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The next step in local public service agreements is not just more of the same - they are going to be much more radi...
The next step in local public service agreements is not just more of the same - they are going to be much more radical, says Phil Swann

As we show in the recent Local Government Association report, 'Building on success', the first round of local public service agreements are delivering tangible improvements for local communities in areas such as parental involvement in schools, crime reduction and the quality of the local environment.

So far in round one, councils have agreed over 1,155 targets with government and around 1,000 different freedoms and flexibilities have been granted. The first local PSAs have the potential to deliver £1.5bn in reward grants and pump priming. This is likely to be matched for the second generation.

But the first round of LPSAs may not meet the more radical aspirations of the LGA when we first floated the concept. It proved difficult to get government support for more radical ideas. In too many cases the agreement was an extra thing councils did rather than being central to their strategy. And there was a ratcheting down of expectations on the part of both local and central government.

We are working to ensure the second generation is different. The technology is certainly better than it was in the first round and provides a framework for more strategic and more ambitious agreements.

The starting point will be an agreement between the council, its partners and government about the priorities for improvement locally. District councils in shire areas, and other partners, will have a bigger role in both shaping and delivering the agreements. And there will be scope for agreements which span more than one council.

But it is the spirit in which government, central and local, uses the opportunity presented by the second generation that matters. The LGA has developed a narrative in which LPSAs are one of four key elements in a framework which should give ministers the confidence to genuinely free councils and their partners to develop locally responsive s olutions to the most pressing public service and policy issues.

There is a broad measure of agreement between central and local government on the priorities for public service improvement. Encapsulated by the shared priorities, they cover themes such as the street scene, the protection of vulnerable children, the provision of better care for older people, and meeting local transport needs.

The second generation LPSA, with the agreed priorities for improvement drawn from the community strategy, is at its heart a contract between the centre and localities. It is a contract framed around outcomes rather than prescribed ways of doing things.

And more robust local partnerships can bring together all the local agencies to contribute to the strategy and commit themselves to delivering their contribution to it. The big prize here is to influence the totality of public sector expenditure in an area, not just the council's and initiative-related funding streams.

The next round of comprehensive performance assessment is also key to this. If it is to focus more on councils' community leadership role and on local delivery, then the LPSA agreements on local priorities for improvement should also form its starting point.

There are challenges for local government in this, particularly in engaging partners in the process. But the challenges for government are also significant. Some are mechanical. It is crucial for example that, wherever a council is on the timetable for CPA and for negotiating an LPSA, there is a coherent and meaningful link between the two strands.

But the cultural challenges are equally important. It is difficult to overstate the impact national PSA targets and their associated delivery plans have on Whitehall. There is increasing evidence that, to date, they have discouraged ministers and departments from working in flexible ways in different localities. They have incentivised a risk-averse approach.

The success of the second generation of local PSAs hinges on that culture changing. Whit ehall should take advantage of the framework we have developed and encourage each department to explore ways in which local PSAs could help them achieve their targets and priorities, most of which will be shared by councils.

Drawing on lessons from the private sector, economist John Kay has argued that effective public policy depends on what he calls disciplined pluralism. This means the ability to experiment within a framework of checks and balances and in which lessons from those experiments are quickly learned and disseminated.

Taken together second generation local PSAs, more robust local strategic partnerships, and a more locally focused CPA - operating in the context of agreement between central and local government on what matters - provide exactly that type of framework.

The LGA and the Improvement & Development Agency will be working with councils to help them make the most of the opportunity. Government, at the centre of Whitehall and in the departments, must play its part too.

Phil Swann

Director of strategy and communications, Local Government Association

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