Magazine article Management Today

How Joined-Up Got Dressed Up

Magazine article Management Today

How Joined-Up Got Dressed Up

Article excerpt

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 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 processes 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. …

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