Trust is the foundation upon which relationships, partnerships and, therefore, places are built.
This is under-acknowledged, perhaps understandably. Councils don’t measure trust or its outcomes within themselves, or between them and their partners, and don’t quantify the risks of its lack.
This is a mistake. Across local government we say the council of the future is lean, strategic, and partnership-driven. It is part of the external auditor’s report. And yet, if we were to judge local government by what it measures and what it spends, we find partnership and the trust that underpins it go unmeasured, even when the partnership is bolstered by a commissioning relationship. So we have an absurd situation, where it is both incredibly important, but apparently not important enough to invest in strategically or to measure.
Perhaps we need to face up to the fact that creating the conditions for trust and partnership is not nearly as important to local government as we say it is.
We have had cause to reflect upon this in Birmingham. Lord Kerslake challenged Birmingham City Council to create “effective and efficient” governance to make the relationship with our communities more powerful. It is not incidental that good governance should have engagement as a goal. If a council is to be a leader and shaper of place, partnership is not a nice-to-have: it is essential. We do not have the resources to duplicate efforts, to work to different goals, to circumvent bad systems, or to fall into dispute about these things. A shared vision, strategic alignment and co-created delivery are the prizes of working this way; the only way we can work in the current, austere climate.
This does not have to be complicated. Let’s look at how councils make space for dialogue. It is an important way to breed trust. In the same report, Lord Kerslake told Birmingham it swept “deep-rooted problems under the carpet”. Such behaviours are not possible in an institution that advocates dialogue, both inside itself and with its partners and citizens. Dialogue, born of respect and equality, keeps you honest.
We make this space during consultations and in public meetings. It is a start. Making more space throughout the commissioning cycle, measuring the quality of the interactions as well as the quantity, and measuring the value of the relationship strengthened is not beyond us. We know how much it costs to put things right after doing it wrong, we know how much it costs when our citizens and partners walk away.
So cost it up, measure it. Make a business case for trust, and then we might truly understand what is at stake without it.
Claire Spencer (Lab), Birmingham City Council