The collapse of the corporate centre
‘Never throw away your old drain-pipes’
My university lecturer was not talking about guttering but about the fashionable uber-skinny jean which had been in and out of fashion many times in his lecturing career. His argument was that if you follow local government you should be prepared to see ideas, structures and policies come in and out of fashion.
Never has a wiser word been said and as goes drainpipe trousers so goes the corporate centre within local authorities.
During the early 2000s the inspection and performance management regimes of the Labour Government were in full swing and the Audit Commission was constantly driving local authorities to improve their ‘corporate capacity’. The rationale for this was that councils were showing weak leadership from the Chief Executive down; decisions weren’t joined up and policy decisions weren’t being made from a structures evidence base.
What followed was a substantial investment in policy and performance teams. Allied to this was a renewed focus on engaging the public so added to this new central function was an investment in community engagement expertise and communications teams. On top of this was a new focus on working in partnership with local providers and a commitment to meet the Government’s equalities agenda so these teams were added to the corporate centre along with the recently amended committee teams now embarking on the new world of scrutiny.
Councils were asked to focus on centralising certain functions and teams like procurement, business improvement and project management were added to the centre; often grouped together with the others in a Chief Execs department or a deputy chief deputy chief execs team in some bigger authorities.
The final role of these teams; and one that became very important, was that these teams were on charge of pulling together he responses to the inspection regimes. If they did a good job the reputation of the council would rise and sometimes that was enough.
This large increase in the functionality of the corporate centre undoubtedly empowered both the senior managers of the authority and the councillors who formed the new cabinets.
It also led to power draining away from the front line service departments who lost a lot of their own capacity and were sometimes seen merely as tools to be moved around by the corporate brain.
This state of affairs is now changing quicker than the drain pipe trouser became the baggy pant.
For Evidence of this one only need look at Eric Pickles definition of non-jobs. Whilst it is true that the whole of the DCLG is staffed with people doing ‘non-jobs’ it is also true that nearly all of the corporate capacity demanded by the Audit Commission also falls under this category.
Likewise, the drive to improve corporate capacity is easy to justify during times of plenty. Although these teams became quite large relative to the rest of the council they were really quite small and by and large delivered good results for their councils. The lack of seriously failing local authorities and the ability of these same authorities to take out efficiencies at a rate much quicker than the Civil Service is almost certainly a product of this capacity. Likewise, the connectedness of the council both to local partners and the local community has definitely improved.
However, if a local authority has a choice between protecting this capacity or ensuring that statutory adult social care services are delivered there is not really a debate to be had.
So, like the tide chasing the moon away from shore the corporate centre is being hollowed out at a remarkable rate. Most of the functions will be retained but teams that previously had multiple staff will now be left with just one team member, ensuring the council meets it’s statutory obligations or that it doesn’t miss anything obvious.
Of course this is not just a corporate problem. As front line services discover that the support they used to get from the corporate centre is reducing they seek to buy in bits and pieces themselves, although admittedly in smaller quantities.
The other problem is that these teams represented a different type of talent within local government. Rather than only employing people who came from a profession within local government the sector started employing different types of people with different skills. These are now leaving the sector and because of their transferable skills I fear we might not get them back.
The collapse in corporate capacity is a rational approach to cuts of the scale and intensity being expected by the Government. However, whilst his might be the only rational short term solution for many it is possible that we might regret this change in a few years time.
Much like my lecturer won’t throw away his drainpipes I’m going to keep a copy of my corporate centre structure charts. We might not need them now but I have a funny feeling they might just come back into fashion!
Tags: audit commission, business improvement, corporate centre, drain pipe trousers, efficiency, equalities, eric pickles, local government, non-jobs, policy, procurement, project management, scrutinyYou can comment below, or link to this permanent URL from your own site.