UK: Time To Combine Ideas, Rather Than Local Authorities

Last Updated: 8 March 2017
Article by Angela Mitchell

Most Read Contributor in UK, August 2017

Over the last few years, the debate about Scotland's councils seems to have focused heavily on the issue of how many of them there are.

Under the current system, Scotland has 32 local authorities providing services to around 5.3 million people. Compare that to somewhere like Iceland, which has 74 councils and a population of 330,000, and you quickly realise that we're not the most disparate country when it comes to local government. While few would argue to design our current structure if you were starting from scratch, an argument based on the number of councils per capita inevitably oversimplifies a complex problem.

That's because looking at the number of councils is the wrong place to start the discussion. While current structures may be inhibiting them to some degree, it's more important to begin with the outcomes that are needed and work back from there.  

For too long, we've been tinkering round the edges of the challenges faced by local government. While merging councils may save money, fundamental reform is what we really require – and citizens need to be at the heart of that agenda.

Contrary to that spirit, survey data from last year's Deloitte State of the State report found that only 19% of UK citizens believe the public sector actively listens to them. If that tells us anything, it's that national and local government should get a much greater understanding of what communities actually need.

The good news is that progress is already being made in that direction – the Community Empowerment Act has set us on the right path for service delivery. However, as our population's demographics shift and public services continue to feel the strain, it's time to rethink the relationship between citizens and the state. 

A more open and honest dialogue with citizens is required about the difficult decisions we will face in terms of prioritising services. There is also a need for citizens to take more responsibility in the future – even if that's a tough message to get across. Both of these are crucial if we are to continue to deliver quality services where they are most necessary.

The opportunities provided by digital services will be a core part of that new link between both parties. It's a huge opportunity area for local government, but it needs accelerated. Insufficient investment and competing priorities are two of the principal barriers to that change. Digital is about delivering in different ways – you can't simply digitise existing processes.  And it's not a conversation within the domain of the IT department, it needs to be a much wider discussion and recognised as a real way of transforming service delivery.

Inseparable from the rise of digital is better use of data. Scotland's local government should better connect, structure, and analyse data to create better outcomes for the public. Manchester is leading the way in the UK in that respect, shifting from reactive to preventative services. There is a wealth of data already available in Scotland, but its potential needs to be unlocked.

Of course, that will require funding; something which is in short supply after years of Council tax freezes and budget cuts. But the financial sustainability of local authorities needs to be considered on a longer-term horizon, rather than on a year-to-year basis. There are a range of options available for councils, however all of them require some tough decisions.

Leaders need to be brave and they need a workforce that is motivated, adaptable, and empowered. Yet, that can only be achieved if the right steps are taken: for example, linking staff contributions to service user outcomes; adopting a team approach by doing away with traditional boundaries; and looking wider than the current structure with new organisational designs.

An important first step that could be taken now is to share systems and infrastructure across local organisations. Such a move would cut costs, create resilience and strengthen the collaborative approach required for delivering better outcomes across the public sector. It's time for leaders to rise above local politics and work together to achieve this.

It's obvious that transformation is required. However, the scope of the debate about how to change needs broadening. Instead of looking at numbers, we need to talk about the needs of communities and build upwards, ensuring they are engaged with, rather than simply provided for. Mistakes will be made along the way but we need to accept that and learn from them.  With the right appetite for risk and strong leadership, our local government can thrive once again.

If you are interested in reading more on this, please follow this link to Deloitte's paper on The changing state for local government in Scotland.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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