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).