A week is a long time in local government!

At the end of this week, I think it would be good to reflect on quite a number of reports regarding the future of local government that have been in the news.

The week started with media reports that the Big Society project was in crisis. A report from Deloitte added to that sense of crisis, saying that there was a lack of leadership and this was reinforced by subsequent polling this week showing that the public were equally confused and sceptical. The Deloitte report set out a number of challenges:

  • Significant change to local authority business models. Uncertainty around budgeting, future revenue and capabilities create a series of business change challenges for local authorities.
  • Within communities, there is significant variance in capability and engagement. There is poor strategic understanding of where community capability interfaces with areas facing cuts.
  • There is an urgent need to understand what is possible on a systemic, not just ad hoc or experimental, level. Councils need to build a matrix of organisations to do business with based on their track record, impartiality, corporate structures and their legitimacy.
  • There are no common standards of accountability and governance. There is patchy or limited best practice around the optimum accountability and governance mechanisms for community-led delivery models.

Quite an indictment! When combined with the regularly expressed fears by the voluntary sector regarding a loss of capacity as a result of public spending cuts, one could see where the sense of crisis was coming from. No wonder there were media reports suggesting Ministers were looking at the Big Society afresh.

However as the week went on a more positive agenda emerged. A new report by localism think tank New Local Government Network (NLGN) has set out a vision for more sustainable local public services beyond the current financial settlement and the aims of the government’s Localism Bill. Next Localism: Five trends for the future of local government explored how a new relationship between State and Citizen could make a reality of the freedoms needed to fulfil local government’s ambition, shape the future of local democracy and ‘lock in’ localism into the wider public service reform agenda.

The report demanded three reforms from central government that would herald a new era of localism:

  • Greater financial reform: to reduce local government’s dependency on Westminster by letting councils raise more than half of their own money from local sources, up from less than 40% at present. This is an area that has not yet been addressed by the government, despite many proposed changes in other areas of the public services.
  • New management powers: to improve local services, with councils able to bid to manage elements of budgets currently controlled by Whitehall, such as health, police and Job Centres, so councils can help design more efficient and personalised local services. The DCLG’s Community Budget pilots will hopefully lead to an extension of local budgetary control.
  • Greater Whitehall reform: with central government better joined-up on policy, localism integrated into the decision-making process, and ministers and their officials set more hurdles to stop the micro-management of localities. The Government’s own Essential Guide to the Decentralisation and Localism Bill seems to point to a more joined-up approach.

NLGN  identified five shifts for how councils can be more ambitious:

1. A shift from retrenching to redeveloping. Once the first wave of cuts is over, councils must decide whether they want to become less ambitious, or whether they will transform their services and develop new roles in their communities.

2. Local government needs to move from simply piloting new approaches to transforming services on an industrial scale. Over the coming years, local and central government will need to be much bolder, working together to rapidly bring approaches such as early intervention, prevention and community-based budgeting into the mainstream.

3. A shift from wholesale to retail provision as services are increasingly sold directly to individuals. This trend is most obvious in social care, where the government is preparing to shove councils down the route of personal budgets. But other services such as health and education are also being marketised.

4. A shift in the political role of councils from being primarily service providers to becoming democratic hubs. As the shared or commissioned services approach strips members of their role as elected service managers, they will need to embrace a role that combines traditional voter advocacy with community capacity building and social entrepreneurship.

5. Local government will have to move from place-shaping to community development. Instead of planning better places from the town hall, councils will need to help citizens and communities make better choices for themselves by providing them with information and advice, and by building up intangible assets like trust and social capital.

The last point is something we in TCC have been pioneering with local authorities. In order for public bodies to understand intangible assets such as trust and social capital, they first need deep insight into communities to understand the position they are currently in and not where public bodies might want them to be. Often the public body and its staff may hold very different values to some of the highest users of public services they seek to serve or represent.

The NLGN paper showed that despite the financial difficulties, there was a big agenda that could be developed. Another paper that was published at the end of last week also contributes to that. Graham Allen’s report to the Government on Early Intervention has broad all-party support, but calls for a significant change in how public bodies target their activity.

Early intervention will improve the lives of vulnerable children and in the words of the report will help break the cycle of “dysfunction and under-achievement”. The Allen Report says success or failure in early childhood has “profound economic consequences” and calls for more private money to be channelled into early intervention schemes to help set children on the right path in life. He highlights the Family Nurse Partnership, which has had a lot of success in the United States, and says it should be available to all vulnerable first-time mothers in the UK. The programme sees specially trained nurses regularly visiting young, first-time mothers from pregnancy until their child is two, to promote attachment and positive parenting.

The Allen report recommends:

  • Regular assessments of all pre-school children, focusing on their social and emotional development. We in TCC think this is vital and in order to do this believe that one also needs to understand the social and emotional development of the parent too.
  • A national parenting programme in the UK.
  • Numbering all year groups from birth not just from the start of primary school and that the UK gives the pre-school years – 0 to 5, including pregnancy – the same recognition developmentally as the primary and secondary years of education.
  • The setting up an independent early intervention foundation to drive early intervention forward, assess policies and attract investment

Early intervention along with the new public health role for local government show that there are many new opportunities for local communities and their public representatives to seize on. Indeed with both programmes likely to be led by local authorities, there is a substantial overlap and potential synergies in linking the two programmes together, so they reinforce each other.

On a final positive note, the week ended with the publication today of the Lambeth Cooperative Council report. This goes much further than the principles examined in the NLGN report and sets out many practical approaches to how local authorities can develop mutual and social enterprise solutions to the new challenges facing service delivery. TCC recognises the importance of this and has recently been working with local authorities on capacity building and developing the role of social enterprises and timebanks to ensure poorer communities are not left out of this process.

In the end the best way to build any form of Big Society is to strengthen local capacity and that could take a few years. Instead of crisis headlines, what we really need is patient work at a local level learning both from the successes and failures. We need a deep understanding of local communities, so public services are responsive to social and emotional needs as well as physical ones. We also need to appreciate their current level of motivation and ensure communicating support and change is expressed in the same language as their values. What central and local government can probably best do to contribute to that agenda is to enable a range of different approaches to develop and celebrate and promote the good ideas that emerge from that process.

Charlie Mansell is the Research and Development Officer at The Campaign Company. If you want to see what your own primary values set is, why not take the simple Values Questionnaire here.

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