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?
Football is an exciting and very popular sport. Local Government is neither exciting nor popular.
Football is awash with money. Local Government hasn’t got much (and increasingly less).
Children grow up dreaming of being a footballer. I and none of my colleagues dreamed of being a local government officer.
What then can Local Government learn from Football? Here are some playful musings that come to mind;
Transfer fees – Transfer fees should be paid between authorities when a top staff member is poached. This would incentivise authorities to develop their in house talent so they could cash in on being a selling authority and the rich authorities can rip up their pay-scales to develop bloated ‘squads’ of the best people in the sector that eventually get disenfranchised sat warming the bench.
Contracts – Put all staff on fixed term contracts. The best staff get long, lucrative contracts which are renewed years in advance. The less effective staff get that annual meeting with the ‘Gaffer’ to see whether there are going to be on the retained list – finally an appraisal with teeth!
Transfer Window – Staff in the Public Sector should only be allowed to change jobs either in the summer months (once accounts have closed) or during a four week period in January. There would be exciting reports of S151 Officers being seen in airports, Data Records Managers getting out of taxis and friends of friends of Heads of Adult Social Care circulating speculative rumours.
Last week I was having a chat with the brilliant Jonny Zander (yes, that's his real name, not a super hero alias) and amongst putting the world to rights we briefly talked about a single syllable word which causes so many problems for local government. Tax? Cuts? Both big issues of course, but not the subject of our debate. This time round our conversation was sponsored by the simple word:
That's it; no. It's strange perhaps, but looking around we are not good at all at even saying it and then meaning it as well. Both internally and externally we focus so much time and effort on saying yes that we rarely look at its opposite with any conviction. I'm asking now; should we be saying no more often?