Decentralisation 2 – The 4 Cs
I promised recently that I would continue writing about decentralisation after my first post served as really a long introduction. If you haven’t read it yet you can do so here although the summary of it would go as follows: the Government are really keen on decentralisation and it poses a real challenge to local authorities.
As much as the Government’s position provides a profound challenge for local authorities I would argue that the challenge is actually shared between policy makers and the local authorities themselves.
Therefore, in the spirit of the Big Society I have decided to offer my thoughts on the four main challenges policy makers need to address over the coming months. Oh, and in the spirit of making it easier to remember (for me) I’ve labelled each of the four challenges with the letter C.
Be it local authorities, local individuals or the Third Sector there is a real challenge around capacity. In each of the situations the people and organisations being asked to provide or run public services will not necessarily have the necessary experience to do so.
This does not mean they can’t: indeed, the argument that local authorities have a lack of capacity to do a good job has often been used to keep powers in the centre.
However, unless the Government invest in local individuals and allow local authorities to invest in bringing in staff with different skills (or even train up those they currently have) the project will stall. Here’s a thought; as the Government cut jobs in Whitehall how about seconding staff to local authorities, community groups and third sector organisations to help them over the initial teething problems.
Even with the Big Society we might need to invest to save.
Which leads me onto the issue of finance.
Local authorities cannot be expected to deliver more services will less finance. If the central Government are serious about decentralisation then they need to be serious about the redistribution of the monies needed to provide essential services.
Equally, the Government and councils need to find a way to provide additional capital to those who want to contribute to ‘Big Society’ projects. This means recognising that money isn’t everything and that the funding provided by society could be human capital, expertise or material resources. These should be recognised and if necessary supported by real cash. A model from Seattle is discussed here.
It is understandable that ordinary residents might not have the confidence to take on the running of their local school. However, what is maybe less recognised is that local government, in many cases simply does not have the confidence to start taking on services and projects outside of their immediate remit. Twenty plus years of performance indicators, central domination and strict legislative restrictions have left local authorities almost pathologically unable to take the initiative without being prompted by the Government, IdEA, LGA or some other body.
This has to be overcome and quickly.
A small group of residents could not take over the local community hall without the rest of the village at least tacitly agreeing. If not there would be protests or at the very least people would stop using the hall and as a society we would be worse off. Currently, local authorities and parish councils help provide the legitimacy and consent for projects. Big Society projects need to find a way to deliver this consent if they eschew the current structures of elected democracy. This is entirely possible and indeed methods of participative democracy can be incredibly powerful.
However, it is not enough to assume that if a few people shout loudly that they want to run a local pub that this should be allowed to happen. The issue of consent needs a lot more work and in my view more local referenda probably won’t cut it.
There is much more to say but I’ll leave that for a later date. Please continue the conversation below.