A little over a month from now, the edge-of-your-seat excitement (we’re all on the edge of our seats, yes?) will be over and a new (or not so new) government will be beginning its search for more answers to public spending reform.
But in many ways, they shouldn’t need to. When looked at nationally, significant reform is happening. We just – to repeat the age-old complaint about local government – aren’t that good at telling the story.
Northern Ireland has just reformed its entire public services system and reduced its councils from 26 to 11. Manchester is operating under a single combined authority. South Hams and West Devon are completing a shared services merger, appointing staff to a new joint authority. Surrey and Bucks are now running shared consumer protection services. Bristol, Cardiff and Newport were featured last week around greater collaboration on economic growth. And the Essex deal, which seeks devolution of powers from the CLG for combined councils, is developing a county model for shared services.
These are just a handful of examples.
Five years ago councils were trimming the edges – improving digital access and adding services to hubs such as libraries to reduce bills and improve customer service. But today the thinking – and delivery – is already on a scale that, five years ago, would probably have been termed as reform.
The bones of reform are already apparent in many areas. Perhaps what the sector would benefit from is a way of pooling it's experience, developing (for want of a better term) a “shop window” of proven improvement options that can at least be drawn upon and tailored to an area, if not copied in their entirety. Not just an article that tantalises but really practical guidance, and a helping hand where needed.
It would also provide a voice for local authorities to government – a way of showcasing as a sector how we’ve developed innovations locally and shared them nationally.
At iESE, for example, we’re launching an associate programme – inviting those with a passion and the skills to redesign and improve services to join our roster of service professionals, working on improvement and reform projects at authorities across the UK.
The scheme allows associates from both corporate and service backgrounds to learn and apply best practice from across the country in a range of areas – such as service redesign, building shared services, organisational design, creating trading companies and other innovations that are saving money and improving outcomes.
As a social enterprise, it gives us the opportunity to use our incomes to build a pool of service experts, and then put that expertise back into the sector.
This time five years ago, central government thinking around reducing the public service purse was captured under the Big Society banner. But in many ways, councils have found their own solutions around shared services, trading companies, VCS commissioning and so on. Pooling all that knowledge nationally would be a powerful tool in managing the next spending review.
iESE Column, Published in the MJ 16/04/15