Time to challenge councils that are living in the past
25 March, 2005

Natalie Tarry, Research Officer, NLGN
Public Servant

Local government modernisation is an ongoing process with local authorities continually faced with new challenges. Many councils are responding imaginatively to the emerging agendas and have great stories to tell. They use partnerships to help them on their way and work closely with the private, public and voluntary sectors to achieve more responsive and personalised services, social and economic regeneration and community engagement. At the same time, the pressure is on them to demonstrate greater efficiencies, more value for money and better use of resources.

In a new study, the New Local Government Network (NLGN) makes the experiences of what works and what delivers improvement and modernisation heard. The research, New Ways to Modernise looks at how 24 authorities have used different experiences, many of them in partnership with others, to deliver on the modernisation agendas. It identifies new trends in the partnership market and how these are being influenced by the developing agendas.

The current focus on efficiency gains is probably the agenda that keeps most local authority Chief Executives awake at night. The Efficiency Review lays considerable emphasis on the use of partnerships and collaboration in producing these gains. To most local authorities this type of co-operation does not come naturally, and cultural change is required if it is to truly succeed.

One example where this is already happening is the partnership between Suffolk County Council, Mid Suffolk District Council and BT. The challenges they have sought to address through joint working are shared with many local authorities. Most citizens within the County do not understand council service boundaries, which authority is responsible for emptying their bins and which for delivering social care. The Suffolk partnership is trying to address this by creating single points of access for customers and communities, and aims to offer choice and convenience. Among the improvements will be a single customer service centre, joining-up County and District services for enquirers, a series of ‘one-stop-shops’, a website and a single point of access to health and social care services.

Another vital element in the developing modernisation agenda is the economic and social regeneration of communities. Some partnerships are increasingly trying to have an impact on the wider local area using local businesses and forging successful relations with the community. They also work together with schools and the voluntary sector to create tangible improvements for the local community.

The partnership between the London Borough of Barking and Dagenham and Accord illustrates this. Accord came on board to help the Council improve its housing repairs service, at the same time, the partnership is seeking to raise the local community’s pride in the Borough – by making it a ‘cleaner, safer and greener’ place to live and work. They employ local labour and involve local SMEs in their work and have a growing apprentice scheme and strong relations with the local college and voluntary sector, for example creating work and training space at its Barking Depot for special needs children. All the while, they have delivered on service improvements and greater efficiencies – indeed, meeting 90% of their fourth year targets within the first year.

Many local authorities have recognized that going it alone cannot solve the big issues in their communities any longer and that they need to engage their citizens and communities in a meaningful way.

Gedling Borough Council, a district in Nottinghamshire, operates a public-public-voluntary partnership to fight anti-social behaviour and crime in one of its most deprived neighbourhoods. This includes an active local residents group (HEAT – Honeywood Estate Action Team) and other local partners, such as the police and voluntary bodies. The partnership was formed following complaints by residents about fly-tipping, abandoned vehicles and noise nuisance.

HEAT has been successful in obtaining funding and making contacts with the wider community, including local businesses. Monthly residents meeting are held and a newsletter produced to keep people informed of local activities and progress. The partnership has led to a 35% decrease in recorded crime and a 70% reduction in abandoned vehicles; and residents’ perception of the safety of their locality has increased. Indeed, local people now have a say over the use of a derelict site on the estate, upon which they plan to build and then run a community centre.

All these experiences have one thing in common; they are being made by pragmatic authorities that recognize they cannot continue alone to try and solve all the complex modernisation issues local government faces. They are no longer affected by the legacy of Competitive Compulsory Tendering (CCT) and have truly understood the principles of Best Value. The partnerships they enter into are real.

One example of such a cultural shift is the experience of Sheffield City Council, which has formed four strategic service delivery partnerships to bring about improvement.

One of these, a partnership with Kier has been set up to deliver building repairs to all council properties and exemplifies the changed approach. The Council chose a partnership because it could not meet the investment needed for ICT and its management capacity. Nor could it guarantee future opportunities for its staff. The partnership is not only delivering service improvements, it has also made the service sustainable with ample opportunities for staff. The Council operates an arms-length approach to contract monitoring and the relationship is largely based on trust. Together, they have succeeded in building a very robust relationship where both parties are well-knitted and not constantly referring back to contracts and protocols. The partners view the relationship as unique and admit they have not previously worked in such an open environment.

Partnerships with the private sector and collaborative arrangements with other local authorities, public bodies and the voluntary sector have a role to play in the modernisation of local government. Yet few councils currently recognise the potential of such approaches to delivering services. Too many councils continue to be influenced by the legacy of CCT and the often adversarial relationship with business created by the need to compete. They have not learned from the many positive experiences of others within the local government family. It is time therefore, to start challenging those that continue to live in the past.