I’ve been musing about the shape and role of the council of the future.
I don’t suppose I’ll get very close to the real answer, which will develop over the coming months. However, at a recent conference I attended I did pick up a couple of pointers. Strangely for me, we talked about the problem of obesity in children. A recent survey has looked into the fault and blame. So who is at fault for childhood obesity – 80% of residents think parents are to blame. Then when the same people were asked who should be responsible for tackling the problem – only 30% thought parents should and more than 80% thought the government should (they were allowed to say that more than one person or organisation had a role to play). There is a dislocation between responsibility for the problem and accountability for the solution. So if the public expectation is that their local authority should solve problems and at the same time do it with less money, then how are we going to face the challenge?
When we talk about savings – which have been departmentally driven for years – there is nowhere left to go. When we talk about trying to increase public satisfaction with services, we know that continuous improvement does not lead to increases in satisfaction, since expectations have risen even quicker. When we have a really difficult problem, local government provides good quality support, but we end up spending fortunes dealing with the symptoms without necessarily solving the original problem.
So we have to change something fairly radically, to face up to the future that is already hitting home. It’s not about doing things differently. It’s about doing different things.
In the dying months of this government, with their low but now rising popularity, they may look for new initiatives on the run up to an election. The Conservatives, who control most of the local authorities in England, are certainly preparing new initiatives. Partners have different goals and accountabilities, and we will have to work to shared outcomes through influence and persuasion. Although it is likely that there will be some limited pooling and aligning of budgets, we have already seen budget pressures lead to self protection and cost shunting. When we cut a service, does someone else have to pick up the pieces and bear the burden of additional costs – this is cost shunting. For instance if residential home places aren’t available because of cuts in adult social care, does this mean that hospitals have to look after them for longer at a higher cost?
It’s about influencing behaviours, rather than providing support – for example, fly tipping is costing the tax payers a rising fortune. If we were able to influence people not to tip their rubbish, we could use that funding somewhere else.
What about personalising services? Could some people pay more and get a better or quicker service? Can we adapt our systems to facilitate this? Can we incentivise recycling rather than punish the unwilling and incapable? Self help will be encouraged and expected in some cases. These are crude examples, I know. But it doesn’t make them any less real.
We’ve seen how important the road infrastructure is as a result of the severe flood damage in Workington. The army was drafted in to help. Inspection of other structures show further problems. So how is it possible to prioritise between this and the expenditure that is going to be needed to reduce the impact of climate change, which was debated in Copenhagen.
It is not possible to say which is more important, but I think our challenge in the next two or three years may be; not what we can do for ourselves, to protect our own services, but how big a player can we become by accepting other problems as well as our own.