When LGC recently drew attention to the increase in central government’s workforce over the past two years, it prompted a minor Twitter debate about whether this was entirely a negative thing.
“MHCLG’s growth might be good if they are to fight local government’s corner in Whitehall effectively” went the line of thinking. This notion may be true, even if it does rather beg the question of whether numbers equate to skills and effectiveness. And it certainly does not address the concerns about a potential double standard at play.
But I suggest that we park our questions about the level of operational resource that central government has afforded itself compared to local government – for the moment. With a comprehensive spending review on the horizon, we need to keep our focus on making our own case for what councils need in order to be effective for our residents, both in terms of resource and operating conditions. We can start by taking stock of what our shrinking workforce has meant on the ground.
There is a great deal within our story that does local government credit. When Solace members reflect on the past few years, they note that austerity has accelerated some welcome shifts toward breaking down service silos, moving from being ‘providers’ to ‘enablers’, sharing services, and empowering frontline colleagues.
But my peers are also clear that the old adage of “delivering more for less” has worn razor thin. Council employees have gone above and beyond to keep the show on the road but even my most sanguine peers are starting to warn of a breaking point. The combined effects of demographic changes, citizen expectations, new burdens and cost shunting have meant that “more” has actually become “evermore”. At all levels of our organisations, officers are now covering roles that used to be done by multiple people. Some are now serving multiple organisations as well; for example, supporting combined authorities or sustainability and transformation partnerships.
All this means that we have to keep investing in our people no matter how tight budgets get. There are fantastic examples of staff recognition, wellbeing and learning and development programmes at councils across the country. In my own authority, Coventry City Council, I am proud that we have increased resources in targeted organisational development and leadership programmes. This has been a bold, strategic decision, supported by the political leadership to invest in a coherent way at all levels of our organisation. So we now have an established aspiring leaders and leading through empowered organisations programme and we have just confirmed our collaboration on the MSc in public management and leadership course with the University of Birmingham and Solace.
But here too there may be a double standard. What we are able to afford in this area appears to pale in comparison to what government departments are offering. If they are operating on the same shoestring budgets that councils are, we would love to know how they do it.
There have also been impacts on elected members. Local politicians express concerns that they no longer get the same level of support they used to receive to handle casework, get briefed on national and local policy or liaise with residents. At the Public Accounts Committee inquiry to which I gave evidence last month, one of the MPs raised concerns about the level of support councils are dedicating to their scrutiny function. These roles are sometimes naively dismissed as “corporate” functions by external commentators who see them as easy to squeeze. Those of us who run councils know that these are the roles that enable us to operate effectively as democratic institutions.
Elected members are also part of the barometer that tells us that our communities are increasingly feeling the strain too. As our budgets have had to be increasingly concentrated on acute services, we have lost many of the roles that were essentially about building and maintaining relationships with and between residents at neighbourhood level. Their value should not be underestimated; during the 2011 riots, for example, it was quite often to these officers that community leaders turned when they sensed that tensions were rising and who helped to restore calm.
Within Solace, we are now starting our preparations to help make a strong case for the sustainability of local services in the next CSR. The case we make will have to be far more than a numbers game as we consider how to navigate the currents of an ageing workforce, rapid technological change and the myriad impacts that Brexit could have on our local areas. Given that our colleagues across the public sector are wrestling with the same drivers of change, perhaps the time has come to be more radical and take a collective place-based approach to planning for the future, workforce included. Surely that’s where the real prize is – if we’re bold enough to reach for it.