Is this a genuine chance for more co-operation between our islands?

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TO be frank, I never thought it would happen. There’s still a large bit of me that believes it won’t. Nevertheless, it has, and we should celebrate. Rejoice, as Margaret Thatcher said on delivering the news that South Georgia had been recaptured in 1982.

This reference to conflict isn’t accidental. Previous attempts to get meaningful joint working between Guernsey and Jersey all foundered because there was hostility towards them.

Initially, Guernsey politicians regarded closer co-operation as a thinly disguised Jersey takeover of its own treasured institutions. More recently, the view was that Jersey simply couldn’t be trusted – look at the way you pulled out of the CI Aircraft Registry and, now, have chucked up months of collaboration over a CI General Data Protection Regulation approach and gone your own way, shedding a pan-island regulator in the process.

So last week’s announcement that a Channel Island Political Oversight Board had been set up is – potentially – groundbreaking. It’s also astute in that the initiative is more administrative and less political than some other attempts.

As the official communiqué has it, the board is there ‘to support ongoing co-operation between the two islands’ public administrations, and to find and support new partnership opportunities to improve our public services and reduce costs to taxpayers’.

That’s revealing. While States Members have to be seen to be in charge of these things, the driver is actually at officer level, with the respective chief executives of the administrations looking to leverage efficiencies, transformational change and cost savings. Things they’re committed to achieving anyway.

In effect, we’ve got where we are today because of the personalities now involved. And it was precisely because of the personalities involved previously that little meaningful co-operative progress was made. The chemistry just wasn’t there.

Your Chief Minister, Senator John Le Fondré, and ours, Deputy Gavin St Pier, know this only too well. So by setting up an oversight board the hope is that the professional teams will gain some significant traction and, in effect, distance it from political short-termism.

Look at what’s planned and you’ll see what I mean: joint working on policy, shared external experts and joint placement programmes for graduate trainees. This is actually culture capture, albeit in slow motion.

The civil service bosses are gearing up for a new generation of officials for whom the expression Guernsey or Jersey will have little meaning. Instead, they will be operating on a ‘Channel Islands’ basis, with that shared sphere of influence and concern. And if the policy being administered was in the first place crafted to be pan-island…

That’s why the lead initiatives are health, with a shadow CI Health Authority, and IT procurement, because the sums spent in either place are huge, and agreeing common standards provides much greater purchasing leverage.

I don’t want to come across as too starry-eyed on this, because actual delivery is key. But the potential for what could be achieved is huge. Look, for example, at the joint digital transformation board being set up.

That’s to work together on identifying technology to speed up the introduction of online services for islanders. That’s actually another way of outsourcing work, as we, in effect, self-administer by form-filling and making payments ourselves instead of clerks doing it for us.

It’s also non-competitive. No winner, no loser. And separate projects can be allocated to either island, knowing that the results and benefits will be applied to both.

This frictionless or barrier-free approach is also behind the partnership for public sector procurement, extending to contract and supplier management to reduce costs and get better value for money.

No timescales as such have been provided for all this but, if successful, there’s no reason why procurement isn’t eventually centralised. I don’t know what percentage of the islands’ budgets are spent on buying stuff, but combined revenues of £1.2bn ought to provide a bit of purchasing heft, you’d have thought.

The other encouraging aspect about the announcement is the honesty of the chief ministers about previous co-operation attempts. Senator Le Fondré was blunt: past efforts had failed because there was no political will to make them happen and because officials defaulted to their respective silos.

So by selecting initiatives where ‘significant’ progress could be made in six to 12 months AND locking delivery into the islands’ respective medium term financial plans, both leaders are making their objectives very visible – and measurable.

In turn, the two chief executives are both on fixed-term contracts. In the case of our Paul Whitfield, renewal depends on his key task achievement and, for your Charlie Parker, gaining another post depends on how well he does here.

All of which means there are a number of reasons for feeling optimistic that, at last, we may see some real progress on CI co-operation.

I’ll believe it when it actually happens, of course, but the foundations have been laid for the old enemy to become the new friend. Remarkable really.

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