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Task force criticises complexity of skills policy and education funding


Two reports from the Better Regulation Task Force have identified over-complexity and multiple accountabilities in local skills policy and in Higher Education.

In "Local Delivery of Central Policy" (Download 190Kb), the independent red tape watchdog says that the enhancement of productivity may be impeded because the delivery system can be too difficult to navigate. Chairman David Arculus explained:

"The preference for local delivery is a sound one. Generally speaking, the closer service delivery lies to the recipient, the more sensitive to local circumstances and needs that delivery will be. When we started our review of how skills and economic development were delivered on the ground, we expected to find a logical flow from a government department via national, regional and local agencies to the end user, for example a tourist board college or a business.

"What our study in fact revealed was a system so complex that even those involved were unsure how it all fitted together. This complexity is wasteful. And, more importantly, it means that employers aren’t engaged, training is not delivered and skills gaps are not being addressed."The report sets out a series of recommendations to achieve the alignment of strategies, objectives, and geographic areas between agencies. Business Links should become the responsibility of Regional Development Agencies (RDAs) within a year and the relationship between RDAs and Local Learning and Skills Councils (LLSCs) should be reviewed. The report proposes that other key policy areas of cross-cutting delivery should be addressed as a rolling programme.

David Arculus added: "Business leaders – supposedly central partners in the delivery of the skills and productivity agenda – feel disengaged from the process."

Recommendations in the report
Recommendation 1
1. We want to see existing areas of complex joined-up delivery simplified and streamlined. But we do not believe the responsible departments can do this on their own. We recommend that a change programme is developed at the centre of government.

2. The first such review, to be commenced within six months, should map and re-engineer the delivery of skills and economic development, removing unnecessary links in the delivery chain and agreeing clear and complementary roles, objectives and funding for those players that remain.

3. We recommend that Business Links become the responsibility of RDAs, and that the review should deliver closer working between RDAs and LLSCs, drawing from the models of Scottish Enterprise and Highlands and Islands Enterprise.

If DTI do not agree to move the Business Links to RDAs, we look to them to deliver within a year the same alignment of targets, reporting, accountability and audit that this move would have achieved.

Recommendation 2:
Too often new institutions are set up in haste. We want the following messages to be applied by all civil servants developing new policies and delivery mechanisms:

- When radical change of institutions is envisaged, Departments should assess the benefits of making the change against the costs on other parties, including business.
- It would be good practice to prepare a Regulatory Impact Assessment for legislation setting up such new bodies.
- Working within the framework of what is already in place should be the preferred option.
- Re-naming and re-launching a body may be attractive politically, but if confusion is to be avoided, it must be coupled with an effective publicity and marketing campaign.
- Implementation plans must allow sufficient time for trialling and learning the lessons of the trials before moving to full implementation.
- If a new body is to be set up, think carefully about abolishing the predecessor if nothing is ready to take its place.

Recommendation 3:
We want to stop unnecessary and complex new delivery proposals. There are already "gatekeeper" mechanisms in place, which need to work and to be seen to be working. In particular, the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister should report to us by July 2003 on the operation and achievements of the RCU gatekeeper function, and on the blockages encountered, if any, with proposals for strengthening it where necessary.

Recommendation 4:
Local stakeholders did not understand the role of Government Offices (GOs). The Office of the Deputy Prime Minister should:

- Explain to local stakeholders how GOs add value.
- Identify and publicise examples of the GO championing local issues in Whitehall and making a difference.
- Ensure that GOs, with the support of regional stakeholders, seek more active roles with the bodies on which they sit. Departments, including DfES in particular, should review their involvement in Government Offices so that their potential for joining up Government is maximised.

Recommendation 5:
The abolition of National Training Organisations with nothing to replace them has caused problems. DfES should make arrangements to allow sectors to address their urgent training needs, allowing DfES to take the necessary time to apply the lessons learned from the trailblazer Sector Skills Councils (SSCs).

Recommendation 6:
The bureaucracy and burdens of bidding and then accounting for funding could be disproportionate to the amount of money involved.

1. Departments should think carefully before setting up new competitive bidding mechanisms to fund local initiatives. If they decide this is really the best way to distribute funds, Departments must set out clearly:
- What are the criteria for a successful bid
- What the reporting and audit requirements will be
- What are the prospects for continuing the funding after the initial period

All these requirements need to be in proportion to the amounts of money involved. We will invite stakeholders to draw to our attention examples where this is not done, and will publish the evidence.

2. The RCU should lead work across Government to align funding streams. This means bringing timeframes, reporting and corporate governance requirements into line.

3. If there are too many targets, there is no room for local flexibility.
- DfES should review and rationalise the targets Local Learning and Skills Councils set local colleges and training providers, and should not seek to introduce new measures of every facet of their activity.
- DfES should measure, and progressively reduce, the total administrative burden on colleges and training providers of the accountability framework.
- The LSC should ensure it does not impose unnecessary burdens on local LSCs and should pass on to them as much budgetary flexibility as possible.
- DTI should set fewer, sharper, smarter targets for RDAs, focussing on targets that RDAs can genuinely influence and ensuring that targets are aligned between delivery agencies.
- DTI should reduce the detail and frequency of the current Performance Monitoring Framework, moving to six-monthly monitoring of RDAs by GOs for 2003/4.

Higher Education - easing the burden
The committee's most recent report, >"Higher Education - easing the burden"Download identified some similar problems in Higher Education. Task Force chairman David Arculus argues that what the sector dubs the ‘accountability burden’ is distracting academics from teaching and research: "Higher Education is so crucial to our future economic performance that of course we need to know that it is effective. But there is no evidence that the sector is particularly prone to management or financial failings or failures to deliver on academic performance. On the contrary HE is a success story."

"Despite this, we were told time and time again of constant demands for different data and frequent audits and inspections. Too often, these are down to poorly thought through policies and uncoordinated initiatives that have accumulated over a number of years, without any overarching rationale. Earned autonomy is a key theme for the Government and we would like to see it applied more in higher education."

An area singled out as particularly problematic is that of funding, an increasing percentage of which has to be applied for via special initiatives. Amongst the recommendations to address the issues are that the Government should reduce funding initiatives into a small number of key theme funding streams, with reporting and auditing requirements in proportion to the amounts of money involved.

To prevent unnecessary new burdens from being imposed on the sector, the Task Force recommends that Government and its Agencies should assess the impact of new proposals and publish them. Any replacement for the Research Assessment Exercise should, says the report, meet the Better Regulation Task Force’s Principles of Good Regulation: transparency; accountability; proportionality; consistency; targeting.

David Arculus expressed concern at the number of fundamental problems common to this and the Task Force’s previous report: "What has struck me in producing this report and the recently launched Local Delivery of Central Policy report is the number of common themes, namely duplicated audits and inspection and multiple accountabilities and funding streams.

"In both reports we found a lack of joined-up working on the ground between Government and those responsible for delivering its policies. There may be high level liaison arrangements in place but these do not always permeate down to ground level."


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