NAO report: we need to keep learning from each other


By Jo Pitt, Local Government Policy Advisor, CIPFA

The recent National Audit Office (NAO) report English Devolution Deals has provided a very timely reminder about one of the cultural identities of the public sector. This is the unique way the sector shares experiences.  

In its findings the NAO report concluded that there are a number of key issues that need to be taken forward, including accountability. It also commented that there is a need for greater clarity around devolution and that as the new deals are experimental "measures are needed to understand their impact, in support of both good management, and accountability".

Capability to deliver capacity

All these themes are important but one particular message about the capacity and capability to deliver on this agenda was also woven throughout the report. The NAO correctly observed the risks that occur where there is insufficient capacity to deliver. It reflected on the capacity and capability of the Cities and Local Growth Unit going forward and asked questions about influence and expectation. 

The questions about capability and capacity are ones that the local government sector also needs to reflect upon. The detail and complexity of the deals and the necessity to work across partners will stretch resources that are already under pressure. 

Previously the public sector would have partly solved this problem by developing capacity from shared learning. The public sector has always been very proactive about sharing learning experiences around new methodologies and initiatives. Sharing learning experiences, what works best and what failure has taught us, is inbuilt into the DNA of most senior public leaders, and this need to exchange knowledge and understanding is not a recent phenomenon – the sector has been operating a group learning approach for years. Millions of pounds have probably been saved in consultancy fees by this highly collaborative method. 

Localism in action

Unfortunately, this type of approach is easiest and operates best when all those involved are operating closely together and have to deliver to an almost identical plan. The devolution deals do not provide this. The NAO report points out that "the specific arrangements vary in each case, as they are negotiated and agreed separately based on local proposals". On the one hand this is a positive example of localism in action; the patchwork of locally driven deals highlights how different areas of the country have created individual solutions to commonly identified themes. 

However, on the other hand this means that those who are developing the deals are unable to learn as easily from others and the process of sharing is more challenging. While some of the more generic details around themes can be easily shared, more detailed discussions need a more confidential forum for support and debate.

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The CIPFA Devolution Panel recognised this challenge when it met and would like to hear from those with views on possible solutions so that the spirit of shared learning remains strong. Please contact E: