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Things I learned at 'What Next for Local Government'

Written by Gareth Young on . Posted in Our blog

On Friday 27th March a group of graduates from the NGDP local government graduate scheme gathered for the annual-ish Alumni conference. I really enjoy these events; as much as they provide an opportunity to catch up with former colleagues (although less this year) more importantly they attract good speakers and interesting break out sessions. 

This year was no exception. I've admitted before that my best reflections of the events actually happen well after they conclude and whilst that is not a full excuse for it taking me 5 days to write them up it is at least one reason why this is a little later than I had planned. And so, in the spirit of Dan Slee, onto my thoughts:

1) Matthew Taylor, he of the RSA, was brilliant in outlining his thoughts on leadership. I wouldn't be able to do his talk justice but his three efficacies of deliverology, managing and influencing systems and self-management are extremely valuable concepts and ones that I will continue to refer back to. I suggest to anyone interested in the topic to seek out a subsequent talk by him on this issue.

2) Everyone has days when they think: 'It is hard being me'... A comment from Matthew that resonated with me (and I think the whole audience).

3) The panel of speakers was unintentionally split with Matthew Taylor and Dominic Campbell on one side of the panel and the CEX of the LGA and Director of Straegy from PHE on the other side. It made for an interesting juxtaposition and one I think represented somewhat of the split between those of us 'doing the day job' and those with the the space to take the broader view. The challenge for all of us who aspire to lead change in local government (in whatever small way) is how to unite the two elements. 

4) Stories are important. I was very taken by an comment from Dom who was complaining about local government commissioning and asked when was the last time a council sought to commission from a 'story' of an individual and what they want from their care. I was taken with this as a solution: I recognise the challenges but as we went through the day and discussed ethnography and it's role in innovation I was reminded of this challenge. A good social worker does something like this when designing care packages but is this reflected in our commissioning?

How we adapt our approaches to this type of commissioning is perhaps one of the big challenges we face. I'm not sure if the answer but I'd like to explore it further.

5) The self-confident bureaucrat. Myself and Glen has riffed over the years on the need for local government to have a mature relationship with the private sector recognising that they are a major and important partner in our enterprises. I was taken, as I was at Govcamp in January, by the opposite point of view being taken amongst young, innovative and interesting local government officers. A couple of time people questioned the 'sychophancy' with which people in local government approach the private sector. I don't necessarily see it that way but I love the new self-confident bureaucrat who is able to look at the service we receive from some of our private partners and think that we could do this better ourselves.

6) Never underestimate local government Chief Executives. If ever there was a doubt that these are some of the best people working in public services then 30 minutes with Carolyn Wilkins from Oldham would rid you of that mis-apprehension.

7) I still love the NGDP graduates. As with any groups there are hits and misses but when you meet up with the alumni you are reminded just how inspiring this group is.

I was a member of the NGDP and thus am rather loyal to the scheme.  However, it's not the only source of great people in local government. As suc, I hope we might be able to expand the reach in future years and hope that the above is useful for any interested local government reader.

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An Exchange of Ideas

Written by Rob Jackson on . Posted in Our blog

Christopher, Of Honour and House Paradiso are all very notable things to put before or after the word 'guest', but none comes close to making us as happy as being able to put the word Post after it. Today we have the chance to do just that with this excellent guest post from Rob Jackson, which takes a look at just one of the many claims made about how local government could keep doing more than it already is. Share your thoughts with us on Twitter, but not before having a good read...

Local government is ‘blessed’ to have many wise people orbiting around the sector who write lengthy, eloquent  and solemn reports, describing bright ideas which will *absolutely* reduce costs by billions of pounds across all councils. I’ve always been sceptical of the numbers bandied about by some of these reports, and a recent example appeared on my Twitter feed while I had the time to dig a little deeper…

FutureGov recently wrote a blog discussing a report by Policy Exchange (PX), and they introduced it thusly [1]: ““Local authorities could save up to £10billion by 2020 through smarter and more collaborative use of technology and data.” Quite the eye catching headline from a new Policy Exchange.” PX have used this figure of £10bn as click bait for their report, and it’s interesting that many organisations have repeated it. The PX report runs through a list of ideas which could contribute to £10bn of savings and I’m going to use this blog to explore three with the largest indicative savings to quickly demonstrate that this number could politely be considered optimistic:

  1. Developing more shared capabilities…could save £1 billion over five years.

This could be achieved because the “NHS online recruitment service…has already generated savings of over £1 billion since its launch in 2003”. This stat came from a book, but it seemed large when compared to the other figures in the public domain (£240m is mentioned here and here; £5m savings over the first 2-3 years are mentioned here: and the original aspiration was for £24m over five years). So I asked the author via twitter for more information and I was directed to a detailed case study produced by the organisation who delivered the website. The £1bn was mainly calculated from eliminating advertising costs using the following sums: A study found it costs, on average, £800 to advertise for a teacher [2]. There are 200,000 jobs advertised for free on jobs.nhs.uk every year; if all of these jobs had similar advertising costs to teachers the total saving would be £160 million per year. So in twelve years since launch they conservatively estimate the savings would be a billion quid [3]. In summary: the £1bn figure is taken from the costs of recruiting teachers, applied over 12 years to jobs.nhs.uk; and then onto local government for achievement in five years. Anyway, regardless of where the numbers come from (and how appropriate it is to apply them), a free local government jobsite already exists.

  1. Expanding shared services could plausibly increase savings to more than £500 million each year.

The PX report makes the unarguable point that shared services could generate more savings with better data sharing and more co-procuring of the right technology. The £500m figure looks to be an extension of the LGA data on shared services saving (£165m in 2012, £278m in 2013 and £357m in 2014). However,PX quote the LGA report stating that “two thirds of councils believe that efficiencies will be running out by 2015/16.”  Can it be safely assumed that the total savings generated will increase further as a result of improved processes?

  1. Putting in place data-sharing arrangements to make a success of Whole Place Community Budgets across the country could save the public sector between £9.4 billion and £20.6 billion over 5 years          

This enormous savings figure was calculated and published within a report produced by Ernst and Young. They came to this figure by assessing the business cases of the four pilot areas and not the actual outcomes of the projects. They aggregated up the predicated savings and projected them onto a national scale [4]. But as a National Audit Office report states the “true scale of potential benefits will become clear only if projects are implemented and evaluated robustly”. So why are people still using the figures in the 2013 EY report? Probably because the DLCG end of pilot review, focused on the processes to successfully develop a community budget, rather than detailing any actual savings and no further reviews have taken place with the political focus quickly moving onto pooling/integrating budgets via City Deals and the Better Care Fund [5].

Finally, and this is a point not specifically about PE or the author of the report but we need to be aware that think tanks, despite proclamations of independence, often have political leanings which will be reflected in their policy campaigns [6]. This doesn’t mean the opinions/views/ reports should be dismissed without consideration but we need to recognise and understand where the report is coming from as part of the discussion. PX has longstanding links to the Conservative Party:  PXs own websitewas happy to report that in 2014 The Times described them as “David Cameron’s favourite think tank”.

This small example is indicative of a wider issue: local government is being bombarded with suggestions on how to remodel our services but we can’t allow policy ideas to emerge without thoroughly exploring the evidence base. Initiatives like the What Works Network will help by giving people access to systematic reviews of policy initiatives so we can use this to inform strategic and service planning. Perhaps there is also a need for a local government equivalent of the brilliant NHS Beyond the Headlines so we can really cut through the hype and challenge policy ideas at source.

Rob Jackson is on the Twitter.

Footnotes:

1.    I want to emphasise that I am a huge admirer of FutureGov, they are genuine innovators in the public sector who are passionate about improving services

2.    I can’t find the study but this figure actually seems pretty reasonable when you look at advertising costs on Jobs Go Public and The Guardian.

3.     The full quote: “Savings of well over £1bn thus far have been generated” My emphasis. I find the unequivocal language a bit odd – there are lots of reasons why this might not be the case, just a few are:

·         We are not comparing cost of advertising before and afterwards

·         The dynamic of the teacher labour market will differ from many of the professions within the NHS

·         The cost of advertising will vary through time

·         NHS jobs (especially senior roles) continue to be advertised on other websites.

4.    They did accompany it with a helpful (if largely ignored) warning:  “It should also be noted that net financial benefits do not necessarily translate into budget savings and there is a lot of work to do before this potential can be realised on a national scale.” 

5.    This clearly illustrates the inherent flaws of government pilot schemes that Ben Goldacre has criticised

6.    http://powerbase.info/index.php/think_tanks

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(More) Reflections on #UKGC15

Written by Gareth Young on . Posted in Our blog

This is a late post – over the past week the attendees of UK Gov Camp ’15 have been posting their thoughts and reflections. Glen did his last week (he’s more ‘on it’ than me).

This is traditional; part of the joy of a govcamp is everyone talking their time to summarise their version of the event. Glen has provided a decent summary of a govcamp but the one thing that I always forget in advance is that everyone’s experience is entirely different. As such, what follows is a summary of one person’s experience of UKGC15.

Before providing a few thoughts I should say that I find govcamps difficult. I’m an introvert at heart and have always found the group discussion element of things a difficult forum to operate in. I usually leave the event feeling a bit frustrated and yet unable to put my finger on exactly why but over time I have come to believe that this is an evolving thing. As such, I find that my experience of Govcamp evolves as I spend some time in the bar, chatting to people, and then reflect on the conversations over the next week or so.

Now onto some reflections:

1)      There is a new challenge caused by our increasing recognition of the need to design services around the customer

Ben Taylor's introduction to a session on the challenge of customer services in a more enlightened age will be the one that continues to make me think for a while. Ben posed the question, in more depth than I plan to – if we design services that are individually designed around the customer then how do we create a level of organisational structure around these interactions?

There was some really good input from other campers about what they are trying to do in their local authorities (yes, a session about service delivery was dominated by localgov folk – some stereotypes stick) and this topic will be one that sticks in the back of my mind percolating for a while yet.

2)      We’re all socialists now

I’ve been in local government for 6 years now and in general have come to the view that councils should do the jobs that they are best at and then get others, who know better, to do the things we aren’t. For councils this means, for example, getting other people to design the IT systems we need to use – as a local authority I think we’re just too small to have teams of people designing, coding and maintaining systems. And with over 400 councils this makes a lot of sense – a company working with even 10% of these councils is bound to have more resilience and capacity (not to mention skill) than any single council can.

And yet, as I toured around Govcamp loads of people were very sceptical about the idea of asking the private sector to do these things and a belief that it was far better to manage them ourselves. I think there were three reasons for this:

1.       Scale: Some of this comes from a central government perspective, where there is the scale to actually sustain this level of in house resource.

2.       Market Failure: One camper suggested that the private sector was also sceptical as selling the same thing to lots of local authorities was making them too much money.

3.       There is another way – Collaboration: The final, and possibly more compelling, reason was that many people saw an alternative in collaboration and sharing that would be better than everyone doing their own thing AND better than leaving it to the market.

There are counter points to all of this but the latter is one that sticks with me – especially due to my well-known love of shared services as a way to save money without outsourcing.

I do worry that collaboration leaves us fully at the mercy of one set of collaborators and might not allow for the flexibility we need in the future but I shall be pondering local government and capitalism a little more in the coming weeks.

3)      Continuous improvement relies on people

A session on continuous improvement was fascinating and there were lots of thoughts of how to build on initial projects (including the use of astro-physicists!); however, I think it all came back to people.

4)      Re-inventing is inevitable – and perhaps right

A session designed to find out why we keep reinventing the wheel and what we can do to prevent this instead led to a discussion of all the reasons we might want to keep reinventing things. I particularly enjoyed the parts where campers who were talking about not re-inventing things then set about explaining how things could be easily reinvented!

I imagine the answer is that not reinventing things requires a lot of compromise from those receiving those things whilst simultaneously not leading to any progress. Probably, we are all just a victim of the human need to constantly improve – and perhaps that’s not really a bad thing. It’s not as short term efficient as perhaps it might be but sometimes that’s not everything.

5)      Democracy is in a lot of trouble

Most people in the democracy session seemed pretty disengaged with politics, political parties and the political process. I don’t think twitter is going to save us here.

6)      IT moves far quicker than I do

I’m not an IT person; I’m not against computers and I try hard to keep up with what’s going on as I know how important it is – however, I just have other priorities I guess. Visiting Govcamp this year and listening to a lot of pitches that I didn’t necessarily understand made me realise things are moving even quicker than before – new efforts will need to be made on my part or else I’ll become one of those ‘back in my day’ merchants!

7)      I’m more lucky than I perhaps realise

Over the years I keep hearing stories about how many people feel frustrated by the narrow mindedness of their senior managers. I’ve rarely had experiences like that despite working with a number of these types of people in local government. This makes me think that either I’m very naïve or just very lucky. I’m feeling positive so I’ll go with the latter.

 

Govcamp is a funny beast – I love nothing more than spending a day talking about the public sector and how we can make it better and yet equally I do find the camp experience a little on the stressful side. Nonetheless, when I read back the above, and reflect on the multitude of other stuff floating around the back of my mind somewhere, it’s obviously a day well spent.