The new modernisers
16 May, 2005

Natalie Tarry, Researcher, NLGN
Parliamentary Monitor

Trying to define what a successful and modernising local authority looks like is a difficult task. Many different roads lead to success, and the stakes are being continually raised through the introduction of new challenges, such as the Gershon Review and its drive for greater efficiencies, and the onset of new policy agendas, including user-choice, community leadership and regeneration. Still, one thing is for sure. Modernisation is not a static concept, and being a moderniser might mean revisiting old agendas as much as responding to new ones.

The New Local Government Network has spent the past year unearthing modernisation stories that we hope will inspire all local authorities to raise their game. Our report back, New Ways to Modernise looks at the different ways in which some of the more innovative councils are addressing their challenges. In a range of ways, they are doing so through in-house provision, partnership with the private or voluntary sectors, or collaboration with other authorities across traditional geographical boundaries.

Many options exist for councils to deliver service improvements and the choice over which vehicle will get the best results depends upon the individual authority and its needs. There is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ model to solve all problems. NLGN’s work draws on a range of real-life solutions from councils across the CPA (Comprehensive Performance Assessment) spectrum and also politically. Bringing what we have found to the attention of the rest of local government, and beyond, will hopefully enable other authorities to learn from their own experiences.

Public Private Partnerships (PPPs) play a role in this context, introducing an often entirely new way of working into many local authorities. The evidence suggests that, managed properly, such partnerships can lead to substantial service improvement and innovation. New accountability structures, the rigorous discipline of targets and KPIs (Key Performance Indicators) and the development of real partnership cultures have made many a great success.

Of course, PPPs are not the only way. Cross-boundary delivery partnerships between councils can deliver economies of scale and greater efficiencies, and new management practices can be introduced through new forms of leadership. Some benefits however, are unique to PPPs, such as access to capital and investment, and additional capacity and expertise.

Experiences like that of Sheffield City Council, recently voted ‘Council of the Year’ by the Local Government Chronicle lead the way in this new and exciting way of working. Sheffield delivers several of its services in partnership with others. Its PPP with Kier to modernise the city’s building repair service has recently picked up the coveted award for Best PPP and is delivering great improvements on the ground. 90% of all repairs are now delivered on time, and front-line workers are using the latest in mobile communications technology to speed up response times. The partnership is also targeting disaffected and unemployed youths for employment, helping the social and economic regeneration of the city.

Another example of local government PPP is that between the London Borough of Greenwich and Deloitte, which aims to modernise the Council’s ICT provision. The partnership has taken an incremental approach to deliver the kind of savings and efficiencies now expected of local authorities. Greenwich favoured this option, because it meant that it did not need to commit to a substantial upfront investment or an inflexible agreement that would bind them for years. As John Comber, the Council’s Head of Human Resources has put it: “We had also run out of skills and knowledge in a number of areas and needed some external help and increased capacity. It is also good to have a partner who challenges you and your practices continually and shares our vision”. Both sides view the partnership as a success that has allowed for greater transparency over costs and brought significant savings on procurement and licensing.

Of course, not all is rosy. Plenty of local authorities are light years away from adopting the pragmatic modern approaches that NLGN has uncovered around the country. Many of these councils follow the mantra ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’. But often where it is broke, many are too comfortable to challenge their existing ways of working. They fail to consider the partnership option. On the one hand, because they are still influenced by the legacy of CCT (Compulsory Competitive Tendering) which helped foster an adversarial relationship with businesses. On the other, and for largely parochial reasons, they do not want to team up with neighbouring authorities.

On the whole though, plenty of examples exist that should make us optimistic about the future. The lessons contained in New Ways to Modernise will be vital for all in local government, and indeed everyone interested in the modernisation agenda. As many of our best councils are proving, partnerships and collaboration can deliver service improvement and help address emerging agendas. What it ultimately needs however, is progressive leadership that dares to take the plunge.