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Graham Watts Joining up the dots

Government Departments often appear to communicate through indecipherable tongues, especially when talking to one another. Now, not only do they mostly speak the same language but they would have us believe that they think the same way.

'Joined-up thinking' was a phrase that zoomed into common use this year. No more internecine warfare between Whitehall addresses. Harmony was spun in SW1. Joined-up thinking in Government became so popular that it got its own bespoke phrase and it has become simply a case of 'joined-up Government'.

We have all joined up to Rethinking Construction, which is now an impressive example of joined-up Government. It probably shows the advantage of having the Deputy Prime Minister at the head of the DETR because Rethinking Construction has an impressive array of supporters elsewhere in Government.

I recall the launch of the Latham Report in 1994. The Viscount Ullswater - lovely chap, but hardly the most dynamic of Conservative ministers - and a new minister at his first engagement (Robert Jones) helped Sir Michael to kick it off. The Latham reforms called for legislation and demanded that Government became a best practice client. In particular Latham sought to end the mentality of buying construction and its professional services for the lowest price.

These were calls on the Government. The launch day and subsequent months were full of questions about whether it would comply. It soon became clear that the DoE would press on with the legislation, but not without opposition. The credit for the 1996 Act goes to the considerable Cabinet committee negotiating skills of Robert Jones.

However, the idea of Government adopting a common regime as a best practice client was as likely as the Tories agreeing to an integrated European tax system. Getting the simplest of messages in and out of HM Treasury was hopeless and every other Department just carried on regardless.

The Conservatives had three years to become best practice clients and they did not much more than zilch. OK, they had problems of their own with a diminishing majority (etc) but it was a particularly barren time for anyone trying to offer value rather than the lowest quote.

Most of the PR emphasis on the Egan reforms has been on the demands against the industry. Do things quicker, better, cheaper, safer and so on. However, on the other side of the coin are the simple words 'best value' and here is where joined-up Government has started to work much more effectively than the pitiful efforts of the previous administration.

The much-maligned Geoffrey Robinson, today's Paymaster-General, has already nailed the Treasury's colours to the best value flagpole. Robinson is, of course, a real live businessman who appreciates the value of best and understands the cost of cheap. Unfortunately, because he is a real live businessman, he may not last much longer in today's job. Never mind. The value of joined-up Government is much thicker than the political skin. There are senior civil servants in key Treasury posts providing both the intellectual thrust for best value and an essential link in the Whitehall chain.

John Spellar is the parliamentary Under-Secretary of State at the Ministry of Defence with responsibility for spending almost 2bn a year as a construction client. He is also an MP with a long and helpful background of interest in the construction industry.

John Spellar made an important speech recently to outline his department's move towards prime contracting as a means of achieving the best possible value for money. His words committed the MoD to the process of leading change: 'We fully intend to don the champion's mantle and lead the battle for radical reform of the industry with enthusiasm and determination.'

But this wasn't just about using its clout to force the industry to alter but about the MoD changing as a client. Impressively, Spellar drew upon the work of the Construction Clients' Forum and its pact with industry, Constructing Improvement. He declared that the MoD will 'set an example by driving forward internal reforms to become a best practice client - at the forefront of excellence in estate management.' More impressively, he said that they were spending 1M to become a better client.

Baroness Jay of Paddington is Minister for Women and also the Lord Privy Seal (an interesting parliamentary conundrum). I doubt if one could think of a less likely minister to know about Rethinking Construction. But she does, and recently she also spoke most positively about the Egan reforms and the role Government can play in improving its relationship with the construction industry

And so it appears that in the case for becoming a better client of our industry joined-up Government is working. From our perspective, it also makes Rethinking Construction an important two-way street.

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