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Recession offers us all an opportunity

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Times are hard and will no doubt get harder for all of us who deliver public services – not just councils. My consistent argument since the start of the recession has been that this is also an opportunity.

The dire necessity caused by an acute shortage of cash can lead us to make changes in months that might previously have taken years.

If we are to protect our front line services and provide real value for them we need to look at ways in which we can assemble our work within the public sector as a whole and then join it up around the needs of our people and our communities and not around our desires as a service provider.

That is why I am very supportive of the Total Place concept which is basically asking two questions, “How much do we spend on this?”, “If we started this again would we deliver this service in this way with this range of providers?”

Total Place concerns

I have some concerns however that the process will be purely a financial review rather than an outcome review. We need to ask what service is needed and what are the outcomes that we expect from this service rather than just how do we do it.

Those outcomes are of vital importance. I looked recently at the performance of a council which boasts of its improvement from 1 star to 4 stars in the CPA ratings.

Very good BUT they were in a very deprived area and their stars had not helped them improve their educational attainment ratings against a bench mark of similar authorities; it had not helped them improve their worklessness ratings against a bench mark of similar authorities. In fact it was just delivering its services better and not really making a massive difference.

The problem with Total Place is that it depends on a lot of people in all public sector bodies that deliver local services being able to think out of the box; to stop being protectionist about their own organisation and to put themselves into a new thought frame about public sector delivery which is far more outcome based.

Over the past few months I have been involved in a series of discussion about ‘future proofing’ local government and have become convinced that only by making major changes in kit, cash and culture can we make the urgent shift in activity that are so badly needed.

Cultural change

That cultural change needs to come not only from all the public sector agencies but also from the private and third sectors as well. Too often all three sectors relate to each other by contracts which reinforce our worst characteristics.

The private sector looks down on the public sector as slow moving bureaucrats; the public sector looks at the private sector as wide boys out to make a fast buck. The third sector gets upset because the other sectors won’t play to its rules!

The two key features of the current Total Place activity are not what they found out about a better way to deliver the current service that they are reviewing but:

  • What do they learn from the process about thinking through all services
  • What does it tell them about what partnership around service delivery really means as against the partnership games that we all normally play?

I very much hope that we are already learning early lessons in the 13 areas that are piloting Total Place that can be replicated elsewhere. But I suspect that not enough is yet being done to bring in the boards or governing bodies around the LSP tables who are likely to be even more resistant to fundamental change than most councillors.

Communication

Kit can be vitally important. I recently went to a meeting in which half the participants were in one room and another 30 miles away.

My preconceptions about webcams and video conferencing were swept aside in about a nano second. This physical set of kit set me off thinking about how we communicate in a technical age, an age in which young people don’t read the newspaper or even watch news on the telly.

An age in which information has gone from being something an elite supplies to the masses to something which everyone supplies to everyone. Yet councils still gamely hang on to treasured forms of communication which are becoming increasingly irrelevant.

The current debate about council owned newspapers will seem really old fashioned in 10 years.

It also started me enquiring about other forms of technical advance. Frankly many of us are still in the Stone Age when it comes to collating information from a variety of sources and putting it all together in such a way as to provide real time information about what is happening now.

Inflexibility

This can be used to direct our current services quickly and efficiently to those that need them, but it also makes it much easier to predict changes in needs which can lead to the definition of new policies as well as new services.

And lastly cash. This comes back to the inflexibility of contracts.

Most contracts between the public sector and the private and third sectors are so restrictive that they stifle innovation. We are so concerned that no-one fiddles us that we don’t construct our contracts to allow for living, breathing relationships in which partners working within a contractual situation can innovate to find mutual benefit not only for the contracting parties but the people we are all here to serve.

So what are we doing about it? Well a lot is already going on.

The Leadership Centre is running its Leeds Castle activities for Leader and Chief Executives. BT has been telling me about the action research courses it has been running for chief execs and their equivalents across the public sector and many councils now have groups of people looking at the future and trying to think through what the future holds for their area and its people.

Tempo of change

But more needs to be done if we are to increase the tempo of change.

I will be recommending to the LGA that we move into future proofing activity for local government and trying to link all the individual pieces of research that councils commission into a more coherent and cost effective whole that we could all benefit from.

I hope to set up a small brainstorming event in which we bring together public, private and third sector individuals to take a first stab at unpacking the kit, cash and culture areas and more. Everyone I have spoken to about this is up for change.

As someone who has been a councillor for 29 years I have never seen the need for change to be more acute or the opportunity for change to be more possible. Dealing with the future is a bit like surfing. We can either ride the top of the wave or we can be drowned underneath it.

Anyone care for a set of flippers!?

BT, Amey and Pinnacle have offered to join in this debate. If you and your organisation would like to get involved please let us know - Tim Allen at the LGA (tim.allen@lga.gov.uk) is coordinating the work.

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