Whitehall calling, at the top of the dial

Fiascoes such as the £500m failed project to replace fire control rooms could be avoided by improving communications between Whitehall and local government, the National Audit Office (NAO) reports today.

Central Government's Communication and Engagement with Local Government, the watchdog's latest value-for-money study, paints a picture of a dysfunctional relationship between councils and Whitehall.

The fault lies mainly with central government, the NAO says. The report accuses departments and agencies of a "command and control" style of communication. Supposedly two-way consultations are frequently rushed, with little indication of what action is taken as a result of local authorities' input.

Whitehall is also responsible for a torrent of emails, the NAO found. In March 2012, central government departments sent 744,000 emails to local authorities in March 2012; the main generator was the Department for Work and Pensions. "However, local authority officers complained that some emails are poorly formatted, for example, referring to 'attached letter' with no indication of the subject, who it is from and whether it requires action," the report says.

Overall, local authorities "are exasperated by the poor signposting of some communications they receive from central government departments, which wastes the time of the hundreds of people who receive each one".

The NAO observes that "Now more than ever, with responsibilities such as public health moving to local government, the vital role of local authorities in the government's decentralisation agenda, and at the same time increased pressures from substantial staff reductions, it is essential that central government communicates and engages well with local government."

It identifies some examples of good practice, for example in adult social care and the regular newsletter to local authority chief executives from the permanent pecretary at the Department for Communities and Local Government. It also commends the info4local central government web portal with RSS feeds, a Twitter account and an email alert service.

However the report warns that "Some policies leave local government and its partners with gaps in the information they need to plan effectively over the course of a policy's initiation, development and implementation."

Policy consultations come in for particular criticism. In too many cases they are rushed, with two thirds allowing less time than the 60 days suggested in Whitehall's own code of practice. "Departments issue a disproportionate number of consultations just before parliamentary recess and the holiday periods of Easter, summer and Christmas. Many local authorities therefore find it difficult to coordinate their work on these consultations with their own political and business cycles, and to involve those communities or local organisations that may be directly affected."

The NAO says departments should manage the volume and timing of formal consultations to allow local government to give a considered response and spell out clearly how local government's contribution has, or has not, altered policy proposals.

The watchdog also urges departments to "review how departmental websites can provide greater utility through features such as the role and contact details of key staff".

The Department for Communities and Local Government should "work with other departments to assess progress in implementing these recommendations across government", the report says.