Features: May 18th, 2007

Getting It Together: Joined-Up Knowledge and the Strategic Framework of Debate

By Des McConaghy

Complaints about information silos and lack of effective joint action have become a routine feature of the public administration literature. Steve Bundred’s Public Money & Management article (Bundred, 2006) was another useful survey. But his ‘radical improvements in knowledge management’ fell short of a totally convincing prescription.

Having struggled with the problem for over 40 years, and at various levels of government, I have long concluded that all essential inter-agency co-ordination should be specifically financed. W. J. M. Mackenzie once told me that he faced the same problem working with Professor Lindemann in the War Cabinet. Fighting a war required the radical centralization of decision-making but initially there was little effective delivery or liaison between the service departments. ‘The Prof’ explained all this to Winston Churchill and they devised an ‘intelligence system’ that made things ‘not perfect, but better’.

Making intelligence a statutory function

Mackenzie recalled all this after the war and put the idea into Herbert Commission proposals for the Greater London Council (GLC). Thus the GLC was the UK’s first and only public body with a statutory intelligence function (Herbert Report, 1960). Mackenzie said that it hadn’t worked at the existing London County Council because ‘each committee and Chief Officer hoarded data; partly for purposes of inter-departmental war, partly due to sheer muddle’. The GLC, on the other hand, had an intelligence unit housed near the rafters of ‘county hall’ whose head clutched a copy of the legislation which meant he couldn’t be sacked! How much all this overcame ‘the politics of data’ is questionable given the sheer persistence of inter-departmental and inter-agency problems—especially in peace time. As Mackenzie put it, ‘There were no longer any big bangs going off outside’. But the ‘boundary problem’ remained the main information dilemma.

The GLC was setup as a ‘strategic authority’—similar to the later post-1974 English metropolitan counties. But the GLC’s comptroller of finance, Maurice Stonefrost, told me that these overall London responsibilities ‘were never accepted in full by the other public bodies’. So, while the ‘lower tier’ authorities had relatively clear boundaries for executive datasets, it was never sufficiently clear how GLC ‘strategic action’ was defined and financed within our national boundaries. There was no robust definition—neither then, nor later in the case of the ill-fated metropolitan counties, nor indeed for the Greater London Authority of today.

A couple of years after the 1960 Herbert Commission, I found myself in an unusual pioneering role ahead of the legislation for the innovative public agency that would later employ me. I therefore had a splendid time ‘co-ordinating’ all planning and statutory development functions of the co-operating ministries and local councils within a 100 square mile designated area. But the ‘accountable’ regime soon arrived to put a stop to all that! Nevertheless, it was experience of what was and is technically possible—and recalled later when advocating joined-up working arrangements in Liverpool’s Toxteth of the late 1960s (Shelter, 1972).

Finance the key to sharing knowledge

Those proposals also fully anticipated today’s Local Area Agreements and Strategic Partnerships, but within much more coherent national funding arrangements. Such inter-agency liaison is clearly crucial in inner cities where people rely on various statutory services at every turn—and where dealing with one problem is often merely to succumb to another. But Liverpool then suffered from new ‘super departments’ (McKinsey, 1969) which crippled horizontal inter-departmental communications—now a classic phenomenon which Steve Bundred’s article more generally laments. But it was also quickly evident that to co-ordinate for one thing could often mean not co-ordinating for something else. What was needed, therefore, was the ability to co-ordinate when and where that was strictly essential—and the ability to know when that was clearly the case. And this essential co-ordination must be financed. Otherwise inter-agency liaison attracts only half-hearted co-operation.

Des McConaghy desmc@btinternet.com is a retired public servant who worked in Whitehall during the Heath and Callaghan administrations.

This article was first published in Public Money and Management and is reproduced by permission of CIPFA