Will the future for local government really be brilliant?

As regular readers will know, we at WLLG love a good guest post, and today is a cracker.  @adele_reynolds (Adele Reynolds to those who know her away from the interweb) has sent in her views on a recent piece of work which itself sets out one potential future for local government.  If you’ve got an article or topic you’d like us to share with our readers send it in to welovelocalgovernment@gmail.com, but not until you’ve enjoyed this.

In which direction does the future lay?Setting out a future vision for local government: local authorities at the heart of every local community

Local Government faces an unprecedented series of challenges and will have to respond to an increased level of need whilst at the same time working within vastly reduced budgets. It has never been more vital that the sector sets out a positive and compelling vision for what local government will look like as we move forward into an unknown future. It was therefore interesting to read the joint effort by KPMG and CPSP setting out what the ‘brilliant local authority of the future’ will look like. Yet by the end of the document, a feeling of pessimism set in about the narrowness of the vision that they set out and the way in which it reinforced rather than sought to challenge prevailing public policy orthodoxies.

The paper consistently espouses the need to ‘explicitly manage the council as a business’ and operate with a ‘board of shareholders mentality’. Yet surely key local government services from leisure centres to street cleaning benefit the whole of society, not just individual service users. Stated very simply, the problem with managing a local authority as if it is a business is the fact that it isn’t actually a business! Whilst the private sector can rigidly focus on delivering shareholder value, local authorities have a wider strategic role in ensuring the social, economic and environmental wellbeing of their local communities. Without reading too much further than the Executive Summary, it became clear that the ‘Brilliant Local Authority’ would be hampered by its lack of core capacity to deliver on some of these broader policy objectives.

Does it matter who delivers services?

The idea that local authorities can be agnostic about which part of the economy delivers service provision or that councils should simply be strategic commissioners is a very worrying one. Although local councils have never been the sole provider of public services, there is a clear need to retain a strong core of directly delivered services in order to ensure that the capacity to intervene in local communities is retained. Without this capacity, dealing with complex strategic issues from climate change to flood management will become reduced to a disparate set of contracts.

The notion that local authorities should enthusiastically cede control to others is also a problematic one. Of course, empowering local communities is important; but decentralisation must not become an end in itself.  And is not the case that markets can be every bit as disempowering a large bureaucracies? Maybe the answer lies in a commitment to supporting and working with local communities to add value to the way in which services are delivered rather than divesting responsibility onto others.

What are the implications for local democracy and accountability?

Local Government is based on the notion of an effective local democracy and the paper specifically states that, ‘local government is by definition political’. Yet by depoliticising service delivery and conflating commissioning with the procurement process, politics is actually removed from local government. Not least in the way in which local democracy is damaged by reducing the role of elected members to handing out contracts.  It could also be argued that the role of politicians in shaping the wider local place can only ever be an aspiration, if local authorities go down the road of systematically removing the strategic levers and mechanisms of service delivery.

It is welcome that the paper raises vital issues such as place shaping, public value and the political nature of local government. Yet as this article argues, the policy framework set out within the paper will remove all the capacity from local authorities to actually act on these issues.  There is therefore an urgent need to set out an alternative non prescriptive vision emphasising key principles such as public value, local democracy and collective citizenship. It would be useful for stakeholders across the sector to look at and contribute to the concept of the Ensuring Council, which seeks to deliver services in accordance with a set of values and democratic practises, responding to changing circumstances in a way that is value rich rather than value less.

Local Government is now clearly at a tipping point where it must set out its vision for the next 10, 20 or even 30 years. However, this should be based on a vastly different vision to the one set out in the ‘brilliant local authority of the future’ report. Local authorities have a duty be at the heart of every local community, delivering those visible frontline services that the public rely on. This is of course very different to reducing citizens to shareholders and treating public services like private businesses.

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

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4 Comments on “Will the future for local government really be brilliant?”

  1. AmyHWasAmyO Says:

    I read the brochure (?) with a sense of despair you’ve reflected most accurately!! (I should perhaps point out I worked for kpmg post ngdp)

    It just seemed like they’d missed Local Govt 101, where the importance of communities, flexibility & tailoring to local requirements was explained, along with key differences between types of Council. What is described as a brilliant (ahem) council sounded more like a generic private firm, with one eye on the bottom line & the other on improving it for ‘shareholders’, with little regard for local need & engagement.

    You’ll note I said workED for kpmg….

  2. Performance Officer Says:

    I haven’t read the report, so I’m only basing my reaction on your post – apologies if by so doing I misinterpret you.

    But I disagree with your arguments… The post states that by commissioning LG loses the ‘capacity to intervene in local communities’. But the capacity is still there – just by commissioning someone else to do it! In fact the capacity increases as anyone in the economy can do it, not just the finite skills that happen to be present in the LA. Ditto, moving to this sort of model doesn’t necessarily ‘remove the strategic levers and mechanisms of service delivery’ – these are just as present in what is commissioned and how it is asked to be delivered as they are in LAs asking in house services to deliver something. Equally, in theory, the accountability is the same as currently.

    Of course, to work properly, it needs a flexible yet robust approach to both commissioning and procurement, which LAs (and the public sector) are notoriously poor at (and I’m not convinced the private sector are that much better), but the principles aren’t necessarily wrong, ‘just’ the practicalities.

    And if communities are shareholders and customers then they are at the heart of a ‘private business’ model – that’s how a business works. The ‘business’ ethic of trying to deliver a service that meets the needs of ‘customers & shareholders’ (in context, communities and local politicans) while not costing more than necessary is surely something we should all be aiming for?

  3. Headhunter Says:

    A fascinating post and a useful contribution to an essential (indeed arguably the only!) debate for local government.

    Reading the report and the post though I can’t help feeling that the post isn’t really arguing against the report, and feels quite selective in its quotation.

    I simply didn’t read the report the way that the author of this post has. I don’t read it as, for example, ruling out the idea that authorities should provide services themselves where that is appropriate to the local communities.

    I think the report is far from flawless however.

    My criticisms of the report would be that:

    – it is either quite naive or highly aspirational around some of the political leadership aspects: it will be a rare council where a Leader is really able to appoint cabinet members based solely on merit and hold them to account in a Management by Objectives sense. There is much that I like in the description of the Community Councillor but again some of it sounds aspirational beyond feasibility.

    – I don’t think the stuff around internal management and the role of the head of paid service goes anything like far enough in describing the change that will be needed – it appears to be a statement of normal current practice, and fails to articulate really high-performing behaviours that will transform the described mechanics into superlative performance.

    I wonder whether the post author is railing against the (clumsy?) misuse of the word “commercial” and similar other faux pas in the terminology. If the author’s point is that the language of the private sector is inadequate to describe local government then I will wholeheartedly agree. It’s actually inadequate to describe the more nuanced approach actually set out in the report!


  4. […] and to use the policy levers  that they still have (excellent post by Adele Reynolds at We Love Local Government about this by the way) to meet the needs and aspirations of their local […]

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