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Over the last 25 years, central government has attempted to join up local public services in England on at least 55 occasions, illustrating the ‘initiativitis’ inflicted upon local governments by the large volume and variety of coordination programmes. By analysing and mapping some of the characteristics of these initiatives, we have uncovered insights into the ways central government has sought to achieve local coordination. We observe a clear preference for the use of funding and fiscal powers as a lever, a competitive allocation process, and a constrained discretion model of governance, with some distinct patterns over time. These choices made in the design of initiatives are likely to be shaped by the perceived and real accountability structures within government, and so offer an opportunity to consider how accountability affects, and is affected by, particular programmatic efforts at a local level.

This article makes a significant contribution to our understanding of coordination programmes at a central–local government level. By identifying patterns in the approach of government over the last 25 years, it offers an empirical lens to map the ‘glacial and incremental’ reframing of central–local relations and associated shifts in public accountability. In this way, the article provides more solid foundations to a range of issues – central government’s reliance on controlling the reins of funding, the competitive nature of allocation processes, and the enduring centralisation of accountability – that have been much discussed among policymakers, practitioners and researchers, but have lacked clear empirical grounding.