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How friends can help you avoid being the boiled frog

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Commentary on this week’s LGC Summit

The metaphors used at the 2018 LGC Summit to describe the financial predicament in which local government finds itself were not appealing to animal lovers.

There was the boiling frog: the unfortunate amphibian being placed into tepid water and slowly brought to a boil, failing to appreciate its impending doom. This of course contrasts with any frog which faced front-loaded cuts in 2010-11 and decided to hop off to another sector.

Then there was the horrific dilemma facing those deciding which services to cut or spare: “We’re being given the choice of which puppy to shoot.”

Fortunately, the LGC Summit takes place under the Chatham House rule to allow free debate so the Animal Liberation Front will never learn of the identity of those using these metaphors.

However, subject to Chatham House, attendees can tweet about the Summit to give a flavour of the overall mood.

“Very sobering session at #LGCSummit about local government finance – a lot of anger verging on despair in the room at the messages from central government about no let up after almost a decade of year-on-year cuts.”

That was the Twitter take from Matthew Taylor, chief executive of the RSA.

This is not to say that the LGC Summit was a gloomy affair. Far from it. Delegate numbers were significantly up, no one drifted off to central Manchester’s numerous alternative attractions, our panels were more gender balanced than ever before, we had a splendid new venue, and at one stage we had two former health secretaries in the room (Stephen Dorrell and Andy Burnham), as well as the chief executive of NHS England.

However, few of our local government attendees would describe themselves as anything other than scarred and diminished by what is now approaching a decade of austerity.

One chief declared themselves to be worried about their “staff’s mental health and wellbeing”, working on their mobile phones and their desktops at the same time: “They’re working on several different levels constantly.” They sought to “big up” team members to boost their flagging morale.

There was widespread dismay at both the paralysis of central government and the inability of the sector to make a more coherent case for fairness.

“Our narrative of the last few economic cycles hasn’t been good enough. It’s been mealy mouthed,” another chief said.

Local government was not “penetrating the psyche” of national decision makers, they complained. Its argument had oscillated between the self-pitying, “just a ‘bloodied stump’ will survive”, and the over-optimistic “we’re doing well enough despite everything”.

Amid these mixed messages councils were being “picked off” by the government.

This chief urged their counterparts to be bolder leaders: “People are looking at us to deliver a different future.”

Another speaker offered a possible solution to this problem. When services such as the prisons or NHS had found themselves in the direst situations the government had coughed up money.

“If a whole range of councils were issuing section 114 notices and there was a general sense that local government couldn’t cope then the sector as a whole would get more money,” they explained.

The speaker described this as “a very bad way of doing public spending allocation”, but in the current environment maybe this is not such a bad idea.

However, another contributor accused councils of having an “imagination problem”, lambasting them (perhaps unfairly to Nipper the dog’s record store) of following the “HMV transformation model”, of “slapping a crap website on a failing 19th century institution”. Why not be Spotify instead?

But there is innovation going on – an awful lot of it.

LGC spoke with many senior managers about their work to devise new systems to prevent problems, improve efficiency, facilitate local growth and make life generally healthier and happier for residents. We will carry articles on many over the coming months.

It is only by sharing the best ideas and discussing how to devise remedies to the worst conundrums that we stand a chance of getting through this.

It has never been more important to share intelligence and empathy.

As one chief executive put it: “When times are tough having friends who will help you is absolutely critical.”

Without friends we’re all boiling frogs or puppies in the crosshair.

Nick Golding, editor 

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