When the community budget pilots were first happening, people such as LGA chairman Sir Merrick Cockell (Con) used to express frustration that the government was obsessed by pilots. Why couldn’t local government just get on and do a thing?
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It appears civil servants and ministers were listening. There are no new community budgets, pilots or otherwise. Instead there is a ‘public service transformation network’.
This is no idle name change, according to network director Robert Pollock, one of the Treasury officials seconded to local government in the era of pilots.
Community budgets established that it was not really about budgets, he says, instead it was just good old fashioned public service transformation - the kind of service reform which is going on all over local government, not just in the pilot areas.
“It was good to have a brand for the four places,” he says. “But really what they are doing is going on around the country.” Having been a secondee with the tri-borough pilot in west London he then worked with the Department for Communities & Local Government about how to take the pilots on.
One of the outcomes was the spending round announcement of integration funding for health and social care, plus more cash for the troubled families programme.
Another outcome was the creation of the ‘public sector transformation network’: 27 secondees from Whitehall from seven departments working with the four areas formerly known as community budget pilots and nine new areas which don’t have a label, they just have big plans about how to rethink public services.
- Bath & North East Somerset
- Bournemouth, Poole & Dorset
- Lambeth, Lewisham & Southwark
- West London Alliance
It is early days for the nine new areas who have just submitted joint statements of intent and do not have to finalise their business case until April, but they are already working very closely with the network.
Principally this is via a dedicated ‘relationship manager’ who, according to Bath & North East Somerset’s strategy and performance group manager, Andy Thomas provide “a really good mix of challenge and support”.
There is no funding available as such, but there are in kind resources which are available to tap into and it is worth noting that four of the nine new areas received part of the £6.9m transformation challenge award funding when it was announced at the start of this month.
The network acts as a traditional network, linking the nine new areas with the four pilot areas for shared learning. Pilot Cheshire West and Chester Council has been working with Hampshire CC and Wirral MBC, for example. But it is interesting to note that it is not just a one way street - Hampshire has been passing its expertise on assets back to Cheshire.
The aspiration is to create a sort of “skills market”, says Mr Pollock. There are lots of good ideas and good work within local government and the wider public sector, but there is “no mechanism to swap”.
The aim is also to involve more than just the 13, such as some of the 60 who unsuccessfully bid to take the community budget work on, and beyond. Already the network team are set to meet Worcestershire CC whose work on assets has impressed both the network and those judging the transformation challenge award.
However, that does not mean another announcement from a minister armed with a second list of councils to work with the network, says Mr Pollock. “We are more about trying to create a movement for change rather than places waiting to be announced.”
During the pilot phase the four areas - Cheshire West, Essex, Greater Manchester and the tri-borough authorities in west London - benefitted from long-term secondees from Whitehall who acted as an extra pair of hands and acted as their advocates in Whitehall.
As the work is widened out and mainstreamed that level of commitment could not be continued by departments, but the network is trying to replicate it as closely as it can on more limited resources.
As a result, the nine areas have and will benefit from shorter secondments and advice from technical experts in areas such as cost benefit analysis. James Griffin, Swindon BC’s head of strategy, describes it as being “like a mini consultancy”.
Similarly, the network will help the areas make their case to government departments if their route needs Whitehall input or action. As Mr Griffin says: “Whitehall can feel a bit like Alice in Wonderland and [the network] can be quite useful in navigating how to influence policy.”
Mr Thomas, in Bath, adds: “It gives us access to exactly the right person on the police side in departments.” He added: “The best way to do that is face to face.”
Of course, not all involved in the network are so optimistic. In fact, when it was first announced one pilot insider described it as a “fudge”.
In the last week, another pilot area has expressed anger and frustration with progress with Essex CC leader David Finch (Con) describing the “brick wall” his council has struck in talks with the Department for Business, Innovation & Skills about the county’s skills for growth plan.
The next day the communities and local government select committee said it was “disappointed” by Essex’s experience and it called for central government to make “significant progress” in the next six months.
They warned that, at a time when economic growth was critical, it was not enough for just the departments with responsibilities for social matters to engage with attempts to integrate services.
Many of the nine new areas, and beyond, are looking at growth and - like Essex - want more influence and involvement over how skills or back to work programmes are delivered in their area.
As Mike Lockwood, chief executive of Harrow BC and members of the West London Alliance, puts it: “We know local employers better.” He won’t be drawn on whether departments such as DWP, once a byword for silo working, are fully signed up to the alliance’s plan. “It is early days, but there is a joint willingness to make a difference.”
He adds: “Is all central government all behind this consistently? Some departments are, some departments less so. Our hope is that we will get a consistently positive response.”
Peter John (Lab), leader of Southwark LBC, is working with Lambeth LBC and Lewisham LBC on a similar piece of employment and skills work which he believes “could be a game changer”. If a department can’t deliver “we will have to work around them”, however he believes the existence of long-term unemployment in the middle of London’s booming economy “is too important” for government to ignore.
Emma Degg, Wirral MBC’s head of neighbourhoods and engagement, has a similar belief that central government’s attitude will be that a new approach is a necessity. “I do believe that the government is serious about this because it is the only game in town.”
The enthusiasm and the optimism of those involved is infectious, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that all the brick walls will be demolished.
The director of the network uses another analogy for these barriers to integration. “Often there are red lines from central government,” he says, flexibilities or devolutions they simply will not agree to.
However Mr Pollock is not despondent about their continued existence and instead takes a pragmatic view of things
“Although there may be a good argument for a flexibility, our job is to help local places think intelligently about which things they should fight for and which things are not worth wasting a lot of ammunition on,” he says.
“That is where we add most value, because we operate in that world of Whitehall.”