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Local government 2014: simulating the future

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The very near future will bring big new challenges to local authorities. Within the next few years we will be responding not only to cuts in funding, but to the possible introduction of elected police and crime commissioners, the transfer of commissioning to GP-led clinical groups - and the setting up of Health and Well-being boards, and Local Economic Partnerships.

Across local government, we are doing everything we can to improve efficiency, but to sustain the best in our communities, we will need to find radically different approaches to the way we deliver services.

LGG recently ran two “futures summits”, inviting over a hundred local politicians, senior managers, private, public and voluntary sector partners to help redesign local authorities and to ‘test out’ these designs in a simulated future - set in 2014.

The two summit events suggest that local authorities can make significant savings by making radical changes to the ways they work. Participants designed organisations very different to the conventional town hall.

No single model emerged, and indeed the different models had different strengths and weaknesses, and made very different demands on leaders. The council that devolved services most radically made significant savings in bureaucracy, but found it didn’t have the spare management capacity to respond when things went wrong. At the other end of the spectrum, the county council that saw its role as developing the sub-regional economy had to work very differently with both government and the private sector, work faster, and more informally than it had in the past. The urban councils experienced a tension between protecting council jobs and developing new and creative local enterprises.

Inherent in each of the models was a different approach to achieving outcomes with less money. By making radical changes to organisational forms, our ‘hypothetical councils” found new ways to make scarce public money go further.

Some put resources into growing the local economy and tax-base, sweating council assets by selling and developing land, and rethinking the use of buildings. Others pursued a policy of putting services as close as possible to local people by, for example, devolving services to parishes and town councils, and integrating the public service workforce across organisations- including volunteers. Some developed radical regional strategies on things like waste, and some created highly responsive, user-led direct service providers through user or employee owned mutuals.

Naturally great attention was paid to the two biggest areas of council spend: undertaking commissioning as part of the annual cycle of decision-making rather than a separate and expensive activity. And, perhaps crucially, radically rethinking social care - finding ways to engage older people as volunteers to support others, and move away from a rights based approach to a responsibilities based system.

As we began to simulate these changes in a_ction it became clear that powerful changes in ways of working would be essential if savings were to be achieved. If officers and councillors simply behaved in old ways, the new structures would not achieve their potential.

Of course, we always have to be circumspect about learning from ‘futures events’ - after all, the future hasn’t happened yet. Different places have different priorities and different needs and the ideas being put forward will not be suitable for every area but the process of looking forward is important and, for many of the participants, the challenges they faced as they simulated 2014 seemed very real. Over the next two years, we need to learn from each other both about the short-term efficiencies we can make, and about the system-change that may enable us to do more for less.

Peter Fleming, chair, LGA Improvement Board


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