Back after a long hiatus, mostly involving stopping small people falling down steps.
I’ve recently embarked on the Public Service Launchpad Scholarship programme, which aims to bring people together to work on solutions to public service problems. I believe I’ve identified a problem – or opportunity – and want to use this programme to help me think about solutions.
Would be interested in views and ideas (also working on boiling the below down to a couple of sentences in plain English…)
Seeking to engage communities in decision making around local public services is nothing new, but there are two big reasons why it is now more important than ever. The first and most obvious is budget cuts: with less money to go round it’s all the more important that people are engaged in setting out where their priorities lie. The second is demographic pressures – a high and increasing proportion of local public service budgets are being spent on a small proportion of the population in areas such as adult social care, leading to a situation which is increasingly unsustainable, not just financially but also in terms of people’s trust in public services and local politics.
In this context, engaging communities in shaping local public spending is crucial, yet current examples of such engagement are not bold enough to meet the challenge. Despite some genuinely innovative consultation methods, without a clear illustration of the trade offs at stake and a clear imperative to make a decision one way or another, communities tend to be resistant to all cuts or accept only cuts in those services which they do not access or do not understand.
These are reasons in themselves to improve engagement. But the urgency, ironically, could be amplified by what happens next in local public services. In the longer term, central Government has a limited set of options to help local public agencies make ends meet. Essentially, they can remove or pare back local government’s statutory duties, find more grant money to plug the gap, or give local areas more autonomy to design, deliver and finance services in new ways. From this set of unpalatable options for Government, increasing local autonomy may well end up as the only viable one.
Government has in fact started to take some tentative steps towards increasing local autonomy. However, the steps taken so far only emphasise the importance of mature and genuine engagement of communities. Initiatives such as Whole Place Community Budgets, as pioneered by the Tri-borough in London and elsewhere, are increasingly moving public services towards early intervention approaches, investing up front to reduce later costs. Yet diverting current spending to programmes that will take several years to pay off, such as early years education and preventative public health, is a hard sell in hard times. City Deals and other aspects of the local growth agenda similarly support local authorities to invest in future prosperity. Whilst eonomic growth is a far easier sell politically, investment in economic development still risks conflicting with current spending on services: economic development is not a statutory service and far harder to explain than bin collections or primary school places. Without genuine public engagement in assessing the costs and benefits of different courses of action and making a decision, the ability of areas to find ambitious solutions to improving people’s lives will be restricted.
Meanwhile, and perhaps more straightforwardly, the kinds of governance arrangements increasingly expected of Local Enterprise Partnerships and city regions by Government – such as combined authorities – are strengthening local autonomy in one sense, but also potentially concentrating local power in fewer hands, with local authority leaders increasingly powerful at the expense of executive members and backbenchers. The majority of local councillors risk being marginalised, continuing the trend of recent years and reducing communities’ routes to influence decision making.
Longer term, the prospect of more financial autonomy for local government – being pursued for example by the Core Cities and London – raises the stakes and introduces the possibility of a meaningful debate at local level on revenue raising and spending priorities. Yet we cannot take it for granted that public understanding of local public finances, and the trade offs that need to be made, will automatically improve in line with this trend towards more meaningful local choices.
A new approach is needed to ensuring public understanding of and engagement in local public spending decisions. This could reinvigorate the role of ward councillors, help councils maintain reputation and trust in times of austerity and increase public understanding of how local government works. By making clear the scale of the spending challenge in ways that make sense to communities, we could improve understanding of the fact that quality services have to be paid for, potentially encouraging the public support which has so far been largely lacking for innovative community-driven (or, to quote a phrase increasingly receding into nostalgia, ‘big society’) service delivery models.
I would like to collaborate with others on solutions in this area bringing together cost-benefit analysis, as carried out most prominently in this area by New Economy Manchester, and approaches such as participatory budgeting. This could be a commercial venture, open source tool or simply a suggested approach to put forward to local authorities and seek to pilot.
Drop me a line if you’re interested in discussing this!