Three reasons we need better coordination to make NEETs history
Departments at war. Secret briefings. Showboating Ministers. Obstructive bureaucrats. These are often the features that popular culture gives to Whitehall. But these aren’t the issues we’re trying to tackle by proposing a Secretary of State to coordinate across government to make NEETs history.
I was a civil servant until last year and plan to return to service in the future. What I know best are people deeply committed to their mission rather than their department and motivated by making a difference rather than winning a turf war. So why is better coordination needed at all? From my experience there are three reasons.
The first is that the issue is complicated. There is no simple answer for how to ensure no young person spends any significant period of time out of employment, education and training. Reasonable people disagree about what to do. And right now three or four different reasonable people are responsible for deciding what happens in different parts of the system. With the very best of intentions they will create situations where there is poor coordination and no overall strategy. Actually it might be easier if they didn’t have good intentions. Then they would compromise more readily. As it is, a senior official or Minister who leads on employment policy will feel very strongly that Option A is much better than Option B, which is preferred by a senior official or Minister who leads on further education policy. Compromising means giving up their best intentions. You might think this sounds fanciful – is government really so mission-oriented? – but believe me I spent about a year as a junior official witnessing exactly this argument.
The second reason why better coordination is needed is that, best intentions aside, when programmes are set people in the system become accountable for delivering specific outcomes. What they have to do is to make sure their part works. That’s probably what we want them to do, to commit deeply to hitting their targets without ambivalence or hesitation. Sometimes that means being indifferent to how someone else’s part is doing. Here’s an example. There’s a group of people in government responsible for driving up the number of apprenticeships, whether they go to young people or not. They’ve been doing pretty well. Meanwhile the youth unemployment rate is stubbornly high and still the proportion of apprenticeships going to young people has fallen steeply. Addressing this requires better coordination around a shared objective.
The final reason for wanting a single Secretary of State is the accountability for spending. When programmes to help young people into employment, education or training are split across different departments then the budgets are too. So, for example, spending more on Programme A which is working amazingly well and could be expanded isn’t an option even if Programme B is failing and underspending. Different people have accountability for those budgets, including to Parliament. Switching money around is practically impossible. If the programmes were the responsibility of a single Secretary of State though, then this becomes much easier to do.