It's taken a few days to sink in. Unlike several commentators who are now trying to claim they foresaw the Conservative majority in Parliament, I will admit to being surprised by the General Election results. The collapse of the LibDems and the rise of the SNP may have been more predictable, but even here the sheer size of the shift seems incredible. Labour's strategy seems to have imploded, and in the final reckoning the Conservatives' reputation for financial judiciousness won the day.
So what does this mean for the future of public services in the next five years and beyond?
Without their erstwhile partners the Lib Dems to temper some of the Tory proposals, those working in the sector may be expecting the worst. Certainly the preceding five years of austerity, public funding cuts & the dismissive rhetoric of prominent Tories will stoke the fears of many in local government.
The pledges made in the Conservatives' manifesto and during the election campaign raise as many questions as answers. The (in)famous £12bn in welfare cuts remain shrouded in mystery, but the potential for pain is clear. The future of social housing, already suffering from years of neglect, has been destabilised further by the election promise of the extension of right to buy. Even the devolution of powers to local areas is largely cloaked in the nebulous phrase "Northern Powerhouse".
This is a bugbear of mine, mainly for two reasons. Firstly, how exactly is the "North" being defined? There is no agreement what this term even means in Doncaster, never mind Downing Street. I heard an interviewee in Newcastle scoffing at the idea of a Mancunian hub for the Powerhouse, as that city was "in the south" as far as he was concerned. Westminster soundbites will not help the cause of subsidiarity. The second reason is that the focus on the "North", whilst politically astute during the campaign, side-lines huge swathes of the country where the appetite, potential & need for greater responsibility & accountability is just as valid as that of Manchester, West Yorkshire & beyond. I hope the business rates pilot scheme in Cambridgeshire is an indication of the broadening of this canvas.
And yet there are reasons for optimism. The appointment of Greg Clark as Communities Secretary indicates a continued emphasis on devolution and decentralisation, together with a more collegiate and constructive approach to Whitehall's relationship with local authorities. The Conservatives have thus far been much more open to asymmetric devolution proposals, and although the city-centric approach may continue to hold sway the Tory shires will no doubt be lobbying for their own deals. This suggests the fundamental shift in local accountability and autonomy dreamt of by many in local government may be within reach.
To make this possible, the pre-election momentum must not be wasted. The incoming government has an overflowing in tray, particularly with the Nationalist surge in Scotland and the perennial EU referendum issue for the Conservative Party. Missed opportunities at this stage may be lost forever. The DevoManc deal, Centre for Cities' excellent publications, the Key Cities manifesto, the Non-Met report, and many more - all of these documents, positions and offers have built a case for devolution of some kind.
Perhaps now is the time for a collective voice for local authorities of all types - metropolitan, district and county - to pull all of this together as a menu of options for central government. Much as the LGA's excellent "First 100 Days of the Next Government" has set out a range of proposals for radical change to help address the financial and systemic problems in local government, the devolution agenda requires a comprehensive, collective voice. This may result in a loss of sovereignty for some, and may require a fundamental reassessment of how the public, private and voluntary sectors work together in future to focus on local priorities.
But place based budgets, financial autonomy, early intervention for complex issues, innovative service design: all these & more are up for grabs. The opportunity to create a vibrant, sustainable future for local government is there to be grasped; the sector must seize its chance.
Rob Foster works as a head of policy in local government and is passionate about better futures for public services. Follow him on twitter @futuresinfinite and his regular blog is published at futuresinfinite.blogspot.co.uk
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.
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 : ““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:
- 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 . 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 . 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.
- 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?
- 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 . 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 .
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 . 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.
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
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