10th December 2013
As regular readers of the blog will know we’ve been running a series of post looking at relationships between central and local government and how they can be practically improved.
One of the best things about writing this blog is when people get in touch with us to correct something we’ve written, to disagree a little or just to point us in the direction of something we weren’t aware of. Today is one of those days.
After our post about co-designing the policy process Robert Pollock, Director of the Public Sector Transformation Network got in touch with us to say the equivalent of ‘hang on a minute; we already do this’. Always keen to widen the debate we invited him to write a quick response to our post and are delighted to feature it today.
Many thanks to We Love Local Government for asking us for a contribution to this blog.
Closer collaboration across the public sector is necessary and inevitable. In the years of plenty that was not the case. Since the financial crisis the state of the public finances has been the main driver of integration. In his Autumn Statement the Chancellor told us that while we may be out of the woods we have a long way to go to balance the books. Net public sector borrowing is projected to come in just under £100bn in 2014/15 and we may not reach balance until 18/19. By then our accumulated national debt will be around £1.5 trillion. If you agree that’s an unfair gift for our generation to presents the next then austerity is here to stay.
If you work in the public sector you may feel the state is getting smaller. That is not the case. Welfare, debt interest and pensions are forecast to rise squeezing spending on unprotected public services. That matters because it means that the different parts of the public sector will have to work together far more effectively in future. Debate that pitches local against central disguises the fact that the public sector is far more diverse and complex. Breaking down those stereotypes is just one of the barriers to overcome if as public servants we want to foster better collaboration and more co-design.
The Public Service Transformation Network is just one example. We currently work with 33 upper tier authorities and their partners covering 22 per cent of the English population. We recently won the 2013 Award for Excellence in Civil Service Reform. The Network brings together public servants from seven Whitehall departments, a range of local authorities, the LGA and NHS. Co-design with local services and departments is at the heart of what we do. Along the way we have faced numerous bureaucratic obstacles. Perfectly reasonable rules that make sense in one organisation don’t naturally lend themselves to collaboration across agencies. Aside from the policy and delivery challenges changing the culture surrounding the way the public sector works together appears at times to be the biggest barrier.
It is challenging, frustrating and even clumsy at times. But it is worthwhile. Our work with local partners in Cheshire, Essex, Central West London and Greater Manchester demonstrates it is possible to maintain and improve outcomes for residents while delivering better value for the taxpayer. To be successful requires strong local leadership, trust, and willingness to put local people rather than organisations first. It also requires civil servants to have a much better appreciation of the challenges that dedicated front line staff face.
There are some changes government can make to make it easier. Some recent measures have been positively received. For example, the £3.8bn locally pooled budget for Better Care and action to make it easier to share information announced at the Spending Review. The Autumn Statement made a commitment to give local public services the same budget certainty as departments at the next SR; local government was spared from additional cuts, given more borrowing power for housing and the flexibility to sell assets to spend on one off service reforms with partners.
This is positive and more can be done. But to get there better evidence is necessary that local services, facilitated by local government, can collaborate more effectively. There is a lot more that can already be implemented locally. By taking the initiative councils and local services can lead by example so that others will follow. Already this year Surrey, SE London, West London, Sheffield, Wirral, Bath and North Somerset, Swindon, Hampshire and Dorset have committed, with the Network, to co-design better services for less by putting local people first. But we also know that forward thinking places across the country are taking the initiative themselves on behalf of their local residents. Staffordshire, Leeds City Region, Tyneside, Cornwall and Suffolk spring to mind.
So yes, better collaboration, true partnership is possible.
It’s not easy.
But what is the alternative?