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Graeme McDonald: Public service expertise has never been so vital

Graeme McDonald
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My first job in local government, in the mid-1990s, was collecting refuse for a district council.

Any connection to goings on at the town hall was tenuous at best. I wasn’t there for long, but the main talk in the cab was when the contract was up, how costs were to be cut and which jobs would go.

We were coming out of a recession and local government was suffering tight fiscal restraint. UK public spending as a percentage of GDP had peaked at 41.5% in 1992 and was rapidly declining. This was a world dominated by compulsory competitive tendering, where it was often argued we understood the price of everything but the value of nothing. Quality or improvement was, at best, an afterthought.

As the 2000s progressed services improved and the Citizens Charter became just a mild manifestation of what was to develop into the new public management thinking that subsequently dominated. While its reputation was to be sullied by centralised prescription and overreach by 2010, the service improvements achieved through new public management were significant. As the public sector adopted a strong managerial model and councils greatly improved their services, Whitehall looked to the professional local government cadre for insight and guidance. Chief executives were increasingly asked to take the lead in shaping and implementing strategies both nationally and locally.

Many influential public managers, including current members of the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives & Senior Managers, worked inside and outside Whitehall ensuring the government’s approach took account of the complexities and practicalities of local places. Much later after the riots of 2011, and in very different circumstances, the prime minister again returned to local government experience to shape the response.

Notably during the early 2000s, Sir Michael Lyons was particularly outspoken in articulating a place shaping role for councils and called for them to act as the conveners of public services in their localities.

Unfortunately the pace of change towards a place-based approach has been slower than most in local government would like. Austerity and torpid devolution has stalled more fundamental change. However, devolution and other partnership approaches have begun to push the boundaries of the existing legal framework.

So while the context now could scarcely be more different to the mid-2000s, local government remains at the centre of redesigning local services. As the sector approaches a decade of austerity the straightforward redesigns have run their course and councils are required to think even more commercially, transform more radically and embrace emerging technology.

Such change is not without risk and requires clear, consistent and professional consideration. The dangers described in the Bains report (1972) of disaggregated decision making and silo-style operations are as real today as they were then.

Most practically minded politicians are critically aware of the value of professional leadership and management. They know that multi-functional local government needs professional management that ensures co-ordinated responses to local problems and that supports locally elected councillors to achieve the wider ambitions of their communities.

With mutual trust and respect, and a negotiated understanding of roles and responsibilities, the advice that professional managers provide their politicians is invaluable. A chief executive has two primary roles: head of paid service and chief policy advisor and it is the creative tension between those roles that ensures a council can be innovative and community focused, but also safe.

These relationships are as varied as the individuals involved and the many contexts in which councils operate. That is why processes such as individual appraisals, so often overlooked for the most senior staff, are so important. Properly facilitated, they provide a safe place to discuss challenges and build trust, creating an environment where honest advice is both given and accepted.

The value of advice remains true in Westminster, where local insight ensures policies devised in Whitehall have the intended consequences when delivered from the town hall. At party conferences leaders have unveiled the ideas for tackling some of the wicked issues that confront us. But many of proposals, particularly in areas like housing and welfare, fail to match the scale of the task we face. Indeed, the most urgent challenges – the reform of local government finance and social care – were barely mentioned.

With Brexit and cuts casting a shadow over the civil service, neither central nor local government has a surfeit of experienced, thoughtful public servants to address new challenges. Only by sharing our experiences, raising our voices where necessary and listening to others can we make the most of the limited capacity we still have.

The case has never been stronger for the application of practical wisdom to complex problems. Experts may well be unfashionable but giving voice to good public management is ultimately about making the path forward less treacherous.

Graeme McDonald, director, Society of Local Authority Chief Executives & Senior Managers

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