The public sector will be smaller in the future, but its role in assuring the quality of services will grow, says Suffolk CC’s chief executive
It’s very easy to become embroiled in the complexity and scale of the challenges facing the public sector, and for me particularly those specific to local government.
The unprecedented pressure to continue to meet people’s needs while budgets dramatically shrink and demand grows is a perilously familiar situation for us all.
However, the mind-boggling balancing acts we’re currently facing lead us to some fundamental questions that, if successfully answered, will make us game changers – fundamental to shaping a different future.
I should be clear that I’m not about to justify councils’ survival merely out of a sense of parochial self-preservation, but because there is a valuable role to play in shaping and supporting communities in the decades ahead.
Councils provide a unique combination of characteristics that must not be allowed to stagnate, but with the right development will be of value to society for the long-term future.
There is a power and value in having democratic leadership and accountability for local public services. As such, local government will continue to demonstrate:
- Flexibility – the ability to adapt to change as well as be a catalyst for it
- Assurance – building confidence either in services (eg by quality assuring) or in places (eg enabling local action), as well as building confidence in individuals, places and services. The government (including local government) through its leadership role needs to be able to build confidence for: business (as a place to invest); people (as a good place to live); other public sector agencies (as credible partners and policymakers)
- Societal value – the ability to act for ‘greater good’ whether proactively (such as encouraging positive choices) or reactively (interventions) where actions aren’t based on individual or commercial expediency. This is also enhanced by accountability
- Transparency and accountability – through its democratic mandate and its interactions with citizens and partners. This also enables local leadership where decisions are made and direction set through visibility within local communities and beyond.
We will not simply be extrapolating from current issues, we will be looking at trends and events on the horizon. If we focus on where there is a compelling need – particularly when working in partnership – we can be sensitive to different needs and drivers without imposing a single or structural model.
Because of the democratic mandate, local authorities are particularly well placed to use their intelligence and information to guide such a nuanced approach.
To make an impact a positive central-local relationship is critical but it is not the only relationship. Those locally, with partners and local people, are just as important in making a positive impact.
The pace of change whether demographic, societal, technological, financial or political is increasing, something we expect from our 21st century world.
Consequently, transparency and a democratic voice that represents local communities will be more important than ever in ensuring inequalities reduce rather than increase and that decisions maximise social value. Equally, accountability for how the opportunities for change are implemented to ensure the best overall outcomes will become more important.
Although the public sector itself will be much smaller in the future, with much less direct provision, its role in assuring the quality of services – many of which it will remain accountable for – will grow in significance.
Local government has the flexible capacity and as a result of its democratic mandate the autonomy to take a lead in reshaping local services, enabling self-sustaining communities and creating the best opportunities for local people to maximise their potential.
Deborah Cadman, chief executive, Suffolk CC