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NLGN posed this question in a recent survey of more than 65 councils from across the country. Depending on how you read the results, the findings are either remarkably optimistic or deeply worrying.
The good news is that councils think they can make very big savings from doing things differently – almost a third of them reckon that half or more of their cuts could be managed by imaginative new ways of delivering services. The majority also think their council is well-placed to deliver innovation.
But here’s where it gets more complicated: while councils appear confident of their capacity to innovate, they also think there are huge barriers to making change happen. The most important barrier is time. Councils are under so much day-to-day pressure that they are struggling to make the space for transformation.
A majority of councils also report a lack of the skills needed for innovation. This may reflect the fact that local government is genuinely trying to do new things, such as reduce demand for adult social care, where good practice is still emerging.
There is also a powerful sense that the pace of change in local government is simply too slow, with 70% agreeing that this was the case.
It appears we have uncovered a paradox – a sector that is simultaneously self-confident about innovation and worried about the pace of change. Are councils banking on huge savings that they can’t deliver in reality?
A closer look at the data helps clear things up. There is a super-confident group of councils who believe they can make huge savings without encountering many barriers, but also authorities who are putting efficiency savings first and others who think the barriers to delivering transformation are too high to make it worthwhile.
Whichever group your council falls into, it is absolutely obvious that local government needs to innovate harder and faster if it is to have any chance of avoiding major reductions in the range and quality of its services.
Over the coming months, NLGN and BT will be taking forward a new project called OneBigIdea which will bring together an innovation network of the brightest in local government and the private sector to develop new thinking on the future of public services. Our goal is to help councils overcome the lack of time and skills they face, but also to create a new sense of possibility around local public service reform. We hope you’ll join us.