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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s