Autumn Chill

Long before the last warmth from our spectacular summer had past, local government Chief Executives were bracing themselves for the cold wind of financial constraint and impenetrable spending decisions.  This year’s Autumn Statement merely reiterates the formidable challenges that lie ahead for providers of local services.

The Chancellor’s statement points to a flat lining economy. A shrinking of 0.8% in GDP this year, and a small predicted increase next means its impact will be felt over the long term. Public expenditure continues to be squeezed with 1% spending cuts in 2013/14 and 2% the year after. While a further £10 billion needs to be found in a spending review next year.

The underlying weakness of the UK economy means that the spending restraint many felt would now be nearing its end, will now continue until 2017 and probably beyond. For example, if the work of the Social Market Foundation and RSA is correct, the Government will be seeking an additional £22billion of extra cuts or tax increases, over and above the £26billion implied in the 2012 budget. If other Departments continue to be more successful in arguing for protection, the DCLG budget in 2017/18 could be almost half what it was in 2010/11.

Let us accept that continued reductions in public expenditure are inevitable. If we saw substantial investment in infrastructure or a different approach taken to austerity, their effect would still be less than transformative in the short term. Public spending will remain under the cosh for the foreseeable future.

Let us instead try to return to a debate about sustainability, and what’s required to protect vital services where possible, and enable public services to adapt to the fiscal environment.

Difficult decisions will have to be managed with tremendous skill and care by local government members and officers. With proper preparation and considered judgement, they will seek to minimise the inevitable impact on local services. This is why greater stability in local funding is vital. Instability and late decisions just increases risk, and with risk comes cost. The late timing of this year’s local government settlement creates uncertainty, and the capping effect of council tax referenda leaves councils working with one hand behind their backs.

The singling out of local government for disproportionate cuts does not meet any test of fairness. I suspect it may also be counter-productive. DCLG should be arguing that cuts in the preventative services of local government will simply add further pressure to welfare and health, and limit our ability to stimulate local growth. Councils have protected services to the most vulnerable but also play a vital role in promoting their local economies. If services such as highways, planning and economic development are squeezed, economic growth will prove ever more difficult.

The current financial climate should herald a dramatic increase in collaboration with the potential to lead to a very different public service landscape. Flexibility in the budgets of local public services creates opportunities to put resources to best use. Our Secretary of State, Eric Pickles, has been quick to champion the small number of community budget pilots and their potential to transform public services. If they have such potential, we need to push them further and faster.

Through cold winters many residents rely heavily on effective local services. During this recession, that demand has only increased. We need to ensure that the sector has the powers and stability to act. We also need to retain and support talented people with the commitment and imagination to deliver innovative responses. While an official’s advice may sometimes receive a frosty reception, policymakers need to recognise that good public sector managers are their greatest allies.

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Time to Act

Maggie Atkinson, Children’s Commissioner for England, speaks about the interim findings of her Office’s nationwide inquiry into the scope, scale and prevalence of child sexual exploitation in gangs and groups in England

 I thought I was the only one.  The Only one in the worldis my Office’s report on the prevalence and patterns of child sexual exploitation in the two contexts of gangs and groups in England, published on November 21st.  100% of police forces, 88% of English Local Authorities with relevant responsibilities, and 66% of relevant and contacted health bodies, submitted evidence to the first year of a two year inquiry into this difficult and troubling subject.  Deputy Commissioner Sue Berelowitz is leading on this work for the Office, supported by a small staff team and a panel of recognised national experts in the field including eminent researchers.

For the first time we are presenting thoroughly collated and analysed data on, in headline terms, who is doing what, to whom, where.  The conclusions are a wakeup call to all in the system.  Sexual abuse in gangs (closely aligned, often young, largely male alliances based on geographical territory, criminal intent, loyalty, codes of dress and behaviour) is visited usually on girls who are gang-associated or living in gang-affected neighbourhoods.  It is closely associated with fear, intimidation, and threats of violence against the victim or her family.

Victims are used as part of the gang culture.  Sexual abuse perpetrated by groups is associated with looser associations of adults, usually male, from every ethnic, religious and cultural group and of every age.  Such abuse may or may not be associated with money changing hands between perpetrators who access and abuse the victims.  The latter may be boys but are more usually girls.  They include young people who are already very vulnerable, but these groups are not exclusively targeted.

Many victims have suffered abuse in family circumstances before they are abused by outsiders, and much abuse begins in the home, or in close associations and friendship groups.

Sexual exploitation and abuse are not the sole preserve of difficult, downtrodden or otherwise challenged areas, and they are certainly not confined to rundown parts of our towns and cities.  It is no exaggeration, from what police forces are telling us across England, to say that it is happening across the country.  It is blind to class and socio-economic circumstances.

Children and young people who are themselves abused may be used to help groom and “hook in” others to the abuse they have themselves suffered.  They find it hard to disclose what is happening, and in too many places in the country many young witnesses said it is harder still to be listened to when they do say something.

The panel visited 14 English localities as part of the evidence gathering process and were saddened to hear seasoned and specialist professionals referring to sexual exploitation and abuse victims as “prostitutes” when at under 16 years old they are of course, by law, not able to consent to sex with anybody, let alone an abuser.  The panel also heard specialists speak of abused children “liking the glamour” of a “chosen lifestyle” and “engaging in risky behaviours” as if they were, or could be, held responsible for the abuse they were suffering.  They were equally saddened to witness specialists who seemed blind to some patterns of abuse because the media has somehow decided that only some ethic and cultural groups of men abuse, and only some ethnic and cultural groups of girls are abused.

This report calls on everybody in the system to begin to see the warning signs:  children who go missing, who suddenly have a ready supply of cash, gifts, new phones and new friends, children who display over-sexualised behaviours in school, who turn up at A&E with particular injuries, or repeatedly present at sexual health clinics with STIs.

Year two’s Inquiry will go further into good practice in many English localities, and what we can all learn, in policy and practice, to do to stop the outrages we report on in year one.  It is not easy reading, but it is necessary that consciousness is raised and action follows.  These are our children, all of them, and all of us.  Time to act.

 

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“We are all in the gutter but some of us are looking at the stars.”

Oscar Wilde’s famous words might well describe the world of local government today and could be the motto of some chief executives. As council budgets are cut, there is a band of people who see an opportunity to change the status quo when it comes to partnerships with the private sector in their local area.

And that local area, as the participants in the Your Local Future workstream at this year’s SOLACE Summit discovered, is not the local authority.

So, if the council is not the place – obvious to many but difficult for some to accept – how do we define what is, and who should be involved in the change process?

Economic progress, which underpins so much of what councils wish to achieve, will necessarily involve the private sector. However, this needs to be true involvement in ways businesses understand. This can become an uncomfortable situation for all sides.

Neither likes ceding control – not the private sector leaders who respond and deal with issues swiftly, nor the politicians correctly claiming democratic legitimacy. Adhering to the usual comfortable stand-off between the two is not suitable for places of the present never mind of the future. Something has to give.

There is some idea of where that movement will come from in the phrase “the council is not the place”.

The chief executives in the workstream were confident in being able to share responsibility for place-shaping with the private sector. Private sector representatives, from developers to car manufacturers, revealed their readiness to engage on this agenda – reinforced by real-world experience in the Midlands where this approach is taking hold.

The elephant in the room was, perhaps predictably, elected members. There is a real challenge in marrying democratic accountability, local representation and the needs of a place.

What are seen as bureaucratic procedures – the drawn-out scrutiny process, the inability to make snap decisions – need to change to match the expectation of a business community wanting to grasp the nettle.

Similarly, the private sector needs to marry its myriad corporate social responsibility agendas to fit in with local areas and help define the place.

Those who manage to pull off this trick will be the ones seeing their names written among the stars. Those who don’t will remain in the gutter.

James Noakes, sustainability and climate change manager, Wigan MBC; Anisa Patel, policy projects officer, Blackburn with Darwen BC; Participants in the Solace Springboard Future Leaders Programme

This article first feature in the Local Government Chronicle on 15 November 2012

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A provocation for local government

Simon Fanshawe, consultant, broadcaster, non-exec director and co-founder of the ground-breaking consultancy astar-fanshawe, addressed local authority Chief Executives and Senior Managers at this year’s SOLACE Summit. Below Simon highlights his key challenges to the sector; you can read his speech in full here.

At the recent SOLACE summit I was asked to listen to the discussions, reflect on them and then draw out some provocative themes.

‘COMMUNITY’ & ‘PLACE’

My first question is about the words “community” and “place”. I have heard them used in the last few days as if they coherently summed whole populations or towns. Yet we all know they don’t. Communities are conflicted, diverse, undecided, self-interested. You can’t meaningfully “consult with the community”. You need to have a more complicated conversation with the populations you serve.

INTELLIGENT CONVERSATIONS

You need accuracy in your analysis of who they are. In a report I co-wrote for the ippr two years ago, called You Can’t Put Me in A Box, I suggested that we might start with a three-part analysis of equalities and diversity which would help us understand (i) when  ‘group identity’ has a coherence (when it is about either persistent bias or genuinely shared cultural characteristics), (ii) when it is the aspirations of the individual that the council is trying to meet or harness and, in some ways the most tricky, (iii) when we need to understand who is the most disadvantaged in any population.

So, accuracy of analysis by your staff of who they are talking to and why – understanding the focus and purpose of consultation – will make it meaningful and helpful.

Also it’s worth remembering that, with many issues on which you consult you can either be right or popular. Particularly with transport. So be clear about only asking people questions that you can answer. Don’t ask them if they want a residents parking scheme, rather ask them how to design it. Consultation has to lead towards an understanding of a common interest in the name of which you can reasonably and effectively act.

SERVICE DELIVERY?

The second question that I wanted to raise was about the notion of “service delivery”. Discussions often focus on the service rather than on the challenge it is designed to meet.

But Local Authorities are not there just to deliver services. Services are a result of their purpose not the purpose itself. The core mission of Councils is to harness energies and assets to create a better quality of life.

If the conversation is about the service, we will remain stuck in the paradigm of more money equals better services. And that cuts are always bad.

We are doing some work in Lewisham, where we brought together the Cabinet and the Senior Management to discuss the fundamental purpose of what Lewisham Council was for, in order to guide a budget setting process that didn’t use their last budget as the baseline. This approach, according to the Chief Exec, is helping Lewisham to recognize that in order to “start to consider our budget afresh we first needed to reconsider our priorities anew….. Governing and managing change of this budget scale requires deep engagement on local priorities and not shallow consultation on specific budget cuts proposals.”

This raises important questions about how you develop your staff. You don’t have to be Eileen Munro to have a severe critique of how reliance on process doesn’t do the job. But we don’t need to blame social workers and other local authority staff, we need to empower them. We need to give them the confidence to make judgments. We need to develop our staff differently.

THE NEW MODELS

My final observation is that there seems to be a distinctly different attitude amongst you all in relation to services than there is about economic growth. There is far more inventiveness and ingenious thinking about the latter. It may be that, with statutory requirements and the habit of service delivery, it’s just not as easy to get into a new framework, perhaps the new model is just far harder to create.

In the discussion about economic growth you are playing a hand that has both visible assets and income streams. With services that focus on the most disadvantaged, there appear to be less assets.

TERRENCE HIGGINS TRUST

However I think the Terrence Higgins Trust, gives us an interesting three-cornered model, from which we can learn.

When gay men started to die of AIDS, no one really cared. We had to do something ourselves. So we started to look after those affected – we started buddying. But that wasn’t enough. We needed treatment, or even a cure. So we made an alliance with NHS medics and other researchers. And we funded that with a combination of state and private sector investment together with private philanthropy.

That model tells us that the human interaction of buddying (of caring) was crucial in meeting the challenge, not with procedure but with kindness and humanity. Secondly, beyond that, we do need expertise. The Big Society is a dangerous myth if it thinks that volunteering can replace entirely experience and skill. And thirdly it teaches us to learn how to deploy our assets – here, volunteering, private gifts, and public and private investment.

THE NEED FOR JUDGMENT

Can we apply this to perhaps the most poignant, urgent and highest priority we have: looked after kids? Well we can re-introduce humanity into how we look after those kids – not be frightened by all the noise around abuse – and release our staff (and volunteers) to feel able to give them love. Secondly we have much expertise in Councils. So we mustn’t drown it in process. We need to value their expertise and free staff to use their knowledge and skill to exercise judgment.

And the assets are surely the kids themselves and their carers. What do they want? What can they contribute, How can we meet their aspirations rather than subject them to the tyranny of low expectations? And there are investment models, which could combine private investment with a return on social goals.

This is a far higher challenge. But it is the coming challenge.

SOME CONCLUSIONS

So in conclusion, I am suggesting that:

we develop our capacity to have intelligent conversations with our populations that speak to them where and how they live and we recognize their diversity;

we ask realistic questions;

we consult with a purpose, not for the sake of it;

we go back to first principles and see Local Authorities as organisations that harness assets and energy to improve quality of life rather than “delivering services”;

we sever the link between money spent and the quality of what we do;

we develop our staff to empower them to use judgment above process;

we develop models, which engage our assets, human and physical, that are as imaginative on the service side of the ledger as they are on the growth side.

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Funding social care – finding a solution now

Local government chief executives are often too cautious about advocating solutions. I know this from over forty years of local, regional and national activity.

There are many good reasons for this concern; public awareness, political sensitivity and an appreciation of operational reality amongst it all. We simply let too many people down if we make unrealistic claims that cannot be delivered.

There is a great deal going for us in expressing confidence and backing our judgement. Executive managers in local government succeed in solving complex problems in a democratically accountable system with the media spotlight trained on them. There is always room for improvement, but resources are used more effectively to achieve better outcomes when compared to other parts of the public sector.

Now is the time for local government to be more assertive at securing sufficient funding for social care. Everyone understands the problem and demographics alone make the case compelling, but we are yet to find an adequate solution.

The government is concerned about the implications of an age of shrinking public finance and councils grapple with the level of demand and its affect on service performance. Those in need and their families worry about service availability and how much they will be expected to contribute.

I believe that there are two ways in which we can shift the focus of this debate now. The first is to ensure that existing resources are used as effectively as possible. We are well practiced in optimising efficiency measures in transactions, tax collection and the payment of benefits for instance, but are far too cautious at applying this knowledge to ‘personal’ services.

I am a social worker so am familiar with the arguments about finding bespoke responses to individual needs. However, better decisions will result from assembling good data, creating clear and reliable processes and streamlining work flows. A consistent performance will both ensure that individual decisions are more reliable and certify that any slack in the system has been addressed.

My second suggestion would be to advocate a long term solution in robust terms. There is a remarkable consensus about the policy direction and resource requirements between the government, political parties, the Local Government Association, professional associations, service providers and consumer groups. Yet, comprehensive funding decisions get kicked into the long grass, at best. The outcome of the next spending review will be followed by a general election campaign, meaning any outcome may not be clear until 2015/16 at the earliest. Meanwhile, the difficulties will increase and some parts of the care system will be unsustainable.

It is accepted generally that the NHS, and to some extent schools, should be protected from public spending cuts. Arguably local government has taken the deepest cuts in recent years, partly because of its competence in implementing them whilst protecting services as far as possible. Ultimately this impasse will be solved by investing in health and wellbeing rather than ill health, which means shifting resources to social care in the community. This is not ‘robbing Peter to pay Paul’ but using available resources more effectively to improve quality of life. Now is the time to be brave enough to say so.

 John Ransford, Advisor of CapacityGRID and former Chief Executive of the Local Government Association (LGA).

 

 

 

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A seasonal message – help yourself!

The political party conference season has confirmed what we all knew already. The economy is not recovering as was hoped, private sector growth is the government’s route to future prosperity and the public sector will shrink further over the next few years.  Whatever the rhetoric of the political parties, the message is strangely consistent – there are no easy answers and the current public spending plans will not get better.

It is little use to look at how we came to this position and even less use for us to focus on whose fault it was. We now need to identify and work on solutions to the position we face. While this is a national problem, it is equally one for each and every local authority as they have to deliver services to the public, knowing that they will have rising cost pressures and fewer resources. Stopping doing things altogether may be an option but where it is not, a systematic review of performance is required.

The process for cost reduction is simple:

1.       Know how your services are performing – not just against last year but against others.
2.       Re-engineer your services to match the “best of breed,” getting help if it is needed to boost short run skills gaps.
3.       If you have done all you can, benchmark again.

And then if more is needed:

4.       Look at other offers and other providers – balancing certainty, cost and speed.

Many will look at the option of increasing income too. Increases in fees and charges are part of but not the total answer and new forms of income are hard to find. Trading with others can offer those authorities that perform well a boost in income to mop up excess labour capacity with the added benefit of avoiding redundancy costs. But not everyone can be a supplier. Trading requires some to offer work and others to provide it.  It requires a simple and cheap way to an internal market.  It means inevitably that the sector’s overall costs and labour force will shrink.

The Audit Commission has gone and few lament its passing but as a former Chief Executive, it did provide me with information on performance and best practice. Benchmarking data with peer authorities was, and still is, a vital tool as efficiency is taken to new levels. CIPFA statistics are a substitute but are not truly trusted as a tool.

CapacityGRID has emerged as a self-help product in the sector for those that are facing these issues and are looking for a new solution with guaranteed results in a very short timescale. The concept is simple. Work is organised to improve productivity and enable trading. The resulting capacity release is banked or sold. Like-for-like operational data is available to everyone so authorities can truly compare their own performance with others. It can deliver information on where the big prizes lie for performance improvement or alternative provision. Internal transformation can be complemented by using the GRID as a risk mitigation tool.  Too often performance problems arise in major change programmes, creating temporary peaks in workload. Those on the GRID can trade at defined costs and performance levels to alleviate those issues. It offers a simple spot purchase opportunity compared with a long and costly procurement exercise.

What is more is the fact that authorities are not restricted to a single supplier with locked in price rises but can operate in a real time dynamic environment, limited only by those that are active in trading on the GRID. As numbers increase, choice of provider and service will become even better.  It can also be an answer on a longer term basis as a permanent way of doing business. Further efficiencies will inevitably accrue as contingency staffing capacity in each individual authority is replaced by a virtual contingency across the GRID, and further resilience is underpinned by a provider network from the private sector platform.

Local authorities can help themselves but they must now help each other.  If not, then they should look to others. Outsourcing still has a place but it is no longer the only game in town and big deals are very thin on the ground. For too long we have talked of the sector being its own solution and now is the time to make it happen.

Sir Peter Rogers
Chair of CapacityGRID and former Advisor to Boris Johnson for Regeneration, Growth and Enterprise at the Greater London Authority.

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A budget round like no other

Sir Peter Rogers

The worst summer for weather has strangely produced a feeling of euphoria throughout the country because of the Olympics and the achievements of our British athletes.

However, now that summer is over, reality has resumed as local authority Chief Executives and their management teams take stock of the difficulties facing them. Last year’s financial results are finalised and with half a year over, they will know whether their ambitious plans they hatched 12 months ago are on track. Directors of Finance will be able to judge their ability to balance the books over the medium term and appreciate the effects on the budget of maintaining standards and dealing with increasing demographic pressures.

As Wilkins Micawber in Charles Dickens’s ‘David Copperfield’ pointed out:  “The ability to match expenditure and income is the only true path to happiness.”

It is natural that local authority leaders will try to protect the front line services which get them elected. Local authority Chief Executives will also endeavour to protect the standards of service that they have worked so hard to deliver.  But what is inevitable is that with the rising cost pressures of an aging population and the ever-increasing expectations of an impatient public, new ways of working will be required to enable those services to get the resources they need.

This is a time for visible leadership. It may even be too late for those Chief Executives who are yet to make the changes they require. A blind faith in central government coming to the rescue or a reliance on the sector to produce a magic solution will inevitably lead to disappointment.

Rather, this is a time for local authorities to be clear on their ambitions and their ability to fund them.  Difficult choices will have to be made and those things taken for granted may need to stop, or be done by others.  Therefore, any opportunity needs to be considered on the basis of what it produces and how long it will take to deliver results.

Local authorities can help each other but the third and private sectors offer opportunities too. Knowing best practise and how to learn and adapt is a new skill set but needs to be learnt quickly within local government. It increases the probability of success, it reduces risk and it speeds up results. It is even better if public and private partners are able to avoid the pitfalls of drawn out procurement exercises where the only parties guaranteed to win are the external advisers whose fees are guaranteed irrespective of the outcome.

Nothing can be regarded as sacred but this is a time when a council’s management team needs to be exactly that; a team that gives where it can to help others deliver what otherwise would be lost.

Corporate shroud waving and warnings of disaster have been widely experienced in the past but cannot be tolerated going forward. Instead there must be an increasing recognition that services can be delivered better internally or by others. It may be that alternative delivery structures within groups of local authorities can offer the step change in costs that is needed.

A ‘summer like no other’ followed by a budget round with a similar description will test the local government sector. Plans will be made and budgets will be created but that is just the start. The plans for their delivery will need to be robust and the risks of backsliding or failure, well managed. Council leaders and Chief Executives will need to be visible and articulate this new reality to their communities. Managing existing citizen expectations will be virtually impossible for many but setting new expectations to match and manage the new financial reality will be a real test of civic leadership.

Sir Peter Rogers

Chair of CapacityGRID and former Advisor to Boris Johnson for Regeneration, Growth and Enterprise at the Greater London Authority.

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