This week 43 English local government bodies were merged into just nine much larger local governments. Whilst most commentators have concentrated on the implications for local democracy, which are important, they have missed the bigger picture.
Back in the late 1980s and 1990s the trend in British public organisations was towards disaggregation: the creation of smaller and smaller units. NHS Trusts, locally managed schools, executive agencies in government – everywhere the moves were towards smaller, more focussed and usually more autonomous organisations carved out of previously larger monoliths.
But since the early noughties this trend has reversed. Central government has seen a series of mergers – the biggest being Jobcentres Plus (created by merging the Employment Service and Benefits Agency), HM Revenue and Customs (merged Inland Revenue and HM Customs) and the National Offender Managements Service (bringing together the Prison Service and what were previously 43 local probation services). In Health NHS Trusts have merged on a massive scale to the point where many provider trusts are now roughly the same size as the NHS Districts they were carved out of back in the early 1990s. Proposals the merge police forces into larger regional ones have faltered, but everyone expects it is only a matter of time before they re-emerge. Even the ‘quality police’ – inspectorates and audit bodies – have been the subject of a wave of mergers.
Local government is thus merely the latest in a long series of examples of ‘big is beautiful’ moves. Interestingly, one of the key alleged motivators is efficiency – merging back-office services, economies of scale, etc. Ironically, this was also one of the key alleged drivers for breaking up organisations – smaller, more focussed organisations would be more efficient than lumbering bureaucracies – as Carole Johnson and I have pointed out in our extensive analysis of this trend (Public Money & Management 2007 and Public Finance 2006). As our friend Nick Manning (then at the OECD) pointed out this was a marvellous wheeze – you get efficiency when you break things up and efficiency gains when you put them together – talk about win-win.
The underlying cause of these cycles – this is not the first and it won’t be the last and they happen in the private sector too – is the permanent tension between ‘division of labour’ and ‘coordination’ in human organisations. That’s what you get for building organisation staffed by Paradoxical Primates (see my book of that title).