Political managers: How joined-up got dressed up - The Government tries to persuade us that, with departmental cooperation, it has a new way to run things. Yet there are plenty of precedents

Political managers: How joined-up got dressed up - The Government tries to persuade us that, with departmental cooperation, it has a new way to run things. Yet there are plenty of precedents - By the time this is published, one hopes, the horrors of Mozam

Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

By the time this is published, one hopes, the horrors of Mozambique will, along with the floods, have subsided. The breakdown in good relations between the Foreign Office and the Ministry of Defence was portrayed as a breakdown in joined-up government - this apparently being some quite new approach to the process-es of government that was invented a couple of years ago by the incoming Labour administration.

For as long as I have served at any ministerial level we have always had joined-up government. The only novelty in the concept was in the name.

The name was the message. And I never cease to be amazed how Fleet Street first swallows the hook only to regurgitate it not long after, as the naive simplicity of the breathless overstatements are overtaken by the cock-ups of everyday Whitehall life.

The Cabinet Office machine is that body of civil servants located in Whitehall but with an interconnecting door to No 10; it coordinates the workings of government.

Ministerial and senior official life consists of wall-to-wall meetings called to resolve inter-departmental disputes that cannot be cleared by correspondence. Matters not resolved by officials move up the ladder to groups of ministers, Cabinet committees or the Cabinet itself.

All day, every day of the working week, issues are raised, disputed and resolved. The surprise is how few examples exist of breakdown in the traditional pattern of decision-making.

To delude oneself into believing that there is a fail-safe system is the prerogative of those who have been out of government for a long time and have probably never actually run any significant organisation in the interim.

Of course the decision-making process can often be too slow. There is nothing new in prime ministers using a colleague to act as trouble-shooter or progress-chaser.

Certainly, John Major used me for such a role and there are precedents aplenty stretching back. Anyone who has held such a task would be the first to warn of its limitations. Too junior an appointment and the big beasts will circumnavigate the system.

Too senior a colleague runs the risk of fuelling media speculation as to who is actually running the show.

I made sure that I never moved without the prime minister's authority. In that way we were joined up - although I would never claim that we avoided every pitfall.

So is there another more novel concept of 'joined-upedness' that manages to inject some strategic thinking into the workings of government?

There is nothing new here either. Every prime minister of modern times has sought to create one sort of think tank or another in order to achieve just such a purpose. John Major had action teams embracing large parts of Whitehall to pursue agenda items to which he attached priority. Ministers and mandarins met to progress-chase the citizen's charter or the deregulation programme. Ministerial responsibilities were reshuffled independent of ministers themselves where it was deemed important to secure better coordination for strate-gic purposes.

Two examples. First, the increased involvement of the Department of Trade and Industry in the science spend. The advocates of blue-skies research funding found their champions in the Department of Education, where the universities held sway. At the other end of the spectrum were the advocates of applied research, from which more tangible and earlier results were expected.

The joined-up solution was the Foresight programme, which brought leading academics and industrialists together in the search for optimum strategic solutions.

Second, the Department of Employment was merged with the Department of Education. The logic was clear. Lack of education is a key factor in long-term unemployment.

Helping the unemployed back to work often requires a degree of training, even, tragically, the opportunity to learn to read and write for the first time. Any positive approach to the problem leads to the conclusion that education and training should be seen as a through-life concept.

Prime ministers will juggle their ministerial pack to suit their priorities and their manifesto. The pattern that emerges will vary according to personal judgment and political priority.

The Department of Energy was part of the original DTI. It was hived off by Ted Heath in the oil crisis of 1973 to concentrate full Cabinet ministerial authority on the issues of the moment. By the early 1990s privatisation had gutted much of the Depart-ment, which was remerged with the DTI.

What no prime minister can do is avoid Macmillan's famous warning that it is 'events, dear boy, events', that upset the best-laid plans, however joined-up their architect may believe them to be.

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