All posts tagged: cuts
I recently visited some local authorities in the north-west and midlands. These LA’s have had significant cuts and no longer received regeneration monies. These authorities had significantly reduced staffing numbers and were in the midst of transforming their services, working more effectively with reduced resources.
They are unenthused by central government and were rejecting much of the rhetoric around ‘big society’, or a free market for public services. However, they are not some local big state, refusing to change. They are embracing service pluralism and new ways of working.
These authorities were mindful that a rapid and hasty divestment and outsourcing of services would be folly and a bad use of scarce resources. Folly because they knew there was a lack of delivery capacity within their particular communities and Voluntary and Community sector. And a bad use of resources, because they knew that rapid outsourcing may bring short term savings but longer term costs in terms of hindering service integration, shared outcomes and benefits to be accrued through strategic direction.
They knew that to create outcomes which made inroads into an issue such as child poverty, they needed a transformation in cross departmental and cross agency behaviours, thinking and a new plural approach to the problem. They knew this was never going to happen by just letting out a contract to the lowest bidder.
For all the central government brouhaha around the transition from a big state to big society and the need to encourage more social and private delivery of local public services, some local authorities know what needs to be done and are grasping the nettle brought on by the cuts.
They know, as they always have, that in many instances, they are not always the most efficient or the most cost efficient provider, but they also know private or social delivery is no silver bullet.
They know that the demand on public services will continue to increase, but they also know someone needs to strategically oversee need and demand.
They know they cannot afford to work in the same old way, and are therefore, embarking on radical service change.
They want to and are actively encouraging community growth and building neighbourhood and resident capacity to do more themselves, but they also know this takes time.
They know that cooperatives and mutuals and a plethora of new delivery vehicles have potential, but they are wary of seeing them as cheap options.
They know that they must empower local people, but they also know that markets can disempower.
They are sharing services, but are mindful of democratic accountability and sovereignty issues.
Above all, they are creating a new era in local public service, inspired by an shared outcome focused place leadership, filled with a belief in public values. For them, commissioning of in-house or external activity is not just about balance sheets but about building social justice, addressing inequality, nurturing the environment and protecting the most vulnerable.
These authorities are acting big.
For all the talk about how bad Britain is and how we need a big society not a big state, it is worth remembering that the communities and places of Britain have some great strengths. In the rush to cut and change, we need to be careful that we do not inadvertently start undermining some of the good things about the way we live and jeopardise the resilience and strength of many local places.
I write this having just returned from a trip to Australia. Invited as an international guest speaker to the Melbourne Place Making Series and having then kicked off another CLES economic resilience pilot project, followed by a lecture tour with villagewell and PPS - Project for Public Places, I saw, discussed and debated many old and new places which did or did not work well. Some places lacked things that we in Britain often just take for granted.
Economically Australia is in a much better place than the UK, buoyed by a mineral rich commodity based economy. However, many local places suffer from low density and car dependency dominated by housing with limited local economies and social networks. Australia and Melbourne in particular has great thinking and plans and is making strides in densifying urban communities as part of its population growth trajectories. With Aussie boldness, they know what they need to do and are doing it. Walkable, low carbon communities with centres of local economic and social activity are the aim. However, Melbourne craves for some of the communities many of us live in here in the UK.
A wee walk to the locally owned shop, community centre or voluntary group, a local community garden or a incidental meet with a neighbour, are things we take for granted. However, this is the social and economic activity which is important for creating a sense of place and vital for human well being. This is the Big British Society and we must make it even better, shield it where it is under threat, and grow it in suburbia, and those small towns and villages and inner city places where it has never existed or has been eroded.
We must be wary of assuming that this type of living is an indubitable presence, inscribed in perpetuity in the fabric of British life. At this juncture, this type of place and living is vulnerable to forces which ignore local economies and think the global economy is benign. It is threatened by centralism which thinks the economy is just about UK plc and our trade links with China. It is undermined by cuts to voluntary activity and the centres and buildings where community activity takes place. It is weakened by local government which no longer has the resource capacity to effectively steward and manage local places.
Many people in Britain do not enjoy living in great places. Inequality is growing. However, coming back to Britain has made me realise how precious (and vulnerable) some great places are and how we really need to cherish and create them for all communities. This is not some ‘good old blighty’ nostalgic trip. This is informed by best practice in what makes great places. For all the talk of big society, small state we need a big awareness about what we could be losing.
I believe the big society could be a bold and brave idea. In essence it is about rethinking the social contract between the state and the individual, allowing space and time for the community and voluntary sector to get involved more and break down the traditional duopoly.
However, I am already worrying that cuts and the changes they are bringing to public service delivery are in danger of making this idea stillborn before it even has a chance to breathe. We may not be getting a ‘control shift’ and a ‘big society, small state’, we may just get ‘small society’, and with this any attempts to reform the social contract will be a busted flush.
Of course, on the one hand, the cuts do represent an end of the big state era. It is now clear that we are now entering a new type of public economic culture, with cuts dominating, and the state shrinking.
However, on the other hand, within this context of cuts, the immediate issue for local government is not the big society or re-shaping the social contract. Instead there is worry over change management, lean and system thinking, more for less, making do and generally more bang for the buck.
However, for some commercial outsourcing companies, who supply the public sector, this period of contraction is not a period of trepidation. Quite the reverse, it is being seen as a business opportunity.
For some companies the direct Local Government job losses, represents the need for interim ‘job solutions’. The reduction in a local authorities core corporate policy capacity is a ‘developing market’ and increases in demand for ‘cost cutting strategies’, means new ‘lean thinking public management products’.
These companies are ‘offering solutions’, their share prices are already increasing as they anticipate a boom in new contracts. All of this is taking place whilst Local Authorities reduce their direct staff costs from their balance sheet.
This trend, glaringly highlights a problem for the big society project and this desire to reshape the social contract between the individual and the state, allowing civil society to flourish. Lets face it, in many instances, the community and voluntary sector is just not ready. We have cuts now and immediate capacity issues will be addressed predominantly by the private sector and ‘big business’, not the community and voluntary sector.
I am suggesting that the cuts and this increase in commercial delivery (often national) of local public services, represents a significant threat to any notion of big society and a new social contract. Cuts will not necessarily herald a big society, small state. It will merely herald a small society, small state, and we will be all the worse for it.
THe big society project is doomed to failure if this is just about the power of the state. This is being denuded through cuts already. No. A big society project clearly needs to consider the power of commercial delivery.
So what does the government need to think about, and more importantly, does the government have the stomach to take this on?
For the big society project to gain traction, government will need to allow the space and time for civil society to grow and develop local delivery options. To do this, the government will have to intervene in the market. For example, this will mean it will have to be more interventionist and reform procurement practice away from raw market ‘efficiencies’ toward effectiveness, the local and less traditional commercial public service providers.
Some used to say that the public sector crowds out the commercial sector. How times change, the commercial sector is in danger of crowding out civil society and fettering the new social contract and the big society. The government if it truly believes in radical reform, will need to act.