local government were concerned with post-Fordism, community government and the purchaser-provider split. Although these concepts were a change from the 1970s - corporate planning was a major concern - they had not yet addressed the very obvious fragmentation of government.

Such fragmentation occurred as the Thatcher and Major governments required services to be contracted out, such as schools' management being transferred from town halls to schools.

Social housing in many cases passed from municipal bureaucracies to housing associations. Business organisations developed a more powerful voice within cities and regions. Non-governmental bodies shifted their interests from a purely national focus to a more local one. Partnerships, such as City Pride, were actively promoted by Whitehall. And then Tony Blair was elected prime minister.

The Blair government went into overdrive as it created new national, regional and local bodies. Most councils deal with new inspectors and quangos, regional development agencies, local strategic partnerships and an array of new health institutions.

The partnerships that had started to prosper during the Major years multiplied. By the late 1990s, it was clear that elected local government was merely one of a number of important institutions providing public services within an area. The concept of 'governance' then evolved in an attempt to find a word to capture the complex network of bodies that had responsibility for public provision and/or civic life more generally.

Government had been an activity in the hands of a bureaucratic machine, with the rest of society, in effect, being little more than passive recipients of services. At best, a good council would consult people before it did things. Governance by contrast was, to use a New Labour cliché, 'inclusive'. Pretty well any institution, public, private or voluntary - or private citizens, for that matter - could claimto be involved in the network of governance.

In his new book, Transforming local governance, author Gerry Stoker says: 'The range and variety of sectors from which key agencies are drawn means that, at the beginning of the 21st century, the challenge of networked community governance is characterised by a high level of complexity in the relationships between local councils and other local service agencies.'

These lines, appropriately, are placed on either side of a huge box listing a number of the agencies involved.

Job advertisements in LGC and elsewhere suggest that diplomacy has become a key element in many senior local authority posts. Chief executives are expected to be a 'charismatic ambassador', to 'win hearts and minds', and to be 'open to new ways of doing things, particularly in partnership with others'. Gone are the days when providing high-quality services was a sufficient qualification for high office. Making the local bus company, the police and social services work together is now a key objective.

Put like that, governance is not a daft idea. Elected local government, which enjoys the magic ingredient of political legitimacy, is in a good position to act as facilitator and leader of a network of local and regional institutions. But there may be a problem when governance is used as a lazy way of implying there is coherence to a randomly created and governed set of service providers.

Which leads us, inevitably, to 'new localism'. New localism generates more institutions for governance to embrace and the two ideas are clearly linked together. Indeed, each increases the importance of the other. There is still some distance to go before these trends evolve fully.

Councils are at the leading edge of a revolution. In Westminster and Whitehall, the old ways still predominate. The whole apparatus of the centre, including parliamentary select committees and ministerial portfolios, has the effect of maintaining a traditional executive. Departments do not appear willing to share their powers and budgets with partners. Parliament, in particular, is defensive about its sovereignty. In short, the government has not become the governance.

Tony Travers


London School of Economics' Greater London Group

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