During the Covid-19 pandemic, much of the focus has been on shoring up existing delivery and, where possible, extending arrangements if it is not possible to re-procure.
The Secretary of State hailed the December 2015 announcement of a historic settlement for town halls, gushing about a new era of long-term financial certainty for councils and more resources for adult social care. The Local Government Association is a little more sanguine about the outcomes from the settlement, pointing out that much of the additional funding does not get released for a couple of years.
At the same time the Government is making noises about decisive action to improve children’s services, refresh housing estates and the continued impetus for devolution. All of this is commendable and reflects the need for “transformational change”, but in practice requires a lot of work and nous to move from templates to progress.
In the meantime some councils face the possibility that they will not be financially viable, and in these circumstances they may embrace the temptation to do less, rather than more in collaboration with others, including those who benefit from services and the people who staff those services. With growing demand, both in terms of population and need, councils are at the crux of tackling the interlinked issues that confront many individuals. To do that well requires explicit recognition across Government of the role that local authorities play as brokers and facilitators.
What the Government is hoping for is an abundance mentality to sweep across public services, but for this to happen requires new dimensions of confidence and trust and the joining up and dismantling of silos. And, by the way, this is required not just in local government, but especially with NHS bodies, not all of whom have a good reputation for co-working and ceding their vested interests. And the Government has to show that it is ready to help equip the agents of change at a local level. This requires a willingness to listen and provide calm assurance as much as launch the next series of “initiatives”.
All the evidence is that the vast majority of councils are rising to the challenge, and doing more to embrace this DCLG-generated list of activities:
- Sharing back-office and administrative services with one or more other council or public sector bodies;
- Investment in service reform feasibility work, e.g. setting up pilot schemes;
- Collaboration between local authorities and central government departments to free up land for economic use;
- Funding the cost of service reconfiguration, restructuring or rationalisation (staff or non-staff), where this leads to ongoing efficiency savings or service transformation;
- Sharing Chief-Executives, management teams or staffing structures;
- Driving a digital approach to the delivery of more efficient public services and how the public interacts with constituent authorities where possible;
- Aggregating procurement on common goods and services where possible, either as part of local arrangements or using Crown Commercial Services or regional procurement hubs or Professional Buying Organisations;
- Improving systems and processes to tackle fraud and corruption in line with the Local Government Fraud and Corruption Strategy – this could include an element of staff training;
- Setting up commercial or alternative delivery models to deliver services more efficiently and bring in revenue (for example, through selling services to others);
- Integrating public facing services across two or more public sector bodies (for example children’s social care, trading standards) to generate savings or to transform service delivery.
These are the examples given by DCLG of expenditure that will qualify for being funded from asset disposal receipts from 1st April 2016. This about pump-priming public service reform and is singularly local government focussed.
Wouldn’t it be more sustainable if, as well, councils were given credits for the savings that their activities generated to create savings in the public purse, especially savings to the Treasury from its settlements for Government departments? Arguably this is what the devolution agenda is really about. So, for every £ spent on helping young people into employment, the DWP shares half its consequential benefits with the enabling council concerned. That would create a dynamic public expenditure “market” in which councils could really show that they were “all for one, and one for all”. Now, Mr Clark, how about that?
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