Local Government faces an unprecedented series of challenges and will have to respond to an increased level of need whilst at the same time working within vastly reduced budgets. It has never been more vital that the sector sets out a positive and compelling vision for what local government will look like as we move forward into an unknown future. It was therefore interesting to read the joint effort by KPMG and CPSP setting out what the ‘brilliant local authority of the future’ will look like. Yet by the end of the document, a feeling of pessimism set in about the narrowness of the vision that they set out and the way in which it reinforced rather than sought to challenge prevailing public policy orthodoxies.
The paper consistently espouses the need to ‘explicitly manage the council as a business’ and operate with a ‘board of shareholders mentality’. Yet surely key local government services from leisure centres to street cleaning benefit the whole of society, not just individual service users. Stated very simply, the problem with managing a local authority as if it is a business is the fact that it isn’t actually a business! Whilst the private sector can rigidly focus on delivering shareholder value, local authorities have a wider strategic role in ensuring the social, economic and environmental wellbeing of their local communities. Without reading too much further than the Executive Summary, it became clear that the ‘Brilliant Local Authority’ would be hampered by its lack of core capacity to deliver on some of these broader policy objectives.
Does it matter who delivers services?
The idea that local authorities can be agnostic about which part of the economy delivers service provision or that councils should simply be strategic commissioners is a very worrying one. Although local councils have never been the sole provider of public services, there is a clear need to retain a strong core of directly delivered services in order to ensure that the capacity to intervene in local communities is retained. Without this capacity, dealing with complex strategic issues from climate change to flood management will become reduced to a disparate set of contracts.
The notion that local authorities should enthusiastically cede control to others is also a problematic one. Of course, empowering local communities is important; but decentralisation must not become an end in itself. And is not the case that markets can be every bit as disempowering as large bureaucracies? Maybe the answer lies in a commitment to supporting and working with local communities to add value to the way in which services are delivered rather than divesting responsibility onto others.
What are the implications for local democracy and accountability?
Local Government is based on the notion of an effective local democracy and the paper specifically states that, ‘local government is by definition political’. Yet by depoliticising service delivery and conflating commissioning with the procurement process, politics is actually removed from local government. Not least in the way in which local democracy is damaged by reducing the role of elected members to handing out contracts. It could also be argued that the role of politicians in shaping the wider local place can only ever be an aspiration, if local authorities go down the road of systematically removing the strategic levers and mechanisms of service delivery.
It is welcome that the paper raises vital issues such as place shaping, public value and the political nature of local government. Yet as this article argues, the policy framework set out within the paper will remove all the capacity from local authorities to actually act on these issues. There is therefore an urgent need to set out an alternative non prescriptive vision emphasising key principles such as public value, local democracy and collective citizenship. It would be useful for stakeholders across the sector to look at and contribute to the concept of the Ensuring Council, which seeks to deliver services in accordance with a set of values and democratic practises, responding to changing circumstances in a way that is value rich rather than value less.
Local Government is now clearly at a tipping point where it must set out its vision for the next 10, 20 or even 30 years. However, this should be based on a vastly different vision to the one set out in the ‘brilliant local authority of the future’ report. Local authorities have a duty be at the heart of every local community, delivering those visible frontline services that the public rely on. This is of course very different to reducing citizens to shareholders and treating public services like private businesses.