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Look and learn

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Local government’s readiness to learn from beyond the sector cannot be doubted - its track record is one that much of the rest of the public sector should envy. And it shows a refreshing commitment to continuing to learn even in these straitened times, as exciting new programmes coming from local government’s Leadership Centre illustrate.

But with the sector entering uncharted territory, the need for councils to look beyond the immediate family for ideas and insights has never been greater.

Despite a long tradition of engagement overseas, too many councils still focus too much on the differences between themselves and their counterparts in other countries, rather than searching for the common ground.

All public services in advanced economies are having to adjust to the reality of continued austerity. A readiness to explore learning from, for example, new approaches to budgeting in parts of North America can pay dividends.

There is also considerable opportunity for councils to learn from the private sector. This is not a recitation of tired homilies along the lines of “if only councils were as efficient as private business” - the past two years have proved beyond doubt the capacity of councils to wring the sponge and drive efficiencies while continuing to deliver services.

There are two areas in particular where the sector could learn and help secure long-term financial stability.

Councils are too focused on short-term financial forecasting, justifying that approach on the basis of uncertain revenue resources. The primary discussion within the sector is how best to manage rising service demand. But despite an abundance of high-quality information about their residents at their disposal, many councils still struggle to translate that into meaningful projections of long-term financial pressures.

There is considerable scope for learning from the insurance industry in this respect, where the application of robust analytical approaches produces value and insight, often with access to much less rich information than is at the disposal of councils.

Too many councils are also still struggling to know how best to engage with their customers. Although the sector has made huge advances in recent years, new digital technologies require councils to remain fleet of foot to keep in line with the expectations of their customers.

The retail sector is already adjusting - and adjusting fast - to this revolution and provides plenty of learning opportunities for councils. As the recent failure of some high street brands demonstrates, there are costs to adapting too late.

Andy Ford is a partner for government and public sector at PricewaterhouseCoopers

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