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In a recent RSA Journal Matthew Taylor challenged the presumption that centrally-driven policy is the answer to ongoing public service reform. Local council chief executive Steve Atkinson argues that although this analysis has much to commend it, the idea that the public sector has been sluggish in its response is not entirely valid.

Public services have had a tough time of it in the last decade; vilified by some for inefficiency, by others for not appearing to respond to our country's call for austerity. Some public services, notably health, have had a measure of protection. However, local government specifically has been exposed to public funding cuts of around 40 per cent since 2011, with more to come, at a time when the general economic outlook is improving. Despite this, there is independent evidence from the Association of Public Service Excellence (APSE) that frontline productivity is continuing to improve.

I am not a misty-eyed apologist for the local government of the past. There were inefficiencies in the days of plenty (as also in the private sector, I suggest) and we did not always prioritise our activities and resources to the areas of greatest need. National and local policy requirements responded to the mood of the moment, as they often do, without consideration for the longer term. The reality is that, when you are given money and required to spend it on specific policy priorities, you do it to the best of your ability. Perversely, we would have been criticised as wasteful, if we had not.

However, my council and a number of others questioned our future funding some 10 years’ ago. To a large extent this was driven initially by councils' responses to a central drive for efficiencies and to external performance assessments. There was also an increasing recognition that the 'good times' wouldn't last forever and that our communities deserved better.

Initiatives such as shared/reduced management teams, collaboration on care, safeguarding and public protection (with police, health, social security, the third sector and social care services amongst others), the generation of income through economic and housing growth (again with partners), developing different means of delivery ('wholly-owned companies' and externalisation) have been developing for some time. These new ways of working have improved how we utilise ever-reducing resource and public satisfaction with local councils and their representatives – surely the ultimate arbiter – is high; considerably higher than with Westminster equivalents!

Happily, this reinforces the strong argument against policy prescription. However, the perception of poor showing in terms of performance and productivity is at odds with the reality of the many changes, which are becoming embedded and working as business as usual.

Devolving power is only part of an answer to improving how we respond to local needs. How we use that power is far more important. Successful devolution requires involvement and engagement from those who really know the landscape – residents and businesses with a personal stake in what councils do – and greater collaboration in decision-making, on the basis of that participation. Models of collaborative (and cost-saving) decision-making exist already, facilitated by the increasing co-location of local public services, usually driven by District Councils. This means, individuals, families and communities, who have multiple needs, can now enjoy one public sector response, coordinated by a single point of contact. 

The 'engagement' nut is harder to crack, relying, as it does, on a much more transparent and sophisticated approach from local councils, who are very close to their communities; an approach which can never be applied successfully from the remoteness of Westminster.  Councils can and do use a variety of sources of information on which to base decisions: questionnaires, targeted focus groups, research of complaints and formal consultations on specific issues. In the end, District Councils generally are the bodies that collate and analyse this data as the basis for making difficult choices between competing priorities. 

Collective Impact is very much what councils like mine seek to achieve; through co-location and single management of collective resources and expertise and this is evident in many of the examples quoted earlier. It is a prerequisite of effective devolution of political and practical power. Design also has a part to play; learning from individuals, families and businesses, as part our day-to-day business, as well as being prepared to risk something new and being prepared to modify an original concept, even if we do not  always get it right first time.

In many respects, it is this appetite for (considered) risk, which is the real game-changer, allied to investment in projects that generate long-term revenue income streams to support prudential borrowing and changing service configurations. For too long, within a relatively comfortable political and resource framework, councils could always take the conventional, safe option. To do that now is likely to reduce the opportunities for innovation; to dare to be different, not just do (more of) the same, but at less cost. These are the approaches we need to nurture for the future.

Many councils were doing this before 2007; many more are doing it now; with the impetus of necessity, certainly, but with an ingrained sense that we serve our communities best by pushing boundaries, taking opportunities, taking (calculated) risks, generating our own income, encouraging changes in demand patterns and being clear that the 'do it all' council no longer exists.  Working with others to support people in taking responsibility for their own welfare and personal aspirations is no longer on the fringes.  It is and will be (rightly) at the centre of what we do for the next decade and beyond, well after this dose of austerity has been consigned to the history books.

So, policy presumption for public service, especially for local councils, cannot respond effectively to the demands and aspirations, which we exist to satisfy and support. However, devolution, collective impact and redesign can respond. Local councils are grasping the opportunities, with visible success, and developing for themselves the skills, passion and approach necessary to render central prescription superfluous.

Steve Atkinson is the Chief Executive of Hinckley and Bosworth Borough Council.


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