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John Henderson: Nato could teach councils about collaboration

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Overlaying any concept from one sector onto another is fraught with difficulties, and probably none more so than when that idea comes from the military. Few sectors enjoy such high public support but are so poorly understood.

It is therefore with some trepidation that I offer my thoughts on how 2-tier areas can be based on Nato’s system of leading multinational operations.

Nato is arguably history’s most successful military alliance, formed – unusually – before the war it was intended to fight. This allowed the development of a simple, effective system of interoperability of equipment, procedures and vocabulary, such that armed forces from different nations can operate together smoothly.

During my first Afghan tour, I led soldiers, police officers, diplomats and development officials from 11 nations. I worked for a French general who in turn worked for a German and then for an American.

This diverse team drew on everybody’s strengths, building a remarkable level of trust and confidence quickly. I think this slightly novel approach to sharing responsibility and authority might apply in local government.

Our view of leadership in local government is binary – if you have it, then I don’t, and vice versa. In a complex world, there is usually a tension between higher and operational leadership, including in the public sector in the UK.

Certain services and capabilities, such as child safe-guarding, require a large overhead to design and to provide the assurance and governance to ensure a safe service. But they operate across several localities, where conditions vary. Therefore how the service is delivered, and the partners with whom they operate, will differ – social care is a good example.

My contention is that we should perhaps develop the confidence and agility to be comfortable with a higher leader who oversees policy and assurance, and a local leader who steers tactical implementation.

Nato has developed four principal cases to suit most environments. The operational level covers the why and the what of an activity or service – the policy, the processes, budgetary control and the assurance regime – while the tactical level covers the how. In military parlance, missions are operational, while tasks are the tactical sub-sets which make up missions.

Operational Command holds responsibility, including statutory obligations, and is not usually delegated. In local government, it would rest with the political leadership and chief executive of the originating agency to enact national law, for instance the county for children’s services, or the district or borough for planning.

Operational Control is the highest level at which organisations pass capabilities to each other for a specified purpose. It allows the delegated authority to direct how the project is delivered and how the money is spent, but the organisation cannot be split up or otherwise re-designed.

Highways England’s delegation to Staffordshire CC for the construction of the M54 motorway junction, supporting development of the i54 South Staffordshire Business Park, would fit this.

Tactical Command allows the assignment of tasks within the bounds of policy and process. How they are delivered would be in line with local conditions – probably the starting point for any discussion on enhanced 2-tier working.

Again, overall responsibility rests with the originating authority, and it would be unusual to delegate budgets. As an example, an adult social care team operating in Tamworth benefits from the local knowledge of Tamworth BC in shaping partners’ activities to reduce demand and build community capacity.

Tactical Control allows the direction of capabilities such that they don’t bump into each other, reducing effectiveness and efficiency.

Taking the Tamworth example again, the child-safeguarding team coordinates with the council and shares information to ensure all activities are aligned to best use of supporting capabilities. I would suggest that this would be a default position in the absence of any other delegation.

I hope that I have sketched a picture that readers will find attractive and probably familiar. However, our current arrangements tend to be bespoke or ad hoc, rather than within an accepted framework and vocabulary.

The financial problems which we are facing cannot be solved by cutting services, and even the most optimistic prediction of savings from combining authorities does not cover future funding gaps.

This model of Enhanced 2-Tier Working could maximise the benefits of assurance and governance arrangements for complex services at a large population level with the finger-tip feel that comes from a smaller, agile staff operating at a local level. If done correctly, adapting these common-sense measures will give us the clarity, and efficiency, that we seek.

John Henderson, chief executive, Staffordshire CC

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