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LAAs have massive potential for improving service delivery but they're also a huge challenge...
LAAs have massive potential for improving service delivery but they're also a huge challenge

Local area agreements and the impending local government white paper present a challenging agenda for public service delivery.

Both are characterised by an increasing dependence on effective partnership working and placing the citizen at the heart of service delivery.

At first glance local area agreements offer public services and their partners the potential to be free from their traditional organisational handcuffs - to be able to identify and focus on meeting the real needs of both geographic local communities and communities of shared interest.

This is achieved by a raft of new 'freedoms and flexibilities', which allow for the pooling of budgets and the rationalisation of performance management reporting requirements.

However, evidence from the early rounds of LAAs, coupled with the plethora of research undertaken on local strategic partnerships, suggests they are not the universal remedy promised.

Indeed, one of the major sticking points is the ability to marry the performance management requirements of individual organisations with those of the wider partnership. Without this, the motives and behaviours of individual partners will inevitably be compromised.

To date, the governance arrangements for LAAs have, in the main, focused on defining an appropriate structure, function and delivery framework. The vital ingredient, which is often missing, is the alignment of respective performance management arrangements.

As performance management systems become increasingly embedded and aligned, we need to see LAA organisational delivery structures changing and adapting to deliver more joined services. It is natural that we will see 'hosting' and other new service delivery models developing to support this.

Working in partnership to respond to local issues is time-consuming. As such, it is important to recognise and measure the added value of partnership working - to show how the whole is greater than the sum of parts.

Demonstrating the 'bigger prize' of partnership working is not simply about proving the value of developing a common understanding and agenda for change at a local level - nor indeed the virtues of aligning or pooling budgets. While these factors are clearly important, others, such as the ability to share skills, resources, knowledge and influence are equally important.

Recognising the full range of 'benefits', tracking these 'benefits' and signing off 'benefits that have been realised' should be a core activity for all LAAs.

So what does the future hold? LAAs are still in their infancy and, as such, their real potential is still to be determined. However, notwithstanding some of the teething problems, they do offer the most powerful mechanism to date to transform public services.

For the first time ever, the combined knowledge, expertise and understanding of the range of partners has the potential to offer a holistic and proactive response to meet citizen need. The flexibility of LAAs also enables this to take place at the right level - be that an extended school cluster, neighbourhood, district or city wide.

This is the 'golden fleece' for all public services - and worth aiming for. The extent to which this is achieved during the next phase is the litmus test for LAAs.

The key to getting LAAs to deliver will be determined by their ability to understand and interpret the demand and need for local public services. We know this demand is heterogeneous and we will need to see more diversity in the design of service delivery. If LAAs are to work, we need to see the way in which services are designed and delivered changing on the ground. If we thought the challenges faced to date were tough, the best is yet to come.

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