Five years ago the coalition Government made a commitment to decentralisation and to moving powers away from Whitehall and towards local government – and other local structures.
At the time I tried to lay out a series of qualifying factors which I felt would be crucial to making the process a success – lacking any other unifying theme I called these the four Cs of decentralisation – capacity, confidence, cash and consent. With Greg Clark MP taking over from Eric Pickles and looking keen to truly ignite the devolution agenda it seemed like a good time to review those themes, adjust the discussion for five years of political debate, and see what they might mean for colleagues in the Greater Manchester region and beyond.
In discussing capacity, I argued that local authorities needed to skill up to be able to take on a wider role, both at an officer level and member. I felt, and I still do, that the ability of often small local authorities to have the depth of experience skill and capacity to take on additional roles and functions is limited – especially at this time of severe cuts. In many ways this is being addressed by the formation of wider groups of local authorities, be they from Greater Manchester, the county of Cambridgeshire or beyond. Perhaps this is reflective of the Government recognising this capacity issue or perhaps this is more of a coincidence. Either way, I think that local government needs to take this capacity issue seriously.
I pitched the idea of confidence mattering mainly because I felt that there was a general lack of forward thinking confidence in the sector – after twenty years of performance indicators and central controls the ability to think for ourselves was perhaps lacking. I think this has improved over the last five years but the Government have also played their part by making sure that only those councils, and groups of councils, who really wanted it have been granted the opportunity to sign these deals with the treasury.
I think this is probably right. Just because I believe in the devolution agenda being the right one in the long term does not mean that I support the idea of passing over powers to councils, or regions, that have made no indication that they want them or that they have any idea what to do with them. Yes, this will lead to an unbalanced policy position but I think pragmatism is more important at this stage. However, my hope is that as regions show what they can do with the new powers it gives others the confidence to want more.
When I wrote my piece in 2010 I had no idea of the scale of cuts that were to come for the sector. However, in many ways local government’s success in meeting the cuts agenda whilst Whitehall has floundered has one positive; it has shown that local government has a level of competence when it comes to managing budgets that is not matched in the other parts of the public sector. As friend of the blog Jonathan Flowers has commented local government is in a position to say to the Government ‘if you pass us the axe we can make the cuts, as long as we then get to keep the handle’.
Although I recognise that the cash I thought might be passed to local government is not coming it is clear that any programme of real devolution needs to be accompanied by real cash – and that any money passed across has the potential to provide resilience and depth to strained local budgets. It’s not perfect but the Manchester agreement shows that the Government recognises that devolution needs to be accompanied by cold hard cash. More will have to be offered, and Whitehall will have to relinquish more control of it, if any devolution is to have half a chance of being a success –especially whilst the cuts are at the levels they are.
This leaves us with consent – perhaps the most important element of my initial analysis five years ago. At the time I was thinking about the consent needed for community groups, possibly from small sections of a community, to take over running local assets. However, the issue of consent is far deeper than that. If local people don’t feel that they can identify the link between their votes and the decisions made then the legitimacy of the devolved areas is certainly suspect. I think George Osborne has spotted this, hence his demand that areas receiving the new powers, and the money, have elected mayors. I’m not sure this is really enough – titular accountability is fine but with local democracy in relatively poor state of repair (well, all democracy really) I can’t help but feel that more devolution needs to be accompanied by deeper and far more meaningful participatory democracy.
It is not enough to pass power from Central Government to local government if the decisions made by the local councils feel as remote as the decisions currently made. I hope that the consideration of this issue is able to move beyond just that of an elected mayor.
The four Cs seem to have held up fairly well over the past five years and still seem relevant to the decisions being made by Mr Clark and co. However, I think the current devolution deals have identified a crucial fifth C – competence.
In many ways we are still in the experimentation phase – and what happens next is going to matter very much indeed. If places like Manchester (by which I mean the Manchester region of course), Cambridgeshire and West Yorkshire can make a success of the devolution the momentum for change will become unavoidable. However, if they mess it up it won’t take long for the clarion calls of centralisation and the dead hand of the Treasury to demand that devolution is reversed.
I really hope that devolution is a success and that the next five years see rapid progress towards a more local and accountable form of Government and whilst my 5 Cs are fairly crude means of analysis I’ll be keeping my eyes on them over the next few years. I just wonder if I’ll be writing another post on the same issue in five years!
We've been on a bit of a summer recent here at WLLG towers but when the chance comes to publish a guest post - especially one from the excellent Rob Foster who usually writes over at futuresinfinite.blogspot.co.uk and tweets @futuresinfinite on the twitter. Do check out his blog but before that do check out his take on the first 100 days of the new Government and what it means for local government.
The government has now passed the 100 days in office mark, & thus it’s time for some early reflections. Of course in a five year term the first 100 days is a largely symbolic & possibly overworked milestone, but alongside some significant parallel developments it is a good time to consider the main features of the post-election landscape for local government.
Devolution remains the biggest, if not only, game in town for councils looking to evolve beyond the confines of prolonged demise by a thousand cuts. Many local authorities are currently publicly committed to exploring the options whilst working frantically behind the scenes to make deals, forge alliances & develop Combined Authority (or other) proposals. The government’s emphasis on local devolution tied to the elected Mayoral model is a concern for many, especially non-metropolitan areas who perceive the threat to their influence & independence. Despite this, the consensus seems to be that it’s better to be in a proposal than not. Quite how this will be resolved following the September deadline for submissions is unclear: it’s hard to believe that there won’t be areas left wholly outside of the vanguard. This then raises the danger of a set of “off the peg” models being developed centrally in attempt to please everyone, effectively pleasing no-one & nullifying the innovation and place-centric possibilities that are the foundation of devolution’s purpose. The asymmetric approach is, in my opinion, correct given how wide the “readiness” gap is for greater responsibilities & opportunities, but this does mean there will be considerable dissonance across the sector.
Lord Kerslake’s recent call for input into the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) for reform, decentralisation and devolution is a further step in this direction.
Over the years I have been a big and vocal advocate of digital solutions, so much so that I actually left the public sector in order to work on improving the way digital is done with local government. Digital genuinely has the potential to not only be the cheapest option of delivering many vital services to local people but actually the better option. Much talk is had on the former, with the latter taking the back seat.
One particular area I've discussed has been the way digital can improve internal communications. Whether it’s improving the way e-mail is delivered between teams, using social enterprise tools like Yammer or Slack to make cross-service communication easier and more efficient or whether it’s finding better ways to store information online so others can not only find it later but understand its context, the opportunities are huge.
The use of internal social network-style systems has a huge range of benefits. Adopting a publish-don’t-send culture ensures people start working aloud, sharing information and links, updating others on their work and encouraging others to take an interest in areas outside of their immediate concern. It encourages people to share early and share often, so issues or duplication can more easily be picked up by the crowd and addressed sooner rather than later.
It can also save significant amounts of time in the process. People are better able to find information and support, better able to access both of these things outside of their normal circles of influence, allow quicker and more streamlined communication between managers and their staff and can cut down on the amount of time spent in meetings which are held for their own sake.
The line from many of the companies behind the many digital solutions available is that if everyone types things out and shares publicly there is actually less need for physical meetings at all. Everyone is updated more easily and has the opportunity to add their own questions or points which can be addressed whenever is best, and the amount of random chatter can be limited to keep things focussed and on track.
In my experience, often there is nothing that beats a face to face meeting. Yes, we all overdo these sometimes; it’s very easy to fall into the habit of scheduling an hour to discuss something that should take nowhere near as long. People are familiar with the hour-long meeting. It feels official. It feels important. And it fills your diary wonderfully so you appear to be in demand and therefore important, or at least busy enough to be able to turn down competing meeting requests which interest you less.
That being said, when done well, in-person meetings can significantly solidify relationships between individuals and make sure things actually get done. The day I realised that people, not processes and rules, got things done was the day I started to make progress myself. If I e-mail someone I know they will receive it, I trust they will read it, I hope they will understand it and I wait for them to respond.
If I meet them in person however I am better able to gauge whether or not they actually understood my intent rather than just my words, can explain further if needed and can quickly build a rapport to encourage trust. I can look into their eyes and they into mine and find out where issues might arise as well as then discuss what to do about them
I appreciate that this is in no small part down to the sort of personality I have. I am a talker. I like little more than attacking a problem with a group of people and working together to discuss options before agreeing with them on the best solution.
Others prefer remote engagement only. They thrive through the clarty that a clearly worded e-mail or message can bring, and how they can deal with things in whatever they deem as the most appropriate levels of priority at the time.
Indeed, this is how many coders, programmers and people in the tech industry work. The very people building these tools and then selling them do so because they truly believe that they are offering a better way of working that everyone will sign up to if only they can approach it with an open mind. Get rid of face to face and create a quieter, more orderly workplace where people can focus more.
This approach is as wrong as the one it is trying to replace. It imposes a more introverted style of engagement on those who thrive on a more extroverted one, imposes an orderly approach when others thrive in chaos. It says it is right and the other is wrong, when in fact only the former is actually true.
A mature, effective workplace understands and values the differences in people, places and circumstances that inevitably evolve as people and work changes. It understands that in many situations a work-aloud policy is a good default, but sometimes this needs to be complemented by an offline discussion in person. It understands that everyone has natural preferences, and that by meeting these differences effectively they will garner far more from their staff than they ever would by imposing one style over another upon them.
With the exception of transactions (bookings, payments, information, etc…), which should all be done online, collaboration needs to be tackled using a range of tools and approaches. These should be decided upon based on the situation and people involved, and should themselves evolve over time. Digital by default is not digital to the point of exclusion.
Local government needs to better consider both of these sides of the coin rather than seeing one as the panacea of all ills. It needs to improve its culture of booking meetings with little thought as to whether or not they are needed and encourage shorter, action focussed updates either in person or online. And it needs to do this at the top, as well as the bottom. In my experience, there are plenty of senior-level meetings which could be trimmed from the diary, or at least improved drastically.
After all, as one very smart person mentioned at UK Gov Camp this year, we are paid to make progress, not to be busy.