These are seriously interesting times for local government.
The sector, and its representative body the Local Government Association, face significant challenges and opportunities. I would argue that the stakes have probably never been higher – certainly not in the 18 years since the LGA was established.
The association’s post-election task has previously been to hold a new government to whatever devolutionary scraps were in its manifesto. This time ministers are rushing ahead and the task for the LGA is to create the conditions in which all councils have the imagination to respond.
The past five years have seen real progress with sector-led improvement. The challenge now is to significantly strengthen SLI’s robustness in the face of developments in, for example, Tower Hamlets, Rotherham and Birmingham – not to mention the previous government’s commitment to putting the LGA’s improvement function out to tender.
Local government must have a clear and confident voice in public expenditure discussions but its contribution must avoid shroud-waving or special pleading and be combined with clear action to do more to secure improved outcomes from what remains a significant budget.
That’s not to mention the opportunities presented by health and care integration, realising the benefits of the return of public health to local government, building closer collaboration with businesses locally to drive economic growth and marshalling local leadership to address the housing crisis.
All this is playing out in the context of a government with a slender majority in a parliament with new and as yet uncharted political currents. As I predicted just before the election, the scope for influencing parliamentary decisions is greater than it has been since the late 1970s.
The LGA has a potentially vital role to play in all this and how it plays its hand will have significant implications for its members and the communities they serve. The next few months will set the tone for the rest of this parliament; a period during which the association will be seeking a replacement for outgoing chief executive Carolyn Downs.
On the basis of previous form the odds are that the association’s leading members will appoint a current or former council chief executive to the post but would that be the right decision? A number of extremely effective representative bodies are led by people who have not held senior leadership posts within the organisations they represent.
What do Chris Hopson, John Cridland and John O’Brien have in common? Two things: they each run well-respected representative organisations (NHS Providers, The Confederation of British Industry and London Councils respectively); and none of them has been chief executive or equivalent in one of their members.
So, what are the skills required to successfully navigate the agenda I sketched out above?
First and foremost is an ability to lead the association’s public affairs activity in the new world. Hitting the right notes on devolution and resources will be difficult. This is a very political government. Working with ministers and their special advisers will matter more than contacts with civil servants. Working closely with MPs will be more important than it has been since the LGA was created, votes will matter and select committees could wield more influence.
The relationship between officers and members in the LGA has always been different from that in a local authority. In the new context that will be even more so. Aligning the different roles in the lobbying effort will require political choreography of the highest order.
The dynamics of any membership organisation are always difficult. The next few years will require the LGA to challenge and lead its members as well as to represent and serve them. It will require the confidence and political cover to do so, to be more thinktank and less trade association, to be more campaigning and less defending.
Whoever is chief executive of the LGA during this period will have to work closely with and earn the respect of council chief executives. But does she or he need to have been one?
Whatever the answer to that question is, the next chief executive of the LGA will have a very tough job. They will only do it well if they enjoy it. They must enjoy working in the Westminster and Whitehall bubble, risking accusations of being remote from town and county halls. That is very different from enjoying leading a large organisation responsible for the delivery of crucial services for local communities.
Phil Swann, managing director, Shared Intelligence