A senior central government figure recently asked me what a transformed council should look like in four or five years’ time. Whilst this is a fairly obvious question to ask, then a fairly obvious answer to give is that it depends on what you want it to look like.
The budget cuts of the next few years will be undoubtedly severe, but political leaders of local authorities still have choices about the approach and direction they take. Do they see the council’s role as being a small hub administering funds, which others access to provide services to their communities (akin to Nicholas Ridley’s model circa 1980’s)? Or do they see their role as something more meaningful and active in their local communities and economies?
APSE has been working with De Montfort University on developing a vision for the future around the notion of the ‘ensuring council’. To me, this means: a council that is leaner but not hollowed out; one that retains a strong core of services and the capacity to co-ordinate policy; that has the ability to intervene on behalf of local communities and secure broader strategic goals; that ensures local economies are resilient; and that is innovative and maintains a spirit of municipal entrepreneurship.
However, in order to get there over the next few years local authorities may have to take on different guises. This means being the efficient, entrepreneurial and innovative council, simultaneously.
It means authorities being efficient at a strategic level, in looking at strategic alliances with the wider public sector, at a corporate level, by initiating authority wide programmes and at an operational level by redesigning processes around service users in order to sweat out bureaucracy and waste.
By entrepreneurial I mean in exploiting opportunities to charge for, and trade in, services where appropriate and without being regressive for users who can least afford to contribute.
An innovative council will be one which embraces emerging opportunities that exist around renewable energy and the climate change agenda generally. This is an area that is a bright light at the end of a long dark tunnel of cuts. It’s an opportunity to be expansive, create local employment, deliver on sustainability commitments and do so on a self financing basis because of feed in tariffs funded by central Government.
Local authorities will deploy a range of transformational techniques over the coming years but one thing worth ensuring is that you know where you are going before you set of on the journey. A voyage that is merely about cutting costs and not also about transforming services is, without doubt, the road to nowhere.