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The working new year started early yesterday. So that I could take part in a Today Programme item about the coming election campaign, and fulfil a speaking engagement, I had to get the 6.30 train to Bath. The radio discussion was fine, although the other two participants were much more partisan than I try to be (even when I am not appearing in my RSA guise). 

Then on to an event with City of Bath College. Just a few years ago the college had some big issues around both finance and quality but under the leadership of one of the sector’s youngest college principals, Matt Atkinson, things have stabilised. Yesterday’s event was about the College upping its ambition both as in education institution and as part of the fabric of city life.

I delivered my core speech exploring some of the questions that emerge from overlaying a discussion about who we need to be (‘closing the social aspiration gap’) on to insights into how we function as social animals. It seemed to go down OK although I fear I cram too much material into my 25 minutes and that after a few hours not many people would be able to recall what I said (not necessarily a drawback!).

I was followed by Ashley Ayre, strategic director of children’s services for Bath and North Somerset Council. There were two key themes of his speech, ones that I hear over and again from public service leaders and managers. On the one hand, there was the issue of how to reconcile a growing ambition to reduce social exclusion, increase attainment and improve life chances with the expectation of declining resources. On the other hand, there was the emphasis on the urgency of greater co-ordination and collaboration between public sector institutions and agencies.

So the message out in public sector land is; we have to do things very differently if we are meet growing needs with shrinking budgets, and that crucial to the capacity to reform and innovate is a much higher level of collaboration, focussed around a shared strategy and a strong sense of place.

I don’t see this changing whoever wins the next election. Indeed the realism, coherence and imagination being shown in the best localities are streets ahead of the dishonesty and opportunism of the national political debate. With the 2010 election campaign only a few days old we have already seen a deeply disingenuous performance by the Prime Minister on the Andrew Marr programme and an intellectually second rate health policy document from the Conservatives. If this is anything to go by, it’s going to be a long and dispiriting four months.

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