Several years ago, when I became chief executive of the RSA, I inherited the issue of ‘regional committees’.
These lay bodies covered huge geographical areas and their predominantly social and educational events didn’t align well with the RSA’s charitable mission. So, despite the best intentions of our volunteers, the committees and their activities tended to engage only a small number of mainly retired fellows.
Now nearly all our regions see themselves as enablers for a wide variety of activities in line with our charitable mission and generally taking place much more locally or based on shared projects. A combination of investment, organisation and political determination has transformed the picture, but it took longer and faced more opposition than I had predicted. Many more fellows are active, there is greater synergy with other RSA research and innovation, and we are beginning to see real world impact resulting.
I was reminded of this when two consultants working with a local authority came to ask whether I would speak at an officers’ awayday.
Morale in the council is low as it faces deep cuts - potentially taking service levels below statutory levels - but members seem unwilling to make the decisions that will deliver those cuts. They weren’t quite sure why they wanted me but they’d heard I get people talking and tell afew jokes; at least I might offer some light relief.
But - and this is partly my own response to austerity - I have become increasingly dissatisfied with delivering this kind of content (even though, of course, I do it terribly well and at reasonable rates). I told my visitors I would want to use the speech to offer some concrete, bespoke, advice.
We knocked the issues around for a while before inspiration struck. The council needs to host a rapid, authoritative, high-level and independent review of local needs and resources.
To draw other public, private and voluntary agencies in, and to underline the council’s seriousness, the authority’s leaders should be clear from the outset. They need to emphasise that whatever ways of doing things emerge from the review as the best way of meeting local need and building local capacity, the council will not let its own organisational politics or interests stand in the way of change.
Like the RSA regions, if the best way to reach the destination is to look critically at everything the council does and move wholesale from providing to enabling, so be it.
If, for example, other local authorities within or neighbouring the county are better able to manage the council’s current services they should as far as possible be handed over. Desperate times call for desperate measures.
In the breast beating and soul searching taking place as local authorities face an ever-tighter squeeze, many concepts and schemes fight for attention: community budgets, service transformation and demand management are all seen as ways of prising open the jaws of doom.
The RSA’s own research with local authorities suggests that a serious focus on demand management leads directly to wider questions about values, about the purpose and form of public services and about expectations, capacities and aspirations of citizens.
In his fascinating new book, The Confidence Trap, political scientist David Runciman identifies the paradoxical relationship of democracy to crisis. On the one hand, democracies need crises to throw them out of torpor and complacency; on the other hand, democracies can be bad at distinguishing genuine crises from phantom ones and, by definition, a real one carries with it threats, including to democracy itself.
After decades of slow decline the spending squeeze could be the making of local government, forcing it to take seriously genuine collaboration, public engagement and institutional innovation. But to seize this opportunity local leaders have to prove to partners and the public that this time they are not crying wolf and that they can themselves show the spirit of courage and selflessness demanded by the circumstances.
The shift of RSA regions from low achieving social clubs to steadily improving platforms for activism was a lot easier than the change councils now need to engineer and still it was nearly derailed by weak change management and political opposition.
The county council is pondering whether my message is palatable. But unless local authorities demonstrate a willingness to overcome organisational inertia and put aside managerial and political self-interest then not only will this crisis go to waste it might provoke an existential crisis for local democracy.
Matthew Taylor, chief executive, RSA