Local means Learning from mistakes… instead of repeating them
Tue 1 Jun 2021
I have spoken on several occasions over the years about the value of local. This month I want to pick out a specific reason that local is so much better than highly centralised, top down programmes: learning from mistakes.
But first I will say that I am prompted to write about this, at this time because of the recent start of Covid-19 inquiries and some of the associated revelations. Reflecting on the explosive evidence given to MPs by Dominic Cummings last week, we learnt that:
1. Central Government didn’t have robust plans for a pandemic emergency.
2. When that emergency hit it was ill-prepared to play the core role of convening across government departments and between central and local government.
3. It was overly preoccupied with what the public might think, what it might tolerate and how people would behave, to the detriment of laying out clearly and confidently what was needed from the public.
No doubt many will think it too early or too scant evidence from which to draw firm conclusions, and they are right, but we must begin to review and learn lessons sooner than later, lest we repeat those errors in the near future. We don’t need to wait until a final report is produced in several years’ time to know that mistakes were made, lessons can be learnt and change implemented.
And so my central point, is that in all complex systems mistakes are made – they are made all the time in fact. The question isn’t how to stop them. The ambition shouldn’t be to get it right first time, all the time – that would be arrogance verging on stupidity. The aim and the question should be – how can we design systems that flag mistakes early and quickly and obviously: so that changes can be made, and systems and outcomes made better (not perfect). And the answer is to short circuit the pathways from decision makers to the impacts of decisions. The answer is to by default make things as local as they can be.
A system that is designed for a Minister to be assured by a junior minister, to be assured by an adviser, to be assured by a senior civil servant, to be assured by a junior civil servant, to be assured by multiple regional politicians/officials, to be assured by multiple local officials, to be assured by frontline workers, to be assured by their interaction with the public….. (and I could have made that 10 times longer) – is a system that is designed to hide mistakes, to ignore learning, to prevent improvement. It is a system designed to fail.
And so in that regard, Mr Cummings revelations, despite all my natural scepticism and cynicism, in actual fact rang absolutely true for me – it aligned absolutely with my experience of the early days of the pandemic – local officials waiting to be told by central government what to do (because that’s how the system works) – indeed, even I can remember saying ‘we’ve downed tools – what do you want us to do?’ Thankfully after a few days, we all realised locally that the answers were not going to come from central government, or at least not in any real world timescales or with any level of confidence or consistency, so we got on with it – and local government colleagues in my view did an absolutely fantastic job (as well as local communities and VCSEs).
So my message to local government and politicians is to fight tooth and nail to retain your hard won respect and independence from central government. You need to push on and secure more power and independence from them and then share it with local communities. The case is won – make the most of it.
And to Central Government and local MPs – if you were to butt out of local affairs, trust local people and institutions and stop micro-managing what is better done locally, you would find that things worked better, mistakes would be noticed and fixed far sooner, people would be healthier and happier.
And perhaps you would then also have the time and capacity to do the actual job of a central government – plan for the big stuff, coordinate complexity, give the public confidence and lead when necessary, and ultimately keep us safer than you’ve done in the last 12 months.