The Growing Chaos and Complexity of Local Government

(This is based on a talk which I gave at the recent mySociety Company retreat)


This is a future-based look at the chaos and complexity of local government.  We are a very centralised nation but we are becoming more localised in ways which change the nature of the complexity that people have to deal with.

If you are in a centralised, standardised, country, those who have dealings with localities can expect to find some vague semblance of similarity from place to place.  However, when localism works, and is completed, anyone who has to engage with the incredible diversity of local public realms will see what from altitude appears to be a complete muddle, demanding very different approaches.  It is important that when we see that apparent muddle and complexity that we don’t assume that the project has failed.

Central to Local 

It is an argument well rehearsed elsewhere (and here) that we are the most centralised country in the G7.  Only 5% of money spent in a locality is raised there and although local authorities account for 20-30% of local spending they do not spend this with free choice – local authorities have to fulfil 1300 statutory obligations set out from the centre.

In 2011 I wrote a scenario based piece about Four Futures for Local Government, based on two key dimensions – whether things would centralise or decentralise, and whether councils would have more influence or less.  Five years on it’s a really varied picture with different answers in different parts of the country, because different parts of the country are doing deals with government to do more things locally, and some are just able to do things differently because they have the capability and local relationships. Overall, the picture is getting more and more complex.

Complexity and the Bubble Under the Wallpaper

So let’s talk about complexity – what concepts and language can we use about complexity?  Those with a STEM background will know that one measure of the complexity of a system is the number of “degrees of freedom” it has – this is the number of values you need to specify it exactly. A point in space has three degrees of freedom, and to fix it in time you need to specify a fourth number and so on.   There’s also a thing called the “Law of Requisite Variety” which says that if you have a system with n degrees of freedom then  in order to completely control it you need n independent controlling levers.   (We note in passing that we seem to put a lot of faith in managing our massively complex  economy based on just one lever – interest rates).

In human systems there’s a massive degree of complexity and a lot of it is irreducible  – it’s just a feature of the situation you’re looking at. It’s like a bubble under the wallpaper, you can move it around but you can’t get rid of it.

Running your Organisation based on the Movement of the Planets

The way that we humans cope with this is that we make simplifying assumptions.  Sometimes we don’t even realise we’re making them.   Do you realise that you plan your organisation based on the movement of the planets?

The earth goes round the sun once a year, and when we were all growing crops that meant that planning in an annual cycle was really relevant.   But we still do it for things that have nothing to do with agriculture. Every company has annual accounts, we do annual budget cycles. Some organisations (or parts of organisations) really need a much faster drumbeat and others need longer-term plans. It’s a simplifying assumption to do things annually – but it shifts complexity elsewhere and we often have to take other steps to allow for the fact that for some situations annually is just the wrong cycle length.

Organisational structures are simplifying assumptions too, and so are things like culture and vision – but that may be for another blog.

Complexity and the Relational State

A couple of years ago IPPR published report about the Relational State. They talked about complexity. They looked at things that were easy, complicated and complex. An easy example was baking a cake. A complicated thing is sending a person to the moon and back. There’s a lot to do to make it happen but it’s basically deterministic.

The example they give of a truly complex thing is bringing up a child. Because they’re all different.  People are different, families are different, community networks are different and so we need to have a relationship with them that can help us to continually manage that complexity.

Simplifying Assumptions are Changing 

Now – this is a key point – we live in a time when the simplifying assumptions we use are changing.  We are moving away from the assumption that you need a whole bunch of specialist departments who provide services, and if that doesn’t work at first you put more money in. We’re moving to a realisation that a more effective simplifying assumption is to do it locally or even personally.

For example: social isolation is a real problem – the effect of social isolation on someone’s health and wellbeing is roughly equivalent to them smoking.  A local relational solution looks like this: Maisy lives on her own and likes reading, and her friend Daisy, who also lives alone gives her a lift to the weekly book club which they have at Costa coffee on Tuesday afternoons, when it’s quiet. Daisy has difficulty shopping and isn’t very internet savvy, and it’s helpful for her that Maisy can do her Tesco delivery orders, and they can share special offers.

The previous centrally determined solution would have combined the work of some specialist services like this: there would have been a book club coordination officer, a transport contract to take Maisy to the expensive day centre, and a personal assistant to help Daisy with her shopping.

The simple, locally established solution is a great solution for Daisy and Maisy … but it’s completely different to what’s needed for for Boris and Doris.

Pumping Complexity Upstairs

User centred design and joined up solutions are much better for people.  Some of the best Town and Parish councils – such as Frome – are developing fit-for-purpose local solutions which start with understanding of issues and only then go on to think about whether services are in any way a part of the solution.  Examples such as that are great and inspiring.  But remember the bubble under the wallpaper.  The complexity has to go somewhere.  Life has become so much simpler for Maisy and her friends, but is a bit more complicated for anyone who is trying to facilitate the multiplicity of solutions.  When we have many hundreds of thousands, or even millions, of local personal solutions, if we look at it all from “above” it will look like total chaos.  Local solutions pump the complexity “upstairs” and those who have a job which encompasses many areas will have to find new ways of managing that.

Any organisations that are national-governmental, NGO, commercial, that seek to engage with the local government sector are going to have to embrace that complexity and will need new tools.  How can value be added?  What does this mean for civic technology?  How can we hold actors in such complexity to account?

A Word on Postcode Lotteries

We hear a lot about postcode lotteries and how localism will create a “postcode lottery”.  I’d offer two observations about that – firstly there is massive local variation in services now, whether from school to school, council to council or even within the “National” Health Service.  Secondly, let’s shift the focus away from the word “postcode” to the world “lottery”.  “Lottery” suggests randomness – but if, in fact, a local variation is as a result of of a local choice, arrived at by an evidence-supported process and with local democratic accountability then it isn’t a “postcode lottery” at all, it’s a “local choice” – which is a much better description.

Of course, making this a fair reality means that we need to think about distribution of resources if we want places to have a similar level of economic power with which to make their choices.  And that brings me on to my last point.

Russian Dolls

Our trend towards localism is happening at the same time as some ugly trends that 2016 has exposed to a painful extent.  There is a growing trend towards overt hatred, isolationism, fear of the other. So it’s critically important that we develop a multilayered localism . If we’re organising a Big Lunch event the locality is the street. If it’s Climate Change the locality can be nothing less than the whole planet.  As we build the new localism we need to avoid reinforcing isolationism – we must build a nested set of belonging groups, much like a set of Russian dolls.

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