The Three futures for Local Government
Adam Lent, Director, NLGN, 24 April, 2017

Since Theresa May took over as Prime Minister, local councils have increasingly understood that their future now resides in their own hands. The devolution agenda, once driven by the former Chancellor, has severely lost energy. Instead, the new Government has been heavily focused on Brexit and the economy leaving both public services and local government well down the policy agenda. So councils are now aware that they will have to make their own future even if it is not under conditions of their own choosing with austerity still very much biting.

It is, of course, possible that this will all change after the election. The manifestoes might be full of devolutionary zeal. The new Government might not be of a political form the polls predict bringing enthusiastic local government and public service geeks in from another party. Or maybe, in a fit of absent-mindedness, the new PM might appoint an influential and optimistic visionary to lead DCLG. The gamblers amongst you, however, might be wise to bet on none of these outcomes.

After almost a year of the May Government, three visions of what local government might make of its own future is beginning to emerge with a particularly radical perspective – what NLGN calls ‘changemaking’ in a think-piece published today – at the sharpest cutting edge.

There appear to be three visions.

1. Muddling Through

This is largely a continuation of what most councils have been doing since 2010. The combination of severely constrained resources and rising demand on services is dealt with by slicing bits off budgets, restructuring departments, rewriting job descriptions and essentially asking and hoping that a smaller, busier workforce can do more with less.

2. Doubling Down

Over the last year or so a growing number of councils have begun to recognise that the muddling through approach is no longer up to the challenge. The fact that cuts will continue until at least 2020 and the persistent rise in demand means that salami-slicing of budgets and internal re-organisation cannot address the resources squeeze sufficiently.
Instead, more and more councils are looking to intensify a series of approaches that have been around in one form or another for a number years.

seeking to secure economies of scale, even deeper sharing of services and the potential to drive greater impact across wider geographical areas, councils are increasingly exploring merging either with each other in various configurations.

under pressure to find new sources of revenue, many councils are exploring how to commercialise their operation through the monetisation of assets and their presence in markets such as transport, energy, recruitment and retail.

Demand management:
there is now a real push on to manage demand for public services more effectively. Increasingly, the most innovative councils are pushing forward integration of health and social care, investing in early intervention and seeking to use data and new technology far more imaginatively to target policies.

Local growth: the promise of 100% business rates retention combined with constrained resources is encouraging councils to focus very heavily on expanding their tax base by developing detailed plans and partnerships to attract investment, advance skills, develop infrastructure and build new homes. The goal of a vibrant local economy with improved employment prospects is also regarded as an important way to manage the higher levels of demand on public services created by deprivation and worklessness.

3. Changemaking

While the various elements of the doubling down option have the potential to generate real gains, a number of councils are beginning to understand that their successful implementation and the wider achievement of the goals to which they aim requires something altogether more holistic and radical. This is nothing less than the reinvention of the cultures and norms that shape the behaviour of council employees and, even more radically, of the communities they serve.

In the think-piece we launch today, the New Local Government Network identifies three characteristics of this changemaking approach that we explore in some detail:

  • The active creation of a positive culture and shared values across a council and its community.
  • The embedding of three values of creativity, self-determination and collaboration as a set of norms both for council officers and for the organisations, individuals and neighbourhoods that make up a community. These stand in contrast to the inertia, hierarchy and territorialism that too often marks the way local authorities, the wider public sector and, sadly, often communities operate and think about themselves.
  • A fierce clarity of mission with a relentless focus on outcomes for the council and for the organisations with which it partners.

It is an approach that draws on radical new approaches to delivering impact in the private and social sectors and could completely reinvent the way councils work and understand their role in relation to their communities. In particular, the three core values of creativity, self-determination and collaboration hold out the promise of unleashing the efforts of thousands to imaginatively address and resolve the considerable social challenges with which councils grapple every day. In an increasingly complex and fast-moving world in desperate need of constant innovation, this crowd-based approach to social impact is appearing increasingly unavoidable.

Of course, such a new approach raises many questions of practice. What are the tools that can be employed by a council to deliver culture shift on this scale? What is the nature of the leadership that is required to deploy the ‘soft power’ that can persuade council workers and citizens to shift their behaviour? Is it possible to forecast the likely social and financial impact of a changemaking shift and can it be adequately assessed once it is? It is to the task of answering these and many other questions about the changemaking approach that NLGN will be dedicating itself over the coming months and years.