By Suzannah.Brecknell

17 Nov 2010

A local authority employee shares his thoughts on finding savings and driving innovation

“I’m a business improvement officer in a London borough. My job involves finding areas where the council can deliver services for less money, deliver better services for the same amount of money, or deliver better services for less money. However, this is a lot more subtle than simply finding areas to cut. In the last month I’ve been working on two shared services projects and a shared procurement project across several local authorities.

These reforms have been accompanied by supply and demand exercises with senior managers, asking what services they provide, what they could stop doing, and what certain funding cuts might mean for them; in other words, some good, old-fashioned restructuring.

The 25 per cent cut in local government funding has obviously made my job harder. To a certain extent, the pressure on funding helps me to make a case for improvements. But in the sense that the cuts are being made at seven per cent a year, and are being brought in so close to the beginning of the next budget settlement, it hasn’t helped make radical changes; by necessity, councils are often leaning on incremental change. We will make some savings this year above the seven per cent cut, but we’re going to have to do it again next year, and the year after, and the year after, and so on. That is not necessarily a recipe for stable, secure or reformed local government: it’s a recipe for salami-sliced, unstable, unconfident, de-motivated local government.

That said, abolishing all performance indicators has been a very positive thing and, in my opinion, is going to lead to innovation in local authorities. In the past, if a manager had three or four indicators set by national government, then when you asked them: ‘What is the key thing that you do as a service?’, they’d answer: ‘Well, I have to meet my indicators’. Perhaps it’s not that crude, but the indicators often stopped them thinking creatively about what they should be measuring and monitoring and how they can design measures (or should that be milestones?) that would help them deliver an improved service.

Ringfencing had a powerful effect on persuading local government to put its resources in certain places. In theory, local government should now be free to set its own priorities. The removal of ringfences is probably a good thing, but my fear is that some services that in the past have been protected by ringfencing may be at risk. In the new climate local authorities may shy away from implementing cuts on non-ringfenced services that have nonetheless to date been seen as sacrosanct – things like children’s services and adult services, which have the potential to absorb every single penny you have because the need is never-ending. Less high-profile, traditionally ringfenced services could then end up being cut disproportionately. Youth involvement activities is one obvious example that springs to mind.

In the first set of budget cuts – the £6.2bn announced in the June budget – central government quite unsubtly removed ringfences from things that it thought we should get rid of.

This time round it’s been a lot more, dare I say it, open and honest: local authorities can largely take cuts from wherever they want. This means local authorities are going to have to grow some balls; they’re going to have to learn to make some real decisions where in the past central government has guided them and taken a lot of the scope for real innovation away from councils. I’m not 100 per cent certain local authorities are ready for this, but I look forward to finding out.

Despite this risk, I think civil servants should as far as possible continue on the path they’re travelling, in the sense that they’re saying: ‘Here is the broad envelope in which you have to operate: operate; take decisions; be radical, be innovative; be like a state government in America, where they’re willing to take risks and to do things that are totally different from the rest of the country; know that whatever you do, we won’t get in the way of your doing it.”

Civil servants should be prepared to give up not just the right to set targets, but the right to interfere at all. Maybe that should apply to council tax decisions as well, but that could be too much to ask! Local authorities do have the capacity to deliver innovative, improved services.

Another thought for civil servants would be: when you’re looking at the ‘Big Society’ and trying to think of a way to bring government closer to the people, don’t discount local government. Don’t forget about the role that local government can play, in providing consent for decisions that you have to make in the local area; in providing capacity for decision-making; and in providing legitimacy.

The tenor of Big Society policy so far hasn’t favoured local government. The Big Society Group that has been set up: where is the representation from local government? Where is the contact with local government? As far as I’m aware, it’s nowhere. Where is the respect for the public services that local government delivers on a very local basis? Again, largely ignored. So I do think that local government has been somewhat lost in the drive to the Big Society, and I think that’s a mistake.”

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