I was recently asked what I thought was the biggest strategic challenge facing local government. Resisting the temptation to say anything with the words ‘fiscal’, ‘tightening’, ‘cuts’ or ‘Eric Pickles’ in it I answered that the biggest challenge was the increasing complexity of local government.
Like every industry the local government sector has constantly evolved over the years and the more it has evolved the more diverse it has become. This is only natural; even the most reforming of Governments can only hope to change elements of the public sector at any one time. Thus, instead of holistic planned change we have had year upon year of incremental change piled onto the public sector and this incremental change has made things ever more complicated.
Interestingly, the large savings that local government, and the rest of the public sector, are being asked to make have both led to more creativity amongst public sector managers but also more complexity. If you doubt this just think about all of the public services provided by your local authority and then consider all of the different models for how those are provided.
Our sector now has shared services with other councils, private sector companies and other public bodies; it has contracted services (including some councils where nearly all services are to be commissioned), partnerships, grants and a variety of different partnership arrangements. In addition, we add into this mix a whole array of new service delivery models such as Local Authority Trading Companies (LATCs), trusts, mutuals and other arm’s length management structures.
Some of these arrangements are designed to tie the councils in for a number of years; often with a tight contract to bind them together. Others are not designed to tie the councils in but the nature of the changes means that extricating themselves from the arrangement will be very tricky. For example, if a local authority opts for joint teams with another organisation and then designs all of their processes around this new way of working it doesn’t take long before the teams involved are inextricably, or almost inextricably, linked.
So, why does this matter?
A lot of this complexity is designed to improve services, drive efficiencies from the system and to break down organisational silos. Indeed, what good is simplicity in the provision of public services if those services are rubbish?
The problem with all of this complexity is that it constrains future action. In a hypothetical world where every service is provided by the council if and when change is needed that change can be driven from the top of the organisation. After all, every member of staff works for the council and the entire budget of that council is also under the control of the councillors to use as they see fit. In this hypothetical world change can be brought about quickly and relatively simply.
For every new arrangement councils enter into that ability to drive through change is constrained. A new shared service, or even a cut in service provision, might require the approval of multiple shared back office services, numerous IT suppliers, perhaps an LATC and the rejigging of a long term accommodation contract. This situation will repeat again and again.
And when local government is asked to make loads of savings at short notice or when the needs of public services are changing more rapidly than ever this inability to drive through change simply becomes a challenge. The challenge is twofold; firstly how to look far enough into the future to design services that are, in that dreadful phrase, ‘future proof’ and secondly how to influence people and services not directly controlled by the council. Doing the former when changes are needed quickly is always a challenge and learning how to do the latter is becoming an increasingly important skill for all local authority staff.
Local authorities are definitely rising to this challenge; it’s no surprise that ‘collaboration’ has become one of the fashionable terms in the sector lately. Collaboration, and learning to manage this multitude of complexity is going to be an ongoing problem for the sector.
Complexity is with us to stay and will continue to lead to improved services; learning to manage it is the latest real challenge facing the sector.
Strategic challenge? Definitely.
Unmanageable? Certainly not.