Attempts to improve coordination are only one manifestation of the long historical search for greater rationality in public affairs, but they have been central to the history of social policy. From the Charity Organisation Society and the Royal Commission on the Poor Laws to the Central Policy Review Staff and JASP, the leitmotif of coordination has traced a path through a century of concern about social problems. Motivations and objectives have varied greatly, but underlying them has been a constant reality: social issues, needs and problems – and the responses which they invoke – are usually complex and interrelated. As a consequence, a call for greater coordination flows almost ineluctably from any discovery of duplication, inefficiency, ineffectiveness, or of ‘holes in the safety net’.
Perhaps surprisingly, given the historical background, coordination in social policy tends to be regarded as neutral and innocuous at worst and as self-evidently good for consumers and clients at best. We do not make this assumption. Coordination can be pressed to the service of many causes and interests; who gains and who loses from coordinative successes and failures must be investigated, not taken for granted. As Pressman and Wildavsky note, in the absence of consensus and common purpose ‘coordination becomes another term for coercion’. More specifically, Glennerster has argued that in recent times centrally coordinated social planning has been at least as much about the control and rationing of public expenditure as about the effective meeting of social need.