Jo Miller has railed against the “terrifying, inept, grossly unfair” impact of the government’s failure to plan ahead for sustainable public services, in her final conference address as Solace president.
The Doncaster MBC chief used her showpiece speech to launch a fierce attack on the “Whitehall Ivory Tower”, demand greater financial freedom for councils and talk passionately about the difficulties faced both by senior officers and frontline staff in the era of austerity.
In her speech to the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives & Senior Managers annual conference in Brighton this afternoon, Ms Miller poured particular scorn on the government’s welfare reforms.
“When you have policy implementation designed in a Whitehall Ivory Tower overflowing with hubris and an all pervasive centre knows best mentality, you end up with the unholy mess that is the design and implementation of universal credit,” she said, noting how it had resulted in growing food bank use and debt among Doncaster residents.
Ms Miller made an “open offer” to the Department for Work & Pensions for local government to coproduce a solution to universal credit’s problems: “Let us help you. Let us inform your actions. The people whom we serve deserve nothing short of that.”
She criticised the government’s failure to devise a coherent plan for the funding of public services: “No plan from 2020 is terrifying, inept, grossly unfair and is no way to run a business or country.”
Ms Miller also criticised the centralist approach to council funding, noting “a plethora of special purpose funding steams – 106 from 16 different departments amounting to £5.5bn, the majority with multiple competitive bidding processes (all of which cost money) mostly with six weeks or less bidding time”.
“Here’s a free suggestion to those in power – If you want to get the most value out of public spending – spend less time on the doling out of minute pots of cash tied to specific terms and conditions – and spend it more wisely,” she said. “That same £5.5bn could have reversed cuts to local public health grant and early intervention grant alone.”
On the impact austerity and government inaction was having on senior officers, Ms Miller said: “It’s hard right now, I know it, you know it, we feel it. I don’t remember it being this difficult to be a public service leader, and I also know that we need brave, bold public service leaders more than ever.
“So yes it’s a struggle working in complex and demanding roles when the national operating environment lacks vision or a long term plan. It’s hard not to be able to say to our staff and residents where we will be in three years’ time.”
She urged delegates to “hold our own anxiety”.
“We must hold on to our people and our places as our North Star, our hero and our purpose. Governments / Economic cycles, policy fads – they come and go,” Ms Miller said.
“But people and place prevail and as public service leaders, we can day in day out make a difference by using our agency and our efforts to inspire others to make a daily difference, whatever the prevailing weather.”