As the funding cuts start to bite, things are changing rapidly in local government. But this is only the start. My own local authority, for example, managed to find savings of £17.5m in 2011/12 and needs to identify another £30m by 2015. And if the trend continues, they estimate that they will have to cut expenditure by a further £39m by 2018. This will leave the Council with only half of the resources that it had in 2010/11.
It is becoming clear that local authorities as we know them will look very different at the end of this decade than they did at the beginning. And we are, without doubt, looking at far more than just driving out inefficiency or cutting a bit off each service budget. We are talking about wholesale change in how local government works, what it does and what it means to the people it serves.
This will require some big ideas and some bold decisions. And we will all need to work together to make them happen. So, while I don’t have all the answers (though I am, of course, working on it), I wanted to share some examples I have come across in the last few days of how local authorities can redefine and revitalise the way they work.
1. Have a vision. Think about how you want your authority to look in ten years time. What will it do? What will it not do? How will it interact with people? Start with where you want to be, rather than where you are now. Work with councillors, officers and local people to develop a consensus on what you can reasonably achieve. Then get to work. It looks like the cuts are here to stay, so the sooner you grasp the nettle, the less it will hurt.
2. Look outwards. Don’t just look to the usual sources for ideas, advice and guidance. Look at how organisations in other parts of the public sector operate. Look, too, at the commercial and voluntary sectors. What can you learn from them? How about public sector bodies in other countries? How do they work? How do they deliver services?
3. Look inwards. Ask local people and groups, as well as your own members and officers, for their ideas. Make the most of their skills and experience. Get them to suggest ways of doing things differently. Surrey County Council has initiated a ‘dragons den’ style approach, asking local communities to pitch ideas for improving travel and stimulating economic growth. What could you do?
4. Manage demand. Whether it is responsive road maintenance or adult social care, many services are driven by demand. When demand goes up, costs go up. When demand goes down, … well, you get the picture. So is there anything you can do to manage, or even reduce, demand? Perhaps you could use the ‘nudge’ approach favoured by economists to change service user behaviour. Or perhaps just be more open about the costs involved.
5. Think local. When looking for partners or putting services out to tender, it is always tempting to lump everything together, in the expectation that economies of scale will help to keep costs down. But this also excludes many smaller local organisations from the process altogether. Why not break things down so that the little guys can get a look in? They’re cheaper, more flexible and committed to working with you. And they employ local people, pay local taxes and help to grow the local economy.*
6. Consider income as well as expenditure. While cutting costs is, quite rightly, the main focus here, increasing income will have a similarly beneficial effect. Can you charge for any of your services or operate them on a more commercial basis? Do you really need to avoid council tax increases? (I, for one, would be happy to pay more if it means keeping essential services running.) Or could you even seek commercial sponsorship for some of your activities?
7. Communicate. Any attempt to change the way that the council works is likely to meet with resistance from parts of the local community. Communicating what you are doing and why you are doing it is essential. Engage with the local press. Organise community meetings. Go door to door if you have to. Just make sure that people understand what is happening, why it is happening – and how they can contribute.
* As a small business, I confess that I may not be entirely objective here. But I’m still right.