For as long as I’ve been associated with Local Government (coming up to a decade) the structure of local authorities has been pretty well determined by statute. Certainly the scope of what is in a local authority and what is elsewhere is pretty well set. And certain statutory roles like a Director of Children’s Services (DCS) have constrained local authorities’ ability to determine structures based on local circumstances, local political priorities and (importantly) the skills and competence of the individuals concerned. There is some diversity – some authorities have broadened the DCS role, others have experimented without a formal Chief Executive, and different electoral models – eg elected mayors – have experiemented at the fringes with differing forms of local impact alongside Local Strategic Partnerships, Local Area Agreements and so on.
Whatever you think of the politics, the Conservative Party Green Paper on Local Government “Control Shift” , if implemented, would appear to open up the prospect of radically different models of what is in and out of local authorities, and different models of their organisation.
This will represent a fascinating organisational-intellectual challenge to local government. Fortunately there are many models and analyses of corporate structures available from private sector strategy, many concepts that can shed considerable light on the choices that may be open to local authorities. The unfortunate bit is that they will require considerable adaptation to cope with the enormously greater complexity of local government, and they will require a debate within local authorities which is up a whole level of sophistication from the current constrained domain.
There are useful and well established models about when groups of businesses should be brought together (or not) the role of the commercial corporate centre, and models of control ranging from “financial control” (heavy on the bottom line, light on the strategy) to a “strategic planning” model (which integrates cleverly but requires a deep understanding at the centre of what’s going on at the edges). What does a “local public service conglomerate” glued together in its accountability by “Democratic Control” look like? What does the corporate centre (both electoral and executive) look like? The good news is that there are many valid models, the bad news is that to secure the benefits significant change in thought, approaches, and learned behaviours will be needed.
Local authorities are up to it, though. I have the privilege of facilitating a session for cohorts on a leadership development programme. It was abundantly clear to me at the last such session I ran that partnership working with all its complexities and benefits is now much more mainstreamed than it was even two years ago; it was really impressive.
This area of commercial cororate strategy (carefully) applied to local government and local governance is something I’ll be continuing to think about in the coming months.