Localism is about giving communities greater control over resources, priorities and decisions and it also implies more joining up of services across sectors at a very local level. It will place unfamiliar demands on existing leaders and new “citizen leaders”.
There are numerous examples: pathfinder GP consortia to lead NHS commissioning, groups of parents establishing free schools, introducing elected police commissioners, community management of parts of the planning system, and citizens founding social enterprises to run some local services.
The Total Place pilots showed some of the benefits of joining up services. However, with the current focus on cutting costs and the difficulty on agreeing a common local agenda, there is a risk that individual organisations will try to go it alone, with the danger of cost shunting and less collaboration. There has been little central guidance about the form that localism should take.
The coalition argues that this gives local leaders freedom to decide how best to allocate resources and organise services within the community. Others find the lack of direction unhelpful. Moreover, the extent to which the government will truly support localism is unclear.
It has criticised some councils adopting fortnightly bin collections, and is unlikely to remain silent when hospital wards close. It is almost a form of “conditional localism” only when the centre approves.
Six challenges face leaders of localism:
- New capabilities and skills – Leaders will have to be more entrepreneurial and understand how to collaborate effectively with a diverse range of people within the community to drive performance and reduce costs.
- Local engagement – Communities will need to genuinely “own” the difficult decisions made about prioritising, rationing and cutting services. A big challenge will be how to gain the meaningful engagement of multiple interest groups while minimising bureaucracy.
- Popularism verses professionalism – There is always tension between the professionals’ view of what’s needed and what local politicians and the electorate would like to see. How much will this pressure increase?
- Partnerships – The drive to collaborate across different services will create complex partnerships. Operating in an environment of high ambiguity, with diverse stakeholders, will test leaders to the utmost. It could distract organisations from their core purpose, while creating inefficiencies and duplications of services across neighbouring areas. Leaders will need to understand the impact of the decisions they make on other organisations and services.
- Ungoverned devolution – With the focus on cutting expenditure, there is a risk that individual organisations will focus on going it alone. It must be easier for local services to be established under joint governance and management across the community.
- Scarcity of resources – The pressure to deliver more with less is severe. The result could be a growing conflict between commissioners and providers if the efficiencies cannot be realised by those that deliver services at a local level. The structural and cultural changes required to implement localism will require substantial investment while economies of scale from central management will be lost.
Having said this, greater localism offers many opportunities for both local citizens and those that provide the services. In these austere times, creating greater efficiencies is essential.
The ability to shape a vision for public services within communities is momentous – allowing citizens to drive the provision of the services that matter most to them and their unique local conditions.
Abdul Uddin, director of local government advisory services, Hay Group