There are good reasons as to why councils may be choosing this time to invest in central services
Collaborating to boost capacity
Writing for the Guardian last week, Richard Vize - a former editor of LGC - picked out a line from an analysis of councils’ budgets for 2012-13 that was bound to cause the sector a headache.
“Councils boost bureaucracy while services suffer,” the headlines will read
The figures differ slightly depending on which measure you use, but an official statistical release showed that essentially councils were budgeting to spend more on central services this year than they did last year. While all other service areas - other than social care - are seeing budgets cut, central services will get an extra £45m this year, equivalent to a 1.3% rise.
Mr Vize’s point is that ministers will seize on this as an opportunity to aim fresh criticism councils’ way with the same relish Wayne Rooney displays when presented with a loose ball in the opponents’ six-yard box. “Councils boost bureaucracy while services sus we reportffer,” the headlines will read.
He’s right, of course. And, if anything, the surprise is that the “withering fire” predicted hasn’t been unleashed yet.
But there are good reasons as to why councils may be choosing this time of financial crisis and political uncertainty to invest in central services. Put simply, the council that chooses to cut its institutional intelligence will be the council that struggles over the next few years.
As we report this week, the four areas piloting ‘whole place’ community budgets have spent the past four weeks meeting ministers, mandarins and officials to discuss their progress. The line coming from Whitehall is clear - they want detailed evidence of how money will flow around a redesigned system of public services and how approaches could be applied around the country.
In return, officials involved in the Greater Manchester pilot made it clear that areas would need to invest in their political leadership and their financial and analytical capacity.
In particular, any council or local area that can’t produce compelling cost-benefit analyses will not succeed in convincing the people that matter to embrace meaningful, structural reform.
Elsewhere, examples of how councils are grappling with the implementation of Louise Casey’s troubled families programme show the need for careful thinking at the heart of organisations. The triborough partnership in west London is dealing with the question of how to balance the risks of redesigning services around families with complex needs against the intelligence available to them which suggests there may be far fewer than the government believes. This is a task that requires analytical and strategic capacity at the centre of an organisation - or in this case three organisations - to say nothing of the need to monitor implementation.
Of course, both these cases involve local authority partnerships rather than individual councils. It is increasingly likely that collaboration and working at scale will offer
the way to boost that central capacity while avoiding ministerial brickbats.