The flags of local democratic accountability may have been waving as Thatcher's 'hollowed-out state' nosedived in the 1990s, but events have taken a strange turn.
Keen to deal with 'wicked issues' such as social exclusion, community safety and regeneration, Labour governments have tried to stitch together the fragmented organisational landscape by creating partnerships.
Membership is by appointment, decision-making is opaque and public scrutiny minimal. One set of quangos has been replaced by another.
This leaves a governance dilemma, not least over the sheer number of partnerships. The centre's routine exhortations that local plans should be aligned and complementary have gone unheard.
The need for rationalisation was set out in the report on government intervention in deprived areas, part of the 2000 spending review. The aim was to integrate existing initiatives to deliver improvements in health, education and crime, and reduce bureaucracy.Measures were to be set out in summer, with implementation a core task of local strategic partnerships (LSPs).
They have yet to materialise.
The web of partnerships is dense and incoherent: the best bet now is they will appear in next year's local government white paper.
The complexity stems partly from the range of local plans covering the NHS, local government, criminal justice and others, but also from linkages between localities and their regions - LSPs have to work within economic strategies devised by regional development agencies, and are themselves monitored and accredited by government offices.
Meanwhile, central government remains a haven for silo thinking.
So far only the obligation to produce a community care plan has been sacrificed, though health action zones will feel suitably threatened by the emergence of LSPs.
A second governance dilemma concerns partnerships' authority.
Members have varied roles. Some advance their agency's interests, others take a more balanced view; some have discretion on how to act, others are mandated or need permission; some are selected from a constituency of interest, others are appointed centrally; some are officers; some are elected or appointed members.
LSPs seem to be a bid to encourage local rationalisation of plans and partnerships, but are they are up to this?
They have no dedicated resources to co-ordinate local activity, no independent infrastructure, and their constituent partners will remain accountable for their own service delivery and resource allocation.
Yet the LSP remit is vast, pulling together public, private and voluntary sectors strategically and at grassroots.
The history of area-based initiatives is of almost unbroken failure, and it is hard to see why LSPs should break the mould. The 'carrots' are limited - neighbourhood renewal fund and community empowerment fund money in the 88 local authority areas with the highest deprivation levels - while the 'stick' is little more than a 'dialogue'with government offices of the regions.
Public services are still viewed as distinct businesses delivering distinct services. The capacity to take a holistic view has never been strong in British public administration, organised on vertical functional lines at the centre since the 1918 Haldane report, with local government mirroring these divisions.
The difficulties identified by the joint approach to social policy in the 1970s - ministerial ambition, departmental survival, rigid boundaries - remain crucial.
A third issue is accountability.
Transferring responsibility and power to partnership bodies removes decision-making from elected, visible political structures. Labour is introducing greater self-determination in Scotland and Wales, revitalising local government through cabinet systems and elected mayors, and exploring new voting arrangements.Yet the outcome will be revitalised elected bodies with a reduced role in public policy, as power slips towards the many partnerships.
1Partnerships are complex vehicles for delivering practical solutions on the ground, let alone strategy. The complexity increases where the agenda consists of 'wicked issues'. Despite the government's enthusiasm for cascading identifiable good practice to laggards, partnerships are highly contextually specific.
They need to be developed within the specific local political and organisational culture.
The centre can offer incentives and sanctions but cannot deliver a uniform model of success.
REFERENCE 1Skelcher C. Changing Images of the State: overloaded, hollowed-out, congested. Public Policy and Administration 2000; 15(3): 3-19.