Ten steps to local government transformation
Daniel Ratchford, 31 August, 2011

I’m just back from leave, and took the opportunity (amongst other things) to catch up on some interesting publications that have been sitting on my ‘must read’ pile for a few weeks, prompting me to think more about the direction of travel of some of the services I lead in Sutton, and about what the next decade might bring.

Those of us working in local authorities certainly do so in challenging times – with significant (and continuing) budget reductions; rising public expectations; and increasing public need.

We are already seeing massive and significant changes in what we do, and how – which will enable us to meet these challenges and deliver better quality, more customer-focused, services…(and of course), for less money. But we’ll need to accelerate these changes over the next decade if we are to keep up, and to deliver some genuine transformation in our services

I see ten trends which will guide this transformation:

1. We are already seeing a greater emphasis on techniques to encourage behaviour change (for example, our hugely successful Smarter Travel Sutton programme), and this will continue

2. Using behavioural insights like this is just one of the ways we will focus more of our resources on prevention. At its most basic level in environment services, this is about encouraging people to drop less litter (in Sutton, we spend £4m a year picking it up)

3. More generally, our citizens will be increasingly involved in defining, designing and delivering services alongside us. Sutton is a Big Society ‘vanguard’ and our politicians have been actively engaged in ‘helping people to help themselves’ in Sutton for decades. For example, this year we gave out 10,000 free bags of grit to residents who wanted to help us clear their roads and pavements

4. We will need to get better at understanding, evaluating, assessing and managing risk over the next decade. In particular, we’ll need to be braver – and more honest – about leading a debate on the value for money of using public resources to guard against risk

5. We will see even more shared services between councils. In Sutton, we share our HR service with Merton, and our registrars service; we’ve just agreed to share our ICT service with Kingston, and already share our Head of Streetscene Services with them; and through the South London Waste Partnership, we share waste disposal services with three other boroughs

6. As well as working with other councils, we will see increases in partnership working with other organisations – in our case, particularly with the voluntary sector, but for others with the private sector.

7. Of course, technology will also enable the complete transformation of some of our services over the next decade – probably in ways we can’t even begin to predict. We need to be ready to take advantage of the opportunities that will be provided. Our new online booksharing service, Sutton Bookshare, is a great example

8. Despite delivering more services online, we will continue to have a visible presence within our communities. But we’ll do this through fewer, more multi-use buildings, and more generic multi-skilled front-line staff

9. Underpinning all of this, we will see a renewed and increased focus on environmental sustainability and biodiversity, through approaches like Sutton’s One Planet Living

10. And finally, we will see the emergence of a new role around community-led place shaping. These are all words that we’ve used before, but the emergence of neighbourhood planning (Sutton is one of the ‘Front Runners’ for this) provides a genuine opportunity for councils to shift our role: from those who seek to define place, to those who act as facilitators of communities doing this for themselves.

So, times of great challenge. But some interesting opportunities too – and perhaps the chance for those of us who have the privilege to run public service to completely rethink how we do this.