Posted tagged ‘local government’

Democratic Localism

June 20, 2012

The least worst option…

On first glimpse this post title is not too different to the post about politics we posted on Monday. Isn’t democracy and accountability just another element of the political context local government is facing?

We don’t think so.

The long term future of local government is far more dependent on what we do with the structure of democracy and accountability it operates in than any policy change dreamed up by this or any other Government.

Local Government, as it currently exists has elements of success and failure pre-programmed into it. On the success side of the ledger local government has proven to be the most responsive and quickest changing part of Government. It has, especially in recent years, proven able to make quick cuts and rapid investments, to commission imaginatively and to provide a series of complex local services to its communities in a fairly well received way.

On the other hand, local government is becoming increasingly less democratic at the local level. People don’t vote for their local councillors in anywhere near the numbers they vote for their MPs (we don’t even get levels as high as the Voice!). Even where local people are turning up to vote my perception is that in many areas the effort expended to capture that vote, by the local politicians, is rapidly decreasing.

What’s more in many ways it is not hard to understand why the voters don’t care and the politicians don’t try as hard as they once might have. Whilst Governments of all stripes might declare their support for localism the reality is that national politicians fear losing control, and the postcode lottery that might follow, even more. This leads to ring fences, legislative controls, guidelines, targets and other requirements dominating the public service provision. The current Government have done a little to reduce these but with 25% budget cuts coming it is very hard for local authorities to really do much more than the statutory services they are obliged, under the law, to provide.

Equally, local government in theory is predicated on the idea of local difference. This is fine in theory but we are also a universalist sort of country. I’m pretty sure members of the public would be ok with different street cleaning routines in different parts of Britain but the three biggest services in a local authority are all ones which many would consider needing a consistent approach; those being social care for children, working age adults and older persons .

So, in many ways it can be argued that local government is overly centrally driven, lacking in democratic legitimacy and whilst innovative and nimble lacking in a unique mandate.

The above is an intentionally negative view and laid out to spark debate; we love local government but are genuinely fearful that in twenty years local councils will just be glorified quangos or foundation trusts without the real democratic underpinning so crucial, in our minds, to what government is meant to be. We are, despite everything, passionate supporters of true democracy.

One of the reasons for out optimism is that there is light on the horizon in the form of two clear broad alternative visions currently being posited for this organisational and political malaise. Option 1 is broadly Steve Hilton localism, captured within the context of the Big Society and option 2 is empowered municipalism, as proposed by the ever energetic Graham Allen MP.

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The political context

June 18, 2012

The political context – on a mug

At a recent WLLG catch up we decided that we’d like to mix it up a little and try something different with the blog. So for this week we will be presenting five short posts looking at five elements of the local government sector and where we think we are right now. Today’s post is the first in the series and looks at the political context. We hope you enjoy this and the other pieces this week and look forward to hearing your responses to them.

When we stumbled upon the idea of writing a week long themed version of the WLLG blog taking on board some of the broader issues impacting local government I signed up to write this post thinking it would be a rather simple localist treatise plotting the future for local government in a new environment. This was not the case.

The more I think about it the more I am reminded of the innate complexity of the local government policy arena we all work in. Councils operate hundreds of services and each of them is governed to a greater or not quite a great extent by the Whitehall machinery. Thus, there is little that local government does that is not deeply impacted by central government.

This post then, has a danger of being central government focused which is precisely what I had hoped to avoid. However, despite my misgivings we do need to start with the coalition.

The recent Queens Speech was a bit of a waste of time and effort and seemed to many to show a Government that had run out of ideas.

I differ a little.

I suggest that the reason the Queens Speech was such a letdown was that the Government has already cast its dye in most key areas and is basically just in an implementation phase. The true impact of these changes will have a much greater effect on the perceived success, or failure, of the coalition than anything the Queen read out in 2012.

In most key areas of Government activity the coalition wisely used the first few years of the term to get their reforms out of the way.

Austerity and the accompanied dramatic cuts to public spending are definitely an ideological approach to our economic malaise but they provide a consistent, if controversial, base to the coalition’s economic plans. Whatever ‘Plan B’ ends up looking like it will be based on the austerity foundations. Whether this succeeds or ends up failing dramatically will probably define the success or otherwise of the coalition. Meanwhile these cuts are probably the single biggest risk facing local government now and in the next five or more years.

The changes to the welfare system will have an even greater impact on the local government finances. This is not least because the government has cynically told local government to cut council tax benefit by 10% whilst protecting all sorts of people and then at the same time said that if local government wants to not make the cuts they can just cut other services. Of all the Government changes this is the one that annoys me the most as it is brazen, cynical and most of all cowardly.

Other welfare changes will also impact local government and put more pressure on our services.

Meanwhile the major changes the Government is making to Health and Education are already underway and each impacts local government. Free schools and academies no doubt undermine the influence of local authorities over local education but many councils are more vexed with the Government’s attitude over funding for new school building or renovation. Structures are important but what matters to teachers, parents, students and local politicians more is whether the schools that everyone is working in are in a fit state.

Mr Gove and his colleagues should make sure this problem is fixed, and fixed soon.

The changes to the health service have possibly wide ranging impacts on local government. Although the NHS has basically reconstituted PCTs in another form with the Commissioning Support Organisations for now, in the long term it seems more logical that local authorities might provide partnership to their Clinical Commissioning Groups. From a place perspective isn’t this more sensible than what is currently being offered in many areas? The Government seem keen to push local CCGs to operate tendering processes between local councils and the private sector thus ensuring that CCGs either go NHS or go private but I hope the Government will change their tune on that one.

Meanwhile, the challenges of localism and the Big Society will continue to bring new players into the local service provision. This provides a unique challenge to local government, not least as this will probably mean that local government has to get better at change; services may change providers every few years, services may fail and commissioning will have to be imaginative to meet ever changing local needs. The risks of this are huge but there are opportunities to exploit as well.

All of the above examples provide challenges for local politicians. No longer are they at the top of a command and control structure where their every word is implemented by somewhat star struck council officers. Instead, increasingly their direct influence is declining, to be replaced by an influence based on their ability to negotiate on behalf of their communities. I would argue that this makes councillors infinitely more important as without this democratic accountability or local consent we are left with services that have no connection to the communities they serve.

However, it is a real challenge and will involve councillors upping their collective game. Whether we have provided them with enough support to play this new role I am uncertain but seeing the development of it will be fascinating over the next 5-10 years.

Whilst most of the Government’s legacy is already put in train there is one area where we don’t yet know the impact or indeed whether the Government is going to have the courage to put in place a long term sustainable solution; funding of Adult Social Care. As the Barnet graph of doom shows, if this issue is not addressed soon the entire council budget could be taken by funding adult and childrens social care within a decade. An unfathomable amount of people support something equivalent to the Dilnot report and the fact that the Government have yet to put forward a Bill to implement the recommendations is a peculiar example of either Government feebleness or civil service intransigence or both.

As you can see, a post that was meant to be a localist treatise ended up being a quick trot through the impact of the coalition government on local government.

This is, of course, not totally fair. Local government is still the most innovative and fast moving part of the Government structure in the UK. Thus, whilst austerity is the unifying feature for all local government and the changes being made by the Government represent the context in which local government is operating right now, the changes being made around the country differ depending on the council concerned.

I’m going to be honest; I don’t know what’s happening in over 350 councils around the country. I could probably not do much more than ten. However, every time I visit a council or speak to more enthusiastic and forward thinking members of staff there is always something interesting and innovative happening.

Local government’s ability to continually flex to the changing contexts we face is central to the Government being able to introduce its radical and wide ranging policy prospectus. Our role is also crucial to ensuring that services provided locally that so many people rely on are provided in the best way possible.

Local government will rise and meet this challenge and it would be nice if the coalition recognised this once in a while rather than always being on the attack.

Welovelocalgovernment is a blog written by UK local government officers. If you have a piece you’d like to submit or any comments you’d like to make please drop us a line at: welovelocalgovernment@gmail.com 

It’s the people stupid

May 28, 2012

Are they truly smiling or just complying?

How many times have we heard the spiel from a consultant or a new Chief Executive promising us that a new structure, new way of working, new computer system or new approach to reviewing the local authority will deliver the savings or improved service we need?

The answer of course is many many times.

As regular readers of this blog will know we are generally fairly sympathetic to this approach. Too often local government is trapped in the belief that we should just continue to do things the way we always have and there is a lot to learn by considering problems from a different point of view or by applying sensibly thought through management tools and techniques. At the same time we get trapped in our management silos and forget that the main aim of the work we do is to serve our customers.

Indeed, sometimes the change is useful even if it is not perfectly designed as just the act of changing things can be beneficial.

However, over the past few months I have been reflecting on the changes we’ve tried to make in our local authority and the one deciding factor in each case of success, and indeed each of failure, has been the people involved. Perhaps, the hardcore systems thinkers amongst you will be shouting at this screen that if that is the case then we’ve obviously chosen the wrong solution to implement or simply not done it properly. My observation is based on nothing but anecdotal evidence but to me it seems that the people involved, especially at management level, are just as important, if not more so.

This should not be a surprise really. We all know who the really good people are in local government and have a pretty good idea who the poor ones are too. However, what was a surprise was how absolutely the staff involved influenced the success or otherwise of the work.

This has a few different elements:

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Do we employ the right people in local government?

May 23, 2012

Answering questions…

Our good friends at the Guardian Local Government Network deliver each Friday a local government careers e-mail. The e-mail includes a link to their ‘working lives’ blog where local government employees describe what their job entails; a section called ask our members where local government people can ask for career advice and links to jobs and helpful career based articles. If you haven’t signed up before now you should.

All of this is by introduction to today’s post which seeks to answer the GLGN’s career question of the week:

Is local government employing the wrong type of people? Does it need to think about bringing people in from a much wider group, rather than focusing on people with previous public sector experience?

This is a common question and one that is often asked of the Whitehall civil service; an institution that generally employs policy generalists at the age of 25 and then at 45 after twenty years doing just that expects them to run departments, mange substantial IT systems and deliver complicated projects. Jonathan Powell, Tony Blair’s former chief of staff, was particularly scathing of this element of the civil service and I have no doubt that the debate over civil service skills will continue under the current administration.

But how does this work for local government? On face value the two shouldn’t be comparable. Whereas the whole civil service is, and here I am stereotyping for effect, basically one big policy team, local councils usually have a small policy team outside of the Chief Executive’s office. The rest of the staff on the council are carrying out front line service delivery.

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A day out in Staines (upon Thames)

May 21, 2012

It’s by the river you know! – Picture courtesy of http://www.stainespeople.co.uk/home

Sometimes we receive a guest post and think it might be a simple promo job. Despite appearances to the contrary we’re pretty convinced this is not one of those and in fact make a really strong case for local authorities as geographically based entities and not just service delivery organisations. It’s therefore well worth a read:

Neither living in, nor working in, the borough of Spelthorne I was, to put it lightly, a little sceptical at the council’s attempts to rename the town of Staines to call it Staines upon Thames. After all, is changing the name really going to make any difference to the town? It was next to the Thames before the name change and it will remain next to the river after the name change. It was not as posh as Richmond or Windsor before the name change and this will not change after the name change.

However, when a friend of mine invited me to pop along to Staines upon Thames day, the official launch of the new name for the town I was intrigued to say the least (the promise of beer and jazz had nothing to do about it).

What I found was, in its own way, brilliant.

The local council had done more than just voted to change the name of the town. The day they had organised to launch the new name showcased local charities, voluntary groups, water based leisure activities and businesses. It featured local bands singing from a stage in the town centre and a map of Staines upon Thames where local residents could signal their favourite parts of the newly named metropolis.

And the crème de la crème of the whole experience was a duck race. The race involved placing over 1300 ducks in the river, each costing a couple of quid and contributing to local charity, and then, a la pooh sticks, waiting for the current to do what it does best.

All in all the day was quaint but well attended.

It was also a good reminder of why we have local councils and the importance of a sense of place. Everything about the day, and the plan to change the town’s name, was based on a wide coalition of local supporters. The event itself was sponsored by at least twenty local businesses, the street signs were sponsored by a local estate agent and many of the stewards for the day were provided by the Heathrow airport ‘here to help’ team (which was quite cool). Many businesses had stalls; usually with some games to support local charities. And most of all many members of the town turned out to show their support, both for the new name and for their local area.

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LGAging behind

May 14, 2012

The Leader of all Local Government?

The WLLG team have been known to be fairly critical of our friends at the LGA. In a time of severe strain on the local government sector and when public understanding of local government seems to be reaching all time lows the response of the LGA has been, in our opinion, insipid.

As we noted on Friday the response to the Queen’s Speech was not a howl of outrage but a reminder that:

  • The LGA will continue its parliamentary lobbying work to ensure the best outcome for our member councils.
  • Councils have already shown remarkable resilience in coping with the spending cuts and local government is already the most efficient, transparent and trusted part of the public sector.
  • Within our legislative lobbying work we will be campaigning to ensure there is sustainable funding for local government going forward.

This is not to say that the LGA has been totally inactive. The letter organised by Sir Merrick Cockell pushing the Government to act now on Adult Social Care funding reform was a pleasant example of what the LGA should be doing. The fact that it was roundly ignored by the Government was a subtle reminder of the ineffectiveness of local government to influence the national agenda.

This is not the only example of failed leadership.

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Strategy

May 9, 2012

A strategic photograph?

Last week the cuddly entrepreneur and TV personality Lord Sir Alan Sugar fired the pleasingly accented Azhar from the midweek warm up act for Dara O’Briain’s ‘You’re Fired’, the Apprentice.

What was Azhar’s crime? Well, according to the editing crew at the Apprentice it was using the word ‘strategy’ one time every five minutes when everyone knows that the Apprentice is a seat of the pants ‘JFDI’ sort of experience.

In fairness to Azhar he took the firing fairly well and then proceeded to drop the ‘s’ bomb about fifteen times during the much more enjoyable follow up show. He also revealed that his knowledge of strategy is built from his rather successful refrigeration business which seems to be making him a fair bit of money.

As is often the case this got me thinking. To what extent does having a stated strategy actually matter? After all, as Jade (Azhar’s surviving project manager) would often point out, what’s the point of all this strategy if it prevents you from making decisions and getting on with it?

In local government we often struggle with ‘strategy’. This is for a number of reasons:

Strategies are easily forgotten and many councils end up using strategies as a way to launch new ideas or generate a buzz in the council. This leads to the local authority having multiple different strategies, none of which is particularly unique and none of them providing quite the impact that one would expect.

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