The Future of Local Government Part 3 – A Critical and Trusted Friend

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I’ve blogged previously on the subject of the future of local government but some posts were very scattered and half-baked, like most of the posts I write :) however I have written two previous posts which I’d like to associate this one with:

Part 1 – Future of Local Government

Part 2 – Future of Local Government – social enterprise council

In Devon there is a group of people from across the council who are coming together to talk about, challenge and discuss what the future landscape is for local government – It all kicked off back in June/July…

It is a bit like having a constant Open Space South West event but without the awesomeness of the external challenge and great food! That doesn’t mean that my colleagues aren’t awesome because they are…everyone has been on a journey and the issues and challenges that the groups have been discussing have been a struggle to get to grips with, but the important thing is – we are starting to make sense of some of this stuff now and there are some very good outputs and the level of thinking has increased dramatically.

We have six groups altogether – People, Systems, Customers, Commissioning, Spend and I’m in a group which is looking at Demand.

The group was initially charged with looking at 3 overarching questions but these were a guide and we were given freedom to explore all the issues providing we could come back together later this month to report our learning.

The questions were:

  • How can we move away from the current approach of ‘rationing’ provision to influencing and managing demand?
  • How can we better understand demand drivers so that we can deal differently with demand e.g. community resilience, building up skills??
  • How can we change behaviour so that expectations are better managed and others can make a bigger contribution?

To say that it was all good would be a lie, the conversations were challenging at the very beginning and it took the group some time to find its own rhythm and for the members of the group to find a consensus and for us all to break out of our current thinking modes.

For me the fundamental action that is required moving forward is a shift in the relationship between the state/public services and citizens. We also need to acknowledge that we need to have better and more aligned relationships with private and voluntary sector…

There is a little bit or irony about some of the conclusions I’ve personally come to in that when the county council faced the issue of local government reorganisation and the possible threat of not existing – we started to really articulate our core value and purpose in levels that I hadn’t seen before or unfortunately since – until now that is…the challenge and issue is that we clearly haven’t created a learning culture otherwise the conversations we have had would have developed the thinking of a few years ago, but in fact we have almost hit the same point but from a different angle…which is also OK…at least it reaffirms the previous thinking…

Anyway let me share some of the thinking about Demand, well the key starting point for us as a group was what demand isn’t.

We considered the issue of managing demand to definitely not be about:

  • Tightening or changing eligibility criteria so that fewer people are able to access a service who have legitimate needs to do so.
  • Altering, changing or restricting access or opening hours of services to reduce costs and pressures on budgets
  • Stop investing in or delivering non-statutory services – just because something is non-statutory doesn’t mean it isn’t a valuable service. Most preventative services are non-statutory and are key to reducing demand on statutory services over time.
  • Passing on costs to partners – no more to add to this one…

It is important to recognise that these approaches simply take what we currently provide and either reduce the numbers of people accessing them, stop them completely or pass on costs elsewhere. None of this supports communities and individuals to meet their needs, the very people that we are here to help.

We also acknowledged and spoke about the differences between “needs”, “demand” and “wants”.

  • Need happens
  • Demand is manageable
  • Want is a perceived need

Whilst everyone has needs, demands only happen when those needs are within the current remit of the council or public service provider

One of the challenging conversation was about how to manage demand and what options and strategies we could adopt now and in the future to either reduce or increase demand depending on the service.

The following is not a comprehensive list of what we discussed but are some of the more fundamental ones as we saw them here.

Pre-empt and Prevent

This requires us to plan strategically – we aren’t talking about the next 3-5 years but we must look at the next 30-40 years especially when it comes to social care…the example we used was what are we doing to-day with our 30-40 year old population which will reduce demand on our social care services when they hot there 70′s or 80′s?

Outcomes

A lot is mentioned about outcomes but rarely do we actually refer to the outcomes we are trying to solve…still so much of the conversation across all of local government (my perception anyway) is that we are service and target driven.

If we are really clear to the outcomes we want to see we can plan better and be more holistic and strategic in how we design services, so that poorly designed services don’t generate additional demand on other services – an example I used is school transport. Now as a parent and a school governor it was something which struck a chord with me.

Parents and families have a choice what school they can send their children to and this in itself isn’t a problem and is a good choice, however when a family chooses a school which then subsequently requires school transport the council is expected to cover the costs. One option might be to say as part of the choice for your school if your preferred option falls outside of your public transport network then the council is not expected to fund your transport. This could then perhaps spark a service which looks like the carsharedevon scheme but for parents and families to resolve school transport issues.

Capacity Building

It is an obvious thing to say but we really need to work across all sectors or society and build capacity into communities and individuals so that we can actually realise the change.

Some of this will be through facilitating connections between networks and networks of networks so that solutions can be solved locally without the need for the council or public service body to get involved.

Cultural and Societal Change

We need to shift and transform our dialogue to one which facilitates connections with others first before suggesting that the council could or is able to provide a service.

This is where I consider the role of a council shifting to a trusted and critical friend as opposed to the traditional parent child relationship which exists now.

A critical and trusted friend, in my personal opinion would offer good advice and challenge me to act for myself and support me when times are good and prepare me for when things could go bad. What they certainly wouldn’t do is to do all those things for me and make me less independent. This is a major shift in the relationship and when you throw in the democratic relationship into this mix we can see the scale of the challenge ahead – it is kind of exciting when you think about.

In my personal view, if I were to sit here and write that Devon County Council will exist in 8-10 years time, I would be very naive – however what I do know is that a public service body of some kind will exist, which will have a particular set of responsibilities for example:

  • needs assessment
  • agree outcomes
  • vision
  • influence
  • coordinating funding
  • commissioning
  • evaluation and review

So for me the future for local government is that we must accept that it won’t look like it does today, second that we must work across all providers to come together around shared outcomes and lastly we must transform and shift the relationships between citizens, public services and the wider ecosystem we sit within.

There is an interesting article in the Guardian today about behaviour change which outlines 6 goals for a local authority and this very much echoes the conversations we have been having in the demand group and in wider conversations as well.

I shall leave you with this as it very much reflects the thinking we are doing here – the article states:

1. Set a medium-term vision for place in partnership with other organisations in the public, business and third sectors, and through informed and honest dialogue with local people.

2. Based on this vision, adopt strategic objectives for the local authority itself.

3. Review all current expenditure and actions against the strategic options. Be willing to do different things in different ways, funded in new ways to secure the desired result. Set clear outcomes targets; stop doing some things while starting other new activities to meet new and contemporary needs. Where possible, switch resources into prevention.

4. Develop place-shaping and community leadership. Look to influence and bring into play all the available resources in the area, not just the council’s own coffers.

5. Ensure that local people, the voluntary and community sector, businesses, suppliers, contractors and staff are engaged in decision-making.

6. Adopt behaviours and processes that enable the authority to collaborate, partner and share with and where appropriate cede power to others – other local public sector agencies, the VCS, neighbourhoods and citizens.

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