We recently published our report on improving the productivity of councils, with a focus on collaboration.
It’s been an interesting time to look at productivity in local government. Councils are at a point where they’ve already taken many of the obvious solutions. Anyone working in local government will be familiar with them: widespread workforce restructures, sharing services with neighbouring councils, redesigning job roles and services – not to mention cutting down on all but the most essential spending. ‘Doing more with less’ will be an all-too-familiar phrase to all council employees.
So it is a time for fresh thinking, for consideration of what’s most important. One of the really strong findings of the research was that councils are now thinking about outcomes – about what’s important for residents – as much as outputs. Doing the right thing, not just doing the same things well, is vital as finances are extremely constrained and will continue to be so. Things like Sunderland’s All Together Better service represents streamlined, more efficient service delivery. But the service also has the potential to improve people’s lives; preventing crisis and poor health outcomes through providing more effective care.
The focus on outcomes is welcome. To know that these outcomes are being achieved, though, services and councils need data. Often the theory underlying productivity initiatives is sound, but isn’t always accompanied by robust measurements of where improvements have been made. To understand their success (or lack of), councils need to know the original starting point (the baseline) of performance or spending on a specific area. Only then can they understand what represents real improvements or savings following the implementation of any given initiative.
For this reason, councils should start small when collaborating, with the aim of trialling a discrete initiative – the results of which can be measured fairly easily. And then councils would ideally feel encouraged to share those results, for the benefit of the whole sector. Trialling new ideas is by definition is a risky exercise. Sharing what doesn’t work as well as what does is a part of keeping public services sustainable, and support to ultimately to improve people’s lives.
The report focuses on collaboration, arguing for its key role in improving productivity and effectiveness. In the report, we show that collaboration isn’t always simple – it’s a mixture of art and science and needs to be done strategically. Sharing the results of these initiatives and being honest about the results with peers in local government and beyond will be a marker of good collaboration. Innovative, creative initiatives won’t always work but understanding what doesn’t work should be seen as essential to the process of driving improvement.