Local government has been facing tough times for a number of years now and yet the longer austerity rolls on, the more demand on services grows.
Housing, social care, school meals and leisure are among the many services facing up to this challenging phenomenon of more demand with less resources whilst trying to balance budgets.
So what's the answer? Is it being more efficient, being more innovative or generating more income? Well it's probably a combination of all these things. But a degree of demand management also needs to be added to the mix.
Demand management is not just about changing behaviour among service users, but also about intervening earlier to avoid demand actually occurring. It's about providing wraparound services to allow people to stay in their homes longer or promoting healthy eating and physical activity to improve public health.
How are councils tackling the thorny issue of demand management on the front-line then? In many areas, we are seeing approaches that prompt behaviour change, for example zero tolerance messages on littering and fly-tipping that make this behaviour publicly unacceptable. Councils are also encouraging ‘DIY’ solutions, such as placing more self-use grit bins in streets to combat demands on winter gritting services for non-priority routes.
Demand analysis can also be used to explore peaks and troughs for specific services and staff rosters can be aligned with targeting of resources to reduce the overall resources needed. This has been happening for a number of years in grounds maintenance and parks services, for example, where seasonal demand is aligned with annualised hours to enable reduced demand in winter to be balanced with increased human resources in summer.
There are, of course, sensitivities in using a demand led approach to review services and it may entail tough decisions in some cases. Reviewing eligibility in social care may be necessary, for example, to reduce demand whilst protecting the most vulnerable service users.
Residents, employees and trade unions need to be involved in making demand led changes to services. But aligning demand and resources more coherently can secure the future of jobs and services in the longer term.
There is a huge difference between managing demand and simply leaving residents to get on with things on an ad hoc basis. Effective demand management requires a strategic approach and communication about what the council is doing and why. It may mean looking at budgets in a more long term way, shifting resources around and investing to save.
Demand management is not necessarily easy but, with funding in such short supply, it is necessary.