Civil service "massively underestimates" local government talent – council chief

Assistant chief executive of Birmingham City Council tells CSW that central government needs to stop telling town halls to you need to earn your freedom

By Jonathan Owen

17 Aug 2016

The civil service hugely underestimates the abilities of local politicians and officials, and needs to fundamentally change the way it views the devolution of power away from Whitehall, according to a senior figure in local government.

Piali Das Gupta, assistant chief executive at Birmingham City Council, spoke out after CSW reported claims by Nick Raynsford, the former Labour minister who helped set up the Greater London Authority, that senior civil servants and politicians still view local government with an attitude “almost bordering on contempt".

Das Gupta told CSW: “I do think there is a really massive underestimation of the capability of both local politicians and local officials. I think there’s a real perception that we are administrators rather than policymakers in our own right.”

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The Birmingham assistant chief, who has previously worked for the Canadian government, said Britain was out of step with other countries when it came to giving local authorities genuine freedom to run their own affairs. 

“There is a phenomenal level of centralisation that’s beyond other countries to understand,” she said.

The shift in power away from local government towards Whitehall is a relatively recent trend but has resulted in a fixed mindset among today’s generation of civil servants, she argued.

“There was an erosion that started probably under Thatcher and I think because most of the current civil service probably grew up post that they just assume there’s no other safe way of doing things.”

Das Gupta added: “A lot of the civil servants who make policy related to local government have never worked in local government.”

A key stumbling block is an attitude that central government can only grant a “little bit of freedom” on a case-by-case basis, she claimed.

Das Gupta called for greater trust in the capability of local government, similar to that shown by the government’s willingness to “take a fundamental leap of faith” on key policies including academy schools and clinical commissioning groups in healthcare.

“I think it’s actually a smaller leap of faith to go much more radical about what they are willing to devolve to local government because we at least have accountability mechanisms,” the Birmingham City Council official said.

Proper devolution of power means not simply “delegating policies and decisions” but giving local authorities the time and space to “design local solutions", she added.

But Das Gupta said this would require a change of attitude from Whitehall.

“I would say 80 per cent, even of those who are on board with the devolution agenda conceptually, still have the approach that ‘you need to earn your freedom, we’re not yet persuaded that you can do better’."

Das Gupta added: "The onus is on us to prove that devolution would do better, there is no onus on the civil service to prove that centralisation is better.”

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