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COMMUNITIES MUST HAVE MORE SAY OVER THEIR PUBLIC SERVICES - BUSINESS CHIEFS

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Public service reform in local government will only succeed if local communities are more engaged in deciding how s...
Public service reform in local government will only succeed if local communities are more engaged in deciding how services operate, according to the Confederation of British Industry.

The business lobby group says that recent rhetoric around 'empowering' people and 'double devolution' can only be turned into reality if local authorities take radical steps to make council tax payers' views the foundations of reforms.

In a new report on neighbourhood service provision published today, the CBI says in many areas this is already being achieved, not least by private sector providers working in partnership with councils. It is calling on the government and local authorities to draw on these successes and increase the amount of influence communities can wield.

Empowering neighbourhoods: delivering better local services for local people

The CBI report cites examples of where this has worked, including:

* In Woking, a sample of 350 residents are polled every three months on how satisfied they are with street cleaning services. Ten per cent of the contractor's fee is at risk based on the results, and the contract can be terminated if satisfaction dips too low;

* In Breckland, members of the public are given disposable cameras to identify 'grot-spots' in need of clean-up by the street cleaning firm, and in Welwyn & Hatfield the contractor has given PDAs (hand-held computers) to selected 'community champions' so they can send emails flagging up problems for action;

* In Slough, the involvement of the public through a consultation board or 'citizen's jury' has contributed to the town becoming one of the cleanest in the South East.

According to government research, 55 per cent of local residents want to get involved in shaping how their public services are provided, yet only two per cent actually do so*. Three-quarters of councils are now starting to experiment with programmes to engage council tax payers more, but almost two-thirds of people currently feel that public services neither listen nor respond to them**.

The CBI says this failure to harness the public appetite for more involvement could be overcome by adopting successful schemes more widely.

Its report, 'Empowering neighbourhoods: delivering better local services for local people',includes a total of seven case studies which demonstrate that service providers can deliver more responsive and effective local services, and that where this happens, user satisfaction levels can increase significantly.

Richard Lambert, CBI director general, said:

'Jargon such as the 'politics of empowerment' and 'double devolution' will mean very little to most people. But better services will mean a great deal.

'Improvements already achieved are often not recognised by local people because they don't play a significant enough part in shaping the services they receive. Giving communities more engagement from the planning stage all the way through to service delivery and assessment would help improve both the services and people's perception of them.

'Some services in particular, such as street cleaning, can only be delivered effectively with the involvement of the public. We need to look for innovative and effective ways to engage people while also delivering better value for money for the taxpayer. Local authorities need to make greater use of partnerships and smarter procurement to achieve this.

'There is much already being done by both the public sector and by private sector contractors to involve users more. But it is only a beginning. This isn't something local authorities and service providers should be planning on doing at some unspecified stage in the future. They should be doing it now.'

Sandy Bruce Lockhart, chairman of the Local Government Association, said:

'People and Places sets out the LGA's vision for how councils and their partners, freed up from excessive central government restriction, can provide better services that individuals and communities really want. We need business - and the voluntary sector - to help us achieve the aim of services that are convenient to the public rather than to providers.

'The report demonstrates that delivering services to neighbourhoods can be done without excessive costs. The LGA challenged the private sector to show it could be sensitive and responsive to the needs of local people while at the same time demonstrating value for money to the taxpayer. The case studies illustrate where this challenge has been met, and shows there is no reason why it cannot be done in all parts of the country.'

Notes

*Department for Education and Skills, March 2000

**YouGov poll of 1,018 adults for Future Services, 2004

The CBI brief, Empowering neighbourhoods: delivering better local services for local people is available here.

Case studies featured in the report are: Slough BC and Accord; Serco in Woking; Pinnacle in Shoreditch and Hackney; Accord in Islington; Amey in Bedfordshire Highways; Jacobs Babtie in Oxfordshire; and Foster Care Associates.

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