Policing the journey along the low road

Alan Doig

Up to the 1980s, crime control in the UK was widely seen as virtually the sole domain and responsibility of law enforcement. Nearly all police forces had, for example, a fraud squad whose purpose was laid out in a 1970 Home Office circular (apparently 115/1970 since you ask) and who traditionally dealt with criminalised aspects of local government misconduct.

As I noted in my recent article and elsewhere that world has changed substantially. Successive governments have initiated policy-driven changes, from frontline policing to prioritised local policing plans, more recently reinforced by the election of local police commissioners with local objectives and local audiences to keep onside. The increasingly attuned political antennae of Chief Constables and the continuing downward grind of spending reviews have thus seen the abolition or downsizing of fraud squads in favour of these agendas.

Those which remain have an increasing focus on ‘economic crime’ – code for another government agenda which relates to financial offences involving organised crime, professional enablers (lawyers and others) and higher-end corporate scams. It is the same code that had the government announce the end of the National Fraud Authority as shifting the focus to ‘cutting economic crime’ through ‘concentrating effort into law enforcement bodies’.

Fraud squads – or economic crime sections or units as they are now invariably labelled – have long dealt with specialist crimes in this area, including misconduct in public office and, more recently, the steadily-growing number of election frauds. So they will no doubt be expected to take on the consequences of the government’s decision to swap some of the Standards Board’s and Audit Commission’s arrangements for a single conflict of interest/disclosure offence in Chapter 7, section 34, of the Localism Act.

Given what I know about their past enthusiasm for wading into local politics and council cultures, I am sure that the police are relishing having to untangle what on earth what is meant by councillors being ‘reckless’ about whether information on their disclosable interests is ‘true’ and ‘not misleading’ (and that’s after the police have already dealt with a whole raft of legislative linguistic ambiguities, including disclosable, pecuniary, taking steps, participating and – my favourite – reasonable excuse). Indeed, and given the economic crime agenda’s focus on serious and organised crime, one may wonder whether the police, and especially economic crime sections, are likely to have the interest and appetite for Section 34.

A wider issue concerns not just the police but also those other agencies and resources councils could draw upon as part of maintaining an effective control environment. In a landscape populated by agencies with various anti-fraud and anti-corruption roles and responsibilities, from the Land Registry to NHS Protect, a number have worked together with local authorities as task forces. Councils themselves shared information through the at-risk National Fraud Initiative. Councils have also been able to rely on DWP-funded Housing benefit investigators whose involvement in non-benefit-related frauds rose from 13% in 1994/95 to more than 40 per cent in 2010/11.

All these arrangements and resources, as well as the continuing fallout from the abolition of the Audit Commission, are, however, in a state of flux, leaving councils to ponder how they will sustain their control environments at a time when the localism agenda will require councils to become increasingly engaged in traditional red-flag areas, such as planning, new areas, such as public health, or spending through other partners, such as charities.

With two ministries debating over who pays the – very modest – bill to revive councils’ in-house investigative resources (with each council being lucky to get one FTE out of whatever deal is cobbled together), councils must wonder where the support exists in terms of any low road journey that involves criminal investigation, joint or joined-up working and information-sharing.

With only Greater Manchester Police bucking the trend and setting up a volume fraud, locally-focussed team to add to its economic crime section, accessing police expertise and capacity may be as unlikely as expecting any of the law enforcement or other bodies tasked to take on National Fraud Authority functions showing any willingness for leading, coordinating and working with councils. Even if the high road thus remains closed for the foreseeable future, the journey along the low road is not going to be without its challenges.


Alan Doig is Hon. Senior Research Fellow at the International Development Department, University of Birmingham; Visiting Professor, Newcastle Business School, Northumbria University and Board member, Management Board, North-east Fraud Forum.

The Coalition’s mishandling of recall: worse than Baldrick’s war poem

Chris Game

Seeking an arresting phrase to convey the protracted abjectness of the events described in this blog, my first thought was Education Secretary Michael Gove’s  ‘misbegotten shambles’ – his accusatory summary of how certain historians and popular TV programmes like Blackadder have depicted the First World War.

Then I realised Captain Blackadder himself does the job even better in the final ‘Goodbyeee’ episode that probably riles Gove most. Appraising Private Baldrick’s second most famous war poem – not ‘Boom, boom’, but ‘Hear the words I sing, war’s a horrid thing’ – the Captain opines: “Well, it started badly, tailed off a little in the middle, and the less said about the end, the better. But, apart from that, excellent.”  A neat encapsulation, I’d suggest, of the sad story of the Coalition Government’s pledge to give electors the power through petition and election to recall/remove MPs and other public officials before the end of their term of office.

The less said about the pathetic end probably is for the better, but there has to be something. It looked to have arrived when it was widely reported last month that David Cameron and presumably his elections adviser, Lynton Crosbie, had decided that – with two incumbent Tory MPs already deselected and Culture Secretary, Maria Miller, apparently about to escape any significant punishment for claiming over £90,000 in allowances for a second home for her parents – it was time to kill the whole expenses-prompted recall issue by dropping the anyway ineffectual Bill from May’s Queen’s Speech.

This week the PM appeared to have completed a double U-turn, with the announcement that the recall Bill had not been recalled – well, not permanently anyway – and that it may well, or perhaps not, feature in the Queen’s Speech; but, either way, it owed nothing whatever to the Lib Dems.

It’s one more of the Coalition’s lengthening list of political reforms – an elected House of Lords, a smaller House of Commons and reformed electoral system, a House Business Committee, even the promised funding of 200 all-postal open primaries that I blogged about recently – whose actual or seriously contemplated abandonment must, if it were possible, have increased still further public cynicism towards the whole parliamentary system.

Whatever its immediate future, though, MPs’ recall is really only the secondary concern of this blog. My main moan here is the Coalition’s total neglect of the ‘other public officials’ strand – that should by now be in place and applying to at least directly elected mayors and Police and Crime Commissioners, both of which offices would, in my view, have proved more attractive to a suspicious electorate, had a recall provision been part of the package.

Recall, like referendums, citizens’ initiatives and petitions, is an instrument of direct democracy for holding directly elected politicians to account. Put simply, ‘fully participatory recall’ means that the voters who elect someone to public office have the right, between scheduled elections and for any reason, to initiate and vote for their removal. It sounds a laudable principle – possibly even meriting a Blackadder ‘excellent’ – but not just a principle, for that’s essentially how it operates in, for example, around 30 American states, some German Länder, Japan, Switzerland, and British Columbia.

Necessarily, it generates public interest. Take last November’s recall of Mayor Deedy Slaughter (female, if you were wondering) by voters in the smallish Louisiana town of Port Allen. The Mayor had upset residents by, among other allegations, hiring her brother-in-law as chief-of-staff and de facto policy boss, attempting to fire the Chief Finance Officer without City Council approval, and charging to taxpayers her Washington trip for President Obama’s Inauguration. A recall petition was launched, and signed by well over the required one-third of registered voters; 57% of the 63% turnout in the ensuing election voted for recall, and the Mayor was ousted from office by the same people who had voted her in.

It’s undeniably democracy, but clearly the very idea scares the pants off many of our MPs, who, even in the wreckage of their collective expenses scandal, were never going to vote for that much of it. Nor, more seriously, despite what some idealistic reformers imagined, was there ever any real chance of their being asked to. For, like Baldrick’s poem, our very approach to recall started badly, in two distinct ways: one unfortunate but understandable, the other just depressing.

The unfortunate one, assuming at least some of those involved wanted the thing to work, was not taking advantage of the fact that the politicians whose accountability the recall procedure is best suited to secure are those exercising personal executive powers – like the elected mayors and Police and Crime Commissioners (PCCs) being promoted in other sections of the Coalition Agreement, both, as it happens, also the subject of recent INLOGOV blogs.

Both these imported posts would always have been hard to sell to a disengaged and disenchanted electorate – even supposing the Government had bothered to mount serious information campaigns. But, judging from my own limited involvement with both issues, I feel some of people’s genuine worries about the accountability and removability of these new powerful office holders could have been mollified by the existence of credible and participatory recall mechanisms.

Given how the whole concern with recall had arisen out of the 2009 parliamentary expenses scandal, it was inevitable that recall of MPs would get legislative priority. But it would not have been difficult to publicise the Government’s intention that elected mayors and PCCs would be subject to similar recall accountability – as opposed to tucking it away on page 9 of a Localism Bill impact assessment.

Certainly it would not have been difficult, having opted to legislate for MPs’ recall first, to make a better fist of it. Indeed, as we’ll see below, the Commons Political and Constitutional Reform Committee’s view was that it would have been preferable to have produced nothing at all. That’s how depressing it was.

Much was made at the time of all three main parties’ 2010 manifestos supporting a right of recall; much less of the accompanying qualifications. For Labour it would apply only to MPs found responsible for financial misconduct (undefined); for the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats, it would be for proven “serious wrongdoing” (undefined).

From the outset, therefore, it was clear it would offer at most ‘mixed recall’, with voters’ involvement having to be triggered by someone else defining and proving the misconduct, wrongdoing, or whatever. And the ‘someone elses’, of course, would be the accused’s fellow MPs. The intended purpose of recall – empowering voters to hold MPs to account – would be turned virtually upside down. Yes, recall is a serious business and there should be safeguards, but not a parliamentary filter.

Apart from promising “early legislation”, the Coalition Agreement simply tidied up the manifesto pledges. Public confidence in our shamed parliamentarians was to be restored through what might be termed ‘late-in-the-day participatory recall’, “allowing voters to force a by-election where an MP is found to have engaged in serious wrongdoing and having had a petition calling for a by-election signed by 10% of his or her constituents.” (p.27).

The bad start was followed by the ‘tailing off a little in the middle’, or the draft Bill. Its many deficiencies included seeing recall as an instrument of discipline rather than democracy, and ‘serious wrongdoing’, without ever attempting to define it, as more concerned with prison sentences than abuse of position, breach of parliamentary privilege, nepotism, racism, cheating, lying and indolence. Its chief virtue was to offer a target for pre-legislative scrutiny, some of which was pleasingly robust, like that of the Commons P&CR Committee (p.3).

“Under the Government’s proposals, constituents themselves would not be able to initiate a recall petition. The circumstances that would trigger a petition – if an MP received a custodial sentence of 12 months or less, or if the Commons resolved that there [had been] ‘serious wrongdoing’ – are so narrow that petitions would seldom, if ever, take place.

“We are not convinced these proposals will increase public confidence in politics. Indeed, we fear that the restricted form of recall proposed could even reduce confidence by creating expectations that are not fulfilled.”

So misconceived and irredeemable was the Bill considered by some genuine reformers, like the Commons Committee, that they almost welcomed last month’s anticipated demise. As would I, were it not for my concern that any prospects of proper participatory recall for elected mayors, councillors, and Police and Crime Commissioners would have been even further postponed too.


Chris Game is a Visiting Lecturer at INLOGOV interested in the politics of local government; local elections, electoral reform and other electoral behaviour; party politics; political leadership and management; member-officer relations; central-local relations; use of consumer and opinion research in local government; the modernisation agenda and the implementation of executive local government.

Devolution’s biggest hurdle: Whitehall’s culture of contempt

Chris Game

Labour published its draft 2015 local government manifesto recently. Entitled Labour and localism: perspectives on a new English deal, the core of the deal is a radical new approach to the financing of local government:

“ … too much power is hoarded in Whitehall.  That’s why we need a fundamental shift from the centre to the local – communities, towns, cities and counties – which gives more power to people and to the elected politicians we already have.” (p.4)

Sounds good, doesn’t it, but also perhaps faintly familiar? Compare and contrast, as they say, with this:

“Over the last forty years, governments of all colours have been guilty of weakening local government. Bureaucratic control has replaced democratic accountability. Hoarding of power by distant politicians and unaccountable officials in Whitehall has damaged society by eroding trust.

“We believe if you decentralise power, you get better results and better value for money. So the plans in this manifesto represent an unprecedented redistribution of power and control from the central to the local, from politicians and the bureaucracy to individuals, families and neighbourhoods.”

The comparison, I think you’ll agree, shows that they’re pretty similar – lots of Whitehall hoarding being supplanted by earth-moving shifts of power to localities. The contrast is that the second quote comes from the Conservatives’ manifesto in 2010 – p.73, to be precise.

Which means, of course, that the ‘unprecedented redistribution’ must already be well underway. Evidence on the ground, however, suggests otherwise.  I doubt, for instance, if Somerset Levels residents, whose ground is currently flooded, reckon they’ve seen much redistribution – of power, that is, not water. They’ve discovered the hard way that, even if their elected local drainage boards manage to persuade the unelected Environment Agency that dredging and other flood defence work is necessary, what actually happens is determined by the Agency’s funding from the Department for Environment, and ultimately by benefit-to-cost rules imposed by the Treasury.

That’s how things work, in our most hypercentralised of governmental systems. As Yes, Minister taught us back in the 1980s and, as that Conservative manifesto acknowledged, Whitehall bureaucracy trumps local democracy every time.

Regarding local government, it’s hard to know whether the politicians who signed up to that 2010 decentralisation pledge, or the Ministers subsequently responsible for implementing it, ever really believed in it – other than as a vote-winning slogan. Communities and Local Government Secretary, Eric Pickles, self-admittedly didn’t. His brand of what he calls ‘muscular localism’ involves effectively setting councils’ tax and spending levels and telling them how often they should empty our refuse bins.

Cities Minister, Greg Clark, at least tries to walk the localisation walk, with his City Deals policy of stimulating city-driven economic growth through negotiated packages of powers and discretions. However, doubling until recently as Financial Secretary to the Treasury, few knew better than Clark where the serious power in Britain resides, irrespective of the party in government.  It’s in Whitehall departments and ultimately in the quaintly addressed Unit 1, Horse Guards Road, aka Her Majesty’s Treasury – between them a far more formidable obstacle to a genuine English devolution deal than any temporary bunch of Ministers.

Were any confirmation needed, it’s come in spades recently, in the Institute for Government’s fascinating study, Achieving Political Decentralisation, of how and why opposition parties so good at making commitments to devolve power have as governments found it so hard to implement them. Tom Gash and his IfG colleagues identify from their case studies a pleasingly neat, if depressing, ten obstacles to reform that anyone seeking to decentralise power must navigate.

At Number 1 – where else could it be? – is Resistance from national government, the essence of which is “the fact that ministers and civil servants simply do not trust sub-national government to competently exercise additional powers and … constantly worry that they will “do something barmy” (p.20). It almost beggars belief, doesn’t it? The civil service folks who brought us the NHS IT programme, the Child Support Agency, the West coast rail franchising fiasco, non-flying Chinook helicopters, and mothballed aircraft carriers sit around worrying about other people’s sanity and competence!

Unfortunately, there’s a serious point here, although – certainly on this platform – I’m inclined to put it less genteely than the IfG. Whitehall departments’ resistance to devolution doesn’t stem just from it being their powers and budgets that parties, when in opposition, want to devolve. Much worse, the beneficiaries would be a collection of local councils and politicians that senior civil servants generally regard in much the way that Mr Banks, prior to being saved by Mary Poppins, viewed his children: with an unconcealed mixture of disdain and distrust.

For the alliteratively inclined, it amounts to a culture of centralist contempt, and is naturally seen most obviously in the big things: local government’s huge dependence on central funding, the centre’s stranglehold on councils’ housebuilding, planning, and indeed their total budgets. If you actually work in local government, though, it’s possibly the smaller things – the almost daily drip, drip of petty insult, distrust, denigration and condescension – that really get you down. Let me illustrate with a couple of examples from last week’s drips – one trivial but irritating, one non-trivial and infuriating.

First, we have a typical illustration of how our Communities Secretary, when aggrieved, resorts to the role of Victorian paterfamilias and takes it out on his local authority children. Thwarted by Cabinet colleagues from reducing the council tax referendum trigger from an increase of 2% to 1.5 or even 1%, Pickles immediately put before Parliament alternative proposals he claimed would protect ‘hard-working families’ from their greedy councils: requiring them to publish, as a matter of record, each councillor’s individual vote on any council tax changes.

The Minister had discovered that most councils’ budget votes last year, whether to freeze or increase their council tax, were by a show of hands, with just the totals or results recorded in the Minutes. He disingenuously implies that this represents something underhand, although, as a onetime council leader, he knows full well that this is how most council votes are taken – a ‘named vote’ being taken only if called for by a specified number of councillors.

Taking Labour-controlled Birmingham as an example, there were in fact three named votes at last February’s Council budget meeting, on amendments proposed by the minority Conservative and Lib Dem parties. Named votes were called for, and the amendments were comfortably defeated by Labour’s 71 councillors voting en bloc – precisely as they would have done in support of the main motions to approve the Council’s Business Plan, Budget and Council Tax Requirement.

And that’s the point. In most council votes, as in Parliament, councillors vote with their party, and when one party has a clear overall majority, a named vote serves little purpose and wastes time. If Pickles wants to argue that the annual setting of the level of council tax is uniquely important, that’s fine. But to pretend that recorded votes will enhance local accountability and keep tax rates down is a deception of his hard-working families, as well as confirmation that he feels it entirely appropriate for a Cabinet Minister to dictate in detail how elected local governments conduct their business.

My second case is an archetypal central government gaffe – an example of what happens when you legislate from the centre without adequate consultation or scrutiny. This time it was the Bedroom Tax (or Spare Room Subsidy) – last April’s controversial change by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) that cut the housing benefit of those living in a council or housing association property deemed to have one or more spare bedrooms. The legislation should have exempted working-age tenants who had been living at the same address and entitled to claim housing benefit continuously since 1 January 1996. Basic as it seems, it didn’t – meaning that estimated tens of thousands of tenants are entitled to refunds of around £640 for 40 weeks of undue reductions.

To ordinary citizens, expecting perhaps at least a hint of humility, the DWP’s response to councils might seem extraordinary, and even for those of us only too familiar with the ways of central government, it was a minor classic. First, they disputed all local government and housing professionals’ estimates of the numbers. Their methodology calculated that “very few” households – maybe 5,000 – were affected.

Second, no, they wouldn’t disclose their methodology, even to the Local Government Association. Third, while the DWP would of course close the loophole, councils could pay for the department’s unfortunate slip-up by footing the bill for identifying, locating and refunding the relevant claimants. And you thought maybe I was exaggerating, talking of a centralist culture of contempt?


Chris Game is a Visiting Lecturer at INLOGOV interested in the politics of local government; local elections, electoral reform and other electoral behaviour; party politics; political leadership and management; member-officer relations; central-local relations; use of consumer and opinion research in local government; the modernisation agenda and the implementation of executive local government.

Directly elected mayors in England: leading local government?

John Fenwick and Howard Elcock

The first directly-elected executive mayors in England took office more than a decade ago. Drawing inspiration from European and American experience, the directly elected mayor appealed to New Labour and Conservative policy-makers alike, offering an apparent solution to perceived problems of weak local leadership and bureaucratic stagnation. The heroic image of urban leaders from the world’s great cities was implicit in this depiction of the elected mayor, a new figure in English (and potentially Welsh) local government who would have decisive executive authority gained from direct popular mandate.

It didn’t work out like this. Under legislation enacted in 2000, the first local referendums largely rejected the mayoral option. In 2012 the coalition government initiated 10 further mayoral referendums in selected English cities but in only one – Bristol – was there popular assent for establishing the office of mayor. Overall, there is no evidence of widespread public support, yet the prospect of more mayors – with enhanced powers – remains firmly on the policy agenda. Why?

Drawing from a decade of research by the authors, this article considers reasons for the persistence of the mayoral experiment, its broad support across political parties and the importance of specific local factors in the few areas where mayors actually exist. It finds little evidence of public enthusiasm. It suggests that the relationship of mayoral leadership to place remains problematic. Analytically the article uses the authors’ leadership grid to link the governmental, governance and allegiance roles of mayors to the problematic nature of local leadership. The article also finds that although further legislation in 2007 – under which it became possible to establish a mayoral system through simple council resolution rather than referendum – potentially facilitated expansion of the mayoral system, this rapid expansion has not occurred. Indeed, two areas which previously adopted the office of mayor subsequently reversed their decision. Thus, in 2014, there are (excluding the London mayor, a different job with different powers) only 15 directly elected mayors in England. This is interesting and curious: not only in political terms but also in terms of local leadership and the long-standing search for an effective core executive. What is going on?

A full version of this article – Elected Mayors: Leading Locally? – is published in Local Government Studies. The article is open access until the end of February 2014.


John Fenwick is Professor of Leadership and Public Management at Newcastle Business School, Northumbria University. He is author of Managing Local Government (1995), numerous articles on local governance and public policy, and co-editor of Public Management in the Postmodern Era (2010). His current research includes local leadership and the elected mayor; the third sector in local service provision; and critical approaches to management development and organisational behaviour.


Howard Elcock is Professor (emeritus) at Northumbria University. He is author of Administrative Justice (1969), Portrait of a Decision: the Council of Four and the Treaty of Versailles (1972), Local Government (three editions 1984–1994) and Political Leadership (2001). His current research includes political leadership and elected mayors; local democracy; and the ethics of government.

It wouldn’t be honest! Will closing the high road lead to congestion on the low road?

Alan Doig

Only a few weeks after my recent article on addressing fraud, corruption and conflict-of-interest in local government from the enforcement and public ethics perspectives – the low road and high road approaches – the EU produced an overview report on corruption. Drawing on a series of member state country studies, the report unsurprisingly argued that corruption continued to be an issue because although most member states had the necessary laws and institutions in place, they were not entirely effective.

This was apparently because ‘anti-corruption rules are not always vigorously enforced, systemic problems are not tackled effectively enough, and the relevant institutions do not always have sufficient capacity to enforce the rules. Declared intentions are still too distant from concrete results, and genuine political will to eradicate corruption often appears to be missing’.

While the UK report did not cover local government, such conclusions would raise pertinent comments about the abolition of the Standards Board and the Audit Commission in terms of the high road approach. Given the UK study also claimed that, ‘traditionally, the UK promotes high ethical standards in public service’ then it would be worth asking what does the abolition of the two institutions tell us about this ‘tradition’ in terms of capacity, results and will.

While is it often relatively easy to identify why public officials become involved in dishonesty – and my next blog will talk about ‘vigorous enforcement’ – what is of interest to those seeking to develop preventative strategies to guard against the misuse of public office is how to develop and maintain a culture of public service that promotes honesty. The objective of any prevention strategy would therefore seek to reflect a theme raised by the US National Institute of Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice over a quarter of a century ago in relation to corruption: ‘corruption has three main components that are controllable and one that is not. The three controllable ones are opportunity, incentive, and risk; the uncontrollable one is personal honesty. Many public servants over a long period of time have had the freely available opportunity to be corrupt, a large incentive to do so, and little risk of being found if they did, but have refused because ‘it wouldn’t be honest’ (Zimmerman, 1980).

It was the 1995 report of the Committee on Standards in Public Life that raised the question of the ‘grey area’ of uncertainty of ‘the difference between what is right and what is wrong’ and sought responses that encouraged guidance and education in ethical conduct. Since then the Committee itself has hardly taken the lead in responding to issues of capacity and will following the abolition of the organisations. This has appeared to take place at the same time as its interest in local government waned since it suspended its inquiry into leadership and trust in local government in 2009 in order to rush after the unfolding scandal of MPs’ expenses. This inquiry has not been picked up subsequently. Despite the Committee’s 2012 concerns about ‘the inherent robustness of the new arrangements’ and its Chair’s late 2013 reiteration of 2010 comments on the new regime being ‘stripped back too far’, an inquiry into the regime and arrangements – pencilled into the Committee’s 2012-2015 strategy – yet did not appear as an agenda item on the Committee’s 2014 workplan.

Who will pick up lead responsibility for public ethics at local level is now in limbo as the government also shifts its attention to what it sees as a more immediate and, in savings terms, more tangible results-based focus on preventing and detecting losses from fraud and corruption through the low road route. Even here the prevention aspect is losing ground to investigation and enforcement; the most visible sign of this came with the abolition of the National Fraud Authority, despite its apparent role in ‘successfully’ raising awareness of fraud and improving coordination, in favour of ‘cutting economic crime’ through law enforcement.

Nevertheless this comes after the Committee on Standards in Public Life that in 2013 changed its view about ‘grey areas’ explanations of unacceptable conduct in arguing that those in public life ‘behaved inappropriately not because they were unaware of what was expected but because they did not find it expedient’. In other words, both roads need to be tackled. Failing to discourage dishonesty and promoting honesty by closing the high road is likely to see an increase of both types of misconduct on the low road, leading to a potential congestion for those charged with investigation and enforcement. The next question is thus two-fold; how is the congestion likely to be addressed and how is the high road to be re-opened?

Zimmerman, J. F. (1980), ‘Ethics in the Public Service’, Paper Presented at the Maxwell Graduate School of Citizenship and Public Affairs, Syracuse University, Syracuse, New York, July 9, 1980.

Partnerships and service integration – is it all just hot air?

Axel Kaehne

Since the 1990s, policy makers and academics have had a pet project in public service reform. Over time, they have called it differently but always meant essentially the same: public services collaborating with each other to improve service quality. At some point, it was called partnerships (remember the Partnership Agenda under Tony Blair’s government?), then it was service integration, a term particularly popular amongst health care professionals.

But what drives this collaborative agenda and where should it lead? Have we achieved anything over the last decades or was this all just hot air?

Academics have pointed out for a long time that there is a glaring gap in the partnership and integration project – evidence. We know from studies that working together does make a difference to professionals. This would be good if the main objective was to overcome service fragmentation per se, yet what drives much of the public policy announcements are intentions to improve service quality for users and patients.

Conceptualising service collaboration has been a well tilled field. Personalisation of services, where public services are shaped around the needs of the user is one way of thinking about improving public service delivery. Direct payments are a powerful instrument to re-orientate public services by putting the user in control. Yet, direct payments have been met with fierce resistance from some corners of the professional establishment, whilst the Welsh Government actively discouraged local authorities to use them until recently. Consequently, the take up of direct payments has been low.

In addition, producing evidence of the effects of service collaboration has proved to be the proverbial ‘holy grail’. The main stumbling block to it has been to establish a robust link between organisational changes and service improvements. As services improve their collaborative practices, the interface between users and professionals may often be largely unaffected. Organisational changes may not be noticeable for users. My paper on multi-agency protocols shows that even where the evidential link between changes and outcome is well defined, effects may be marginal and introspective at best.

Another reason is that service improvements are most urgent when users or patients draw on support from many different professionals because of the complexity of their needs. In the field of children’s services it is not uncommon to have families dealing with fifteen different professionals or more at a time.

The complexity of service delivery impacts on how organisational changes are perceived by the users and how they are affected by them. Key working may be a useful example. Potentially, key workers were supposed to reduce the number of professionals working with a service user, yet there is little evidence that they have had this desirable effect. More often than not, key workers joined the long list of professionals without reducing the need to be in contact with others. In other words, they turned into another layer of service delivery on top of the already existing ones.

So, why is it so difficult to improve service delivery in collaborative contexts? The answer lies in the discrepancy between policy objectives and the levers for change we have available. Policy makers constantly profess a desire to improve services by urging professionals to work together. Yet, there is only one player in this game who really knows what would constitute better services: the user. As long as professionals are in the driving seat, users will be a polite afterthought to their practice. Whether you call it partnership or service integration, collaborative practice grows from user demand. Better public services for users with complex needs should not be a product of professional generosity but an outcome of user demand. Until the user is in control of the service they get, service collaboration will remain little more than hot air.

Axel’s article, ‘Multi-Agency Protocols as a Mechanism to Improve Partnerships in Public Services’, is published in Local Government Studies.


Dr. Axel Kaehne is currently Chair of GORWEL, the Welsh Foundation for Innovation in Public Affairs and a Senior Research Fellow at the Faculty for Health and Social Care, Edge Hill University. He is also Senior Research Fellow at the Alder Hey Children’s Hospital NHS Trust in Liverpool.