• Opinion
  • February 19, 2019
  • 8 minutes
  • 1

Reasons to be cheerful about the future of local government

Opinion: There's no getting away from the funding crisis — but creative solutions are rising

This piece was written by Nick Kimber, a public policy professional working in London. For more like this, see our government innovation newsfeed.


The funding crisis engulfing UK local government is now headline news. While those working in public policy and delivering services have for years understood and wrestled with the seemingly irreconcilable challenge of a rise in demand coupled with a huge reduction in resources, it is now talked about at the school gate (where the crisis is keenly felt).

One county council, Northamptonshire, is effectively bankrupt, with experts warning that others will surely follow. In anticipation of the worst, some councils are even starting to have honest conversations with communities about providing only the most basic services under some funding scenarios.

The demographic and funding crisis which results from a rapidly ageing population and a fractured health and social care system is broadly understood; less so the huge pressure facing children’s social services, where the number of referrals has increased by 100,000 in a decade. Nationally, councils have spent almost a billion pounds more than they budgeted for to keep children safe.

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The risk of another case like that of Baby P, despite the reform that tragedy brought about, is now high, the result this time not of bureaucratic negligence and fractures between agencies but of chronic mismatch between what has to be done and what is available to pay for it.

Since 2010, successive governments have had no effective strategy to deal with this fiscal reality. The most promising, devolution and the establishment of city mayors, is significant and worth building on. But it is partial, and to date insufficient in its ambition.

In fact, the sharp reduction in resources since 2010 and the current unfolding crisis arguably mask a deeper malaise affecting UK public services.

Prior to the economic downturn, increased investment in public services was not shifting outcomes in line with aspirations. New Labour governments made significant investments, but these were predicated on addressing social and economic problems that, by and large, we know how to solve, and doing so through a mixture of bureaucratic centralism and market mechanisms. Improving educational standards through the literacy and numeracy hour, or reducing waiting lists for hip replacements, for example.

Growing complexity has proved resistant to linear solutions informed by the traditional tools of policy analysis

Growing complexity due to broader societal shifts — from long-term, structural unemployment to growing numbers of people with multiple, long-term chronic health conditions — has proved resistant to linear solutions designed primarily by Whitehall and informed by the traditional tools of policy analysis.

Capacity and appetite to concentrate on these issues, let alone attention to dedicate to an overhaul of the entire approach, looks likely to be sapped by Brexit and its aftermath for years to come.

But, as ever, there are reasons to be cheerful. In towns and neighbourhoods across the country, there is work going on which provides some clues as to how places can get a grip, face the challenges and develop a different mindset. Broadly, I think these coalesce around three key questions:

  • How do we “decide” in an era where all choices seem unenviable?
  • How do we throw off the sediment of 20th century services which don’t go with the grain of citizens’ lives?
  • How do we make the creation of public value the work of a whole community rather than that of a collection of public agencies?

The very best councils and their partners are feeling their way…

Deciding — Councils like Camden in London, building on international examples, have set long-term visions based on deep deliberation with local communities. Citizen juries and assemblies represent genuine innovation in our democratic and civic life, helping forge consensus and deal with divergence at a time where trust in public institutions is low. There is an opportunity to use these approaches to deal with the hard choices which are often local governments’ to make, legitimising difficult decisions and unleashing creative responses from the community.

Designing — Councils like Hackney are leading the charge for citizen-centred design approaches, which demand that we put citizens at the centre of how we build and change public services. These are gaining a critical mass in local governments, which intuitively understand the public value that can be unleashed by genuine co-design, working openly with citizens “in the room” from the beginning. The promise of this type of approach is that it addresses complexity, designing services around the patterns of individuals lives. It also represents a far more evidence-based approach, emphasising an understanding of the user experience and iteration and prototyping before spending public money.

Developing a common endeavour — the most innovative local authorities are, at scale, developing services which are based around individual, family and community assets. These don’t assume that public agencies have the answers and that the answer is always an intervention by the state. Local authorities like Wigan have pioneered new ways of thinking about support to the elderly. Approaches like Family Group Conferencing help individuals to understand the resources available to help them manage difficult circumstances, and commit them and their network to a clear course of action far removed from the traditional dynamic of paternal social work practice.

There is no getting away from the fact that the cash crisis is real, nor that Whitehall’s willingness and capacity to tackle it is limited.

There are lessons to be learned from this generational fight for a new type of local public service

But there are many lessons to be learned from this generational fight for a new type of local public service, and there is real hope in amongst the gloom.

There is a developing eco-system of progressive local authorities committed to these types of approaches. They are working with partners in higher education and the voluntary sector amongst others, and with a new generation of value-based consultancies who are passionate about place-based services.

It is this coalition who are asking the right questions, and who are beginning to divine the answers. — Nick Kimber

(Picture credit: Unsplash)

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