This week saw the annual Local Government Association (LGA) conference, which is always a great opportunity to understand the position and direction of the sector. Here are some personal reflections:
Something Must be Done
The LGA presented research making projections of local government funding up to 2020. In the style of the famous Barnet Graph of Doom they have produced a report which starkly sets out the need for significant action if the impact of reducing budgets and exploding social care costs are not resolved. It is really worth reading. The main headline is that with increasing resources devoted to social care the amount of council money available for libraries, road repairs, investment in economic development etc will take a 90% cut over this time.
Much of the discussion over coffee was about the impact of this analysis. In recent years the mood of the conference has been quite downbeat, with members realizing that they are going to have to make exceptionally difficult and unpopular decisions. This year the mood was more up tempo, I think because there are a range of solutions that are starting to come through, ranging from work on community budgets, to shared services, to joint working with health.
The scale of the funding pressures means that there is no single magic bullet solution. In particular it is clear that whilst back office efficiency has a role to play, it is in no way sufficient. One councilor was saying that if he reduced his back office costs to zero that would only close a fifth of his funding gap.
Solutions, solutions everywhere …
Fortunately there is a wide variety of new candidate part-solutions available. Many councils and providers were talking about their practical experience of implementing initiatives to reduce costs and in many cases improve service outcomes too.
In fact, the problem rapidly moves from being one of “what can I do?” to “which should I do?”. There is a bewildering array of strategic choices, which I think is one of the main reasons that the idea of a “commissioning council” is gaining such sway – it recognizes that a core skill required of councils in future is the ability to make choices about service delivery based on increasingly sophisticated analyses of what outcomes are required, and then implement the choices rigorously through careful market management – whether that market is in-house, spin out, third sector, the private sector or a suitable combination. I strongly suspect that next year there will be many more sessions to allow councils to compare notes about how their current experiences at the start of this journey are playing out in practice.
The Capacity Issue
Encouragingly, almost every council seems to be doing something new and innovative, which will clearly be a part of the solution. Everybody has something of which they can be justly proud. Although it is not obvious that there will be sufficient capacity to do the large number of things that will be required, but there is clearly a mood to try. The challenge to the private sector is to find ways of adding value flexibly and cheaply. There was a lot of cross-sectoral consensus that the time and cost of procurement is a bad thing – though my personal view is that the process does bring some rigour and clarification, and in fact the evidence of some of the early public-public shared service models is that people have had to retrofit more of the contractual rigour that they thought they could do without.
Remember, remember the 15th of November
The 15th of November sees the elections for the first Police and Crime Commissioners (PCCs). Capita sponsored a session with IPPR North to discuss the implications of this for local government. We did this because we see the issue as being an important one which people have told us they find hard to make time to think about. It is clear that some authorities are significantly further advanced in their preparations than others. We will do more of a writeup on this but two key thoughts stay with me – firstly that this is actually a really interesting experiment in localist democractic reform – never before has there been an elected strong leader of a single public service. West Yorkshire, led by Joanne Roney, Wakefield’s CE, have a very impressive level of preparation and will have done all of the thinking to be able to agree a useful memorandum of understanding with their incoming PCC – if the PCC is minded to engage.
It’s the Economy, Stupid
A particularly constructive session concerned economic growth. Local Government’s action orientation is increasingly being applied to the business of business in their locality. As with the organizational reshaping issues discussed earlier, the issue is one of making choices about what to do rather than trying to identify something at all. Skills, planning, and responsiveness were all cited as areas for work, though my favourite intervention came from a business woman who pointed out that all of the city strategies she has seen say exactly the same things (!) – differentiated economic strategies will be needed.
Vive la Difference
Perhaps the strongest emerging theme from the conference as I think back on it was an unstated feeling that localism – councils making their own decisions their own way – is really starting to be played out in practice. No-one was talking about how they compared on national inspection frameworks, and people were clearly using the language of choice for their locality, rather than trying to come up with solutions that would be good for all councils everywhere. People are looking to judgement from their citizens, not the centre.