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Ged Curran: London’s chiefs are overcoming collaboration barriers

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London’s self-improvement board (SIB) is trying to help the capital’s local authorities get better through collaboration. 

It is a sub-group of the London chief executives’ committee and comprises a number of borough chief executives supported by London Councils staff. The Local Government Association is also represented on the board.

The board flexes its areas of interest depending on the priorities of the day. Currently three topics are absorbing most energy: adult social care, children’s social care and financial management generally. Predictably we are exploring how service standards can be improved in the context of declining resources. We are also working with the capital’s directors of public health to consolidate their self-improvement work and the housing directors to facilitate the projects they are progressing.

Typically, the board will work through and alongside other professional groupings. There will be a chief executive ‘lead’ who is responsible for liaising with each group. For the current priority areas we have a link to the London Directors of Adult Social Care, the London Directors of Children’s Services and the Society of London Treasurers.

Quite often those groups will have their own programmes aimed at improving standards. Working through SIB allows us to coordinate that work, minimise duplication and share practice across different professional groups. It is not unusual to find that service directors and chief executives have a different perspective about an issue. This is less a case of who is right or wrong. It is more a product of role and viewpoint. London’s experience has been that a richer discussion and a wider suite of solutions has emerged from sharing these perspectives.

The board would be adding very little if it was simply a talking shop. There are many examples where it has led to significant improvements in London. Councils’ budgets have been subjected to peer-reviewed stress-testing, illuminating areas of risk and strategies to stabilise finances. A pan-London children’s social care programme has been developed engaging members, officers and the Department for Education. A cohort of senior adult social care managers has been trained in peer review techniques improving the quality of the peer-review work in that field.

The board also has a role in improving leadership across London and in gathering and sharing performance data.

The London Leadership Programme has been developed in partnership with London Councils and the LGA. It aims to develop and train future senior local government officers. The course helps its participants deepen their understanding of what it takes to be a chief officer or chief executive. It also helps them develop their personal skills and resilience in order to rise to these challenges. Feedback from participants has been very good. The vast majority of councils have sustained their participation in the programme which augurs well for the future.

With the demise of the Audit Commission, comprehensive, contemporary, objective data about the quality of council services has become harder to unearth. The barb that the reputation of a council owes more to promotional skills and historical data than the quality of services stings as it has some truth.

Through SIB we have tried to sustain the exchange of performance data across London’s boroughs. A quarterly report is shared setting out achievements against an agreed basket of indicators covering the spread of council services. This provides timely comparative performance data facilitating informed inquiry and challenge.

There are significant barriers to effective collaboration when we strive to learn from others. Councils are political institutions with an administration and an opposition. Public washing of dirty linen can be of limited appeal. Officers guard their professional reputations and also worry about the morale-sapping effects of acknowledging poor performance. Whilst reputations are ‘gained without merit and lost without deserving’ there can be a natural reluctance to prove the point.

London’s experience is that these obstacles can’t always be overcome. However, when they are, the benefits are significant.

Ged Curran, chief executive, Merton LBC

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