While politicians campaign in poetry, public services have to be run by the numbers.
As we approach the end of this parliament, for the public sector, and in particular local government, it can feel as if there is little poetry left, or indeed love lost, between local and central government.
After four-and-a-half years of austerity, local authorities are quite rightly worn down by talk of continued cuts, tired by the continual shrinking of the numbers.
The challenge of austerity has been particularly onerous for local government. It has lost almost 40% of its central government funding in the past few years and we are still less than halfway through deficit reduction. In short, the numbers do not look good.
Those concerned with the effective running of local government now face a big challenge.
We need to start to ask not what can be cut now or how we can shift spending around within our organisations, but the much more fundamental question: how can local government survive this protracted period of austerity?
While many authorities have managed to balance their budgets in the short term, I do not believe that they can continue to salami-slice services or save significant amounts of money from the same set of actions, given that austerity is set to continue to the end of the decade.
If we take a rounded view of austerity over the 10 years that it now seems likely to last, we must not ask ourselves the easy question: “What budget can we get agreed?” but the difficult question of “What is best for our budget?”
An example of this is training. It’s practical and useful to save on training in the short term as discretionary budgets are reduced as part of financial control.
However, this is not plausible over a decade. Any organisation that didn’t invest in training for 10 years would create huge problems for itself, not least through losing good people to other organisations and fostering a reliance on interims.
So instead of cutting what is easier on the assumption that it will only be a temporary measure, I believe that we need to take a far more zero-based approach to the services we provide.
We need to examine new options for delivery that restructure or replace our present models and change the way we assess the demands placed on us.
We must not ask what budget we can get agreed, but what is for the best
We must also work to understand how our investment can reap rewards, for example in youth services or voluntary sector grants that, while often viewed as discretionary, if done well can transform services in years to come.
If we don’t, by reining in some spending we may risk reaping unintended consequences in the long term and so become unsustainable.
I believe the success of all these decisions will come down to having the right people with the right skills, making the best use of scant resources by working with others.
If we start from the ground up then the right skills must be based on an assessment of what we need for the future, rather than what sort of officers were needed in the past.
To use finance as an example, Cipfa has invested significant time in listening to organisations within the sector.
We have come to the view that there are four key attributes needed to succeed: stewardship, business partnering, innovation and leadership.
These attributes are at the heart of our new professional qualification that will ensure accountants break away from the ledger and have an impact on organisational change and managed risk taking.
So to bowdlerise a popular saying, like a dog, a saving is not just for Christmas.
Rather than short-term solutions we must work to ensure that we are building a long-term future for our organisations, based on having the right individuals and organisational skills to succeed.
Rob Whiteman, chief executive, Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy
Short-term solutions must give way to long-term sustainability