By Dominic Cain, director of exchequer for Southwark Council and president of the IRRV London & Home Counties Association
This article first appeared in the June edition of the Institute of Revenues, Ratings and Valuations’ (IRRV’s) Insight magazine.
Whoever said the only thing constant is change! Yet again Local Government is at the forefront of some of the most significant changes seen across the public sector for many years. The next four years will continue to see significant change in local authority funding – and it’s vital that we can continue to transform our approach to service delivery to enable us to continue to deliver more with less, much less!
In the context of a continual wave of changing government policy this is no easy task. Stephen Crabb’s recent support for the continued implementation of Universal Credit comes as no surprise but there remain significant issues yet to be resolved and implementation no doubt will see further complications arise. Given the scale of the changes facing local government it is clear that continued collaboration, partnership working and transformation remain at the forefront of maintaining services that are appropriate to meet customer need/s.
In April, the IRRV London and Home Counties Association hosted a conference on service delivery in local government, which followed the publication of the Local Government Association’s (LGA) ‘Fit for Change’ report. The conference, delivered in association with Southwark Council and Capita, explored ways that local authority leaders can develop sustainable delivery models and new ways of working.
Stephen Hughes, the strategic director of resources for the London Borough of Brent, spoke about the headwinds facing local government over the next four years. Local government is challenged to achieve self-sufficiency in an ever-changing policy landscape. Fast changing models for funding agreements and welfare complicate the issues even further.
Beyond that, the unclear devolution agenda provides a huge range of potential opportunities – but it is far from clear what the current progress will mean in the end and many authorities are rightly nervous of the uncertainty. Externally there are even bigger potential risks on the horizon – the impact of Brexit on local government finances is hard to predict.
It was suggested that many in the sector are looking at the current situation in the wrong way – we shouldn’t be arguing about funding allocations between different authorities but finding ways to use their existing funding and assets to deliver better outcomes and a sustainable fiscal position. There are a wide array of models being used across the UK to pursue this aim, from commercialisation of services to the sharing of services across local authorities, such as in Richmond and Wandsworth. Others are involving the local community to create a ‘virtuous circle’ to support and exploit local capabilities, exploring new outsourcing structures or developing new engagement approaches to better understand their ‘customers’.
Obviously, each of these new models also come with an inherent risk. However, the landscape has changed and there is much less uncertainty than there was four years ago – these models are being used successfully and we can learn from those authorities. It was clear from the conference that the benefits are outweighing concerns – and the sector is adept at meeting those challenges head on.
A key part of most of the new models being discussed was ensuring we are focussing on outcomes rather than process. My colleague Norman Lockie from Southwark discussed the changes we have introduced to council tax revenue collection in Southwark. By moving away from a mind-set that looked at all outstanding council debtors the same way, we were able to diversify our collection approach, adopting propensity to pay models and focussing on new contact channels with residents, ultimately increase our revenue collection.
However, these changes produce challenges of their own. We are all aware of our responsibility to ensure that the processes that come with change on this scale – from infrastructure management to internal communications – are handled with care and delivered effectively. Gerard Murtagh, a HR director from Capita, stressed the need to communicate your goals and engage early with staff – without effective communication about what you’re trying to do, what you’ve done so far and why you’re trying to do it, it is unlikely that any large scale change will be successful.
Innovation in the UK local authority sector is continuing apace and new ideas and models are being developed that will help shape our councils as we approach 2020. Building resilience is absolutely vital if we are to survive. Our conference showed that the best way to do that is to change the way we’re looking at the challenges we’re facing – and to look to our colleagues to learn from innovation being delivered elsewhere.