Reflections from Wigan’s conference on ‘The Deal’.
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Any model of local government service delivery could be described as a deal.
In its crudest form the deal struck between local government and residents is the provision of services, which would otherwise be too expensive for individuals to buy, in exchange for taxes.
Perhaps too often the public judges the value of this deal based only on those services that are highly visible (bins, anyone?) and judges the tax part to be wildly out of kilter.
But what about when even that equation – admittedly simplistic – simply doesn’t add up? Cuts have led to burgeoning crises in adults and children’s social care, where demand is outstripping supply and the main sources of income – council tax and business rates – cannot pay the bills.
The answer, according to Wigan MBC, is to strike a new deal with the population. Rather than a crude exchange of tax for services, all delivered by a single organisation, Wigan is pursuing a new model known as ‘The Deal’ which chief executive Donna Hall described as “a strengths-based model of service co-design with residents and community groups”.
In a recent Idea Exchange article for LGC, Ms Hall explained that five years ago Wigan was “a big, well-run but paternalistic organisation with quite staid, traditional relationships with our residents”.
“Resident satisfaction with the council was low. People didn’t think we provided value for money and they didn’t trust us,” Ms Hall wrote.
Then came the cuts. In 2012, Wigan faced a £160m budget gap which Ms Hall said could not be closed by shutting libraries and reducing school crossing patrols. She described the new set-up as “a dynamic, two-way psychological contract” with residents.
The Deal has led to many changes across the authority but it rests on one key principle: to work with communities, the voluntary sector and other public sector partners to deliver outcomes, rather than focusing on protecting traditional services.
Ms Hall said since 2012, the authority has invested £7.5m in communities and saved £115m. But it’s not just about saving; the council has also received good Ofsted ratings for child safeguarding and reablement, improved healthy life expectancy, school readiness and educational attainment, and reduced delayed transfers of care.
Wigan’s work in this vein continues to develop and, last week, the council invited local community groups, third sector organisations and representatives from other authorities to a conference to learn more about it.
Judging from the comments of the panellists at the event, Wigan’s approach captures the zeitgeist of modern local public services.
Greater Manchester mayor Andy Burham (Lab) said the Greater Manchester area was “carrying the hopes of other places” because its devolution deal allowed it to take a more co-designed and less top-down approach. In particular, Mr Burnham said Greater Manchester looked to support and encourage “valuable contributions from older people” rather than treating them as “bed blockers”.
This was echoed by Luton BC chief executive Trevor Holden, who said his authority wanted to foster a “university of the third age” to “plough older people back into the economy” rather than viewing them simply as service users after a certain age.
In children’s services too, authorities are looking to let residents take the lead. Leeds City Council chief executive Tom Riordan explained to delegates that his city received “the worst Ofsted rating in the country” seven years ago, which he said was a “shock to the system”. By remodelling the city’s children’s services around the question “what is it like to grow up in Leeds and how can we make it better?” Mr Riordan said, it has vastly improved the service, which is “not paternalistic anymore”, and forged a new relationship with the third sector along the way.
Community capacity-building is not a new concept, but its development has perhaps so far been largely confined to single services rather than entire operating models. There may be some who believe the model is little more than a money-saving move, and others who feel it is an attempt to empower citizens and reduce dependency and demand. But with little fat left to cut and local government finance seemingly not a priority in Whitehall, councils may be faced with a choice: strike a new deal with communities, or fail to deliver anything at all.