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TONY TRAVERS - NEED SOMETHING DOING? DON'T SET UP ANOTHER QUANGO

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Britain is cluttered. It is over-populated with overlapping quangos, agencies and partnerships. No government in hi...
Britain is cluttered. It is over-populated with overlapping quangos, agencies and partnerships. No government in history has been so enthusiastic about setting up new institutions designed to demonstrate it is getting to grips with regeneration, disorder, public health, young people, the environment, social housing, sustainability and much, much more. local strategic partnerships are first among not-very-equals as 'joined-up' providers at the council level.

Few such institutions are ever abolished. If something new is to be done, the easiest thing for Whitehall is simply to set up another body. The Conservatives set up government regional offices in 1994. To these, Labour added regional development agencies in 1999 and, subsequently, regional assemblies.

If anything, the clutter is worse at local and neighbourhood levels. Here, the full array of partnerships is to be found, dealing with everything from crime and disorder to children's services. In the name of 'governance', partnership meetings consume entire factory outputs of biscuits, lakes of EU milk and a huge chunk of India's tea exports.

Most partnerships, assemblies, agencies and other official institutions spend much of their time simply dealing with each other. Diplomacy skills are highly rated in partnership job advertisements. The capacity to 'convene' or to 'place shape' requires senior officers and members to spend hours negotiating with each other about efforts jointly to achieve government objectives.

The growth of partnerships, co-ordinating bodies and other such institutions is, in many ways, a measure of Whitehall's own difficulties. Central departments are, we now know, incapable of working together even on such apparently related tasks as following individuals as they are handled by the police, the courts, the prison service and the immigration directorate. It will be even more difficult to 'join up' the Department for Work & Pensions with, say, the Cabinet Office's social exclusion activities. The government will find it easier to demand that regional or local partnerships deliver complex co-ordination than to try to do it itself.

There are good reasons why the public sector should deliver consistent and easy-to-access services. After all, supermarkets manage to sell strawberries, TVs and mortgages under the same roof. Successive governments have determined that public services should be provided by hundreds of different institutions. It seems a little unfair to the public that they should be required to pick their way through an institutional jungle to ensure, for example, that their children are properly treated.

However, clutter can become a substitute for delivery. It gives the impression of consistency rather than actually providing 'joined-up' government. We need less, but better, government and rather fewer partnerships. A radical policy for the next prime minister, perhaps?

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