As is always the case with major government financial statements the real value is in capturing the momentum of the message, the challenge though is deciphering what that message actually is. On the face it local government could merely see this autumn statement as giving them a pass, “You’ve been hit hard in previous years and so this time, take a seat.” In light of the last three years the sector would be forgiven for embracing this comforting notion. However, they would be wrong to do so.
Despite the uplift in national growth the chancellor’s own figures clearly point to continued downward spending pressure. He also acknowledged that there are still imbalances in the countries economic portfolio; overreliance on mature European and North American markets, a debt peak in 15/16 of 80% of GDP and still some distance to go in diversifying the productive output of the economy. All of this suggests a level of optimism wrapped up in a severe note of caution that at any point, the house of cards could tumble.
So what is the message for local government then? For me it’s clear, “Use this time to raise your sights above transforming services to truly transform your relationship with citizens: because demand is rising and the economy can change quickly.” With Labour committing to the governments first year spending plans in 15/16 there is a level of certainty that transcends the political timetable. We must use it. Much air time within local government has been devoted to the question of ‘what local government is for’. This is intimately interwoven with the challenge of remodelling public services, one begets the other. The barrier to moving forward on this has been the lack of economic certainty and the ever downward spiral in spending. In essence both of these have been clarified, and in such a way as to create the space for us to do the things we know we need to do.
This relative sure footing represents the optimal moment for significant change. We need to prove that local government can move from being a rudimentary service provider to become a broker and negotiator within complex social systems. We should take the time to collect convincing evidence that we can change behaviours of citizens, staff and partners. This means the rapid testing and prototyping of a new type of methods of change using a multitude of strategies. This could mean trying harder and more creatively than ever to persuade many more people to foster or adopt. Or it could mean using the focus on health and care integration to really involve the views and behaviour of patients rather than fixate on structural integration.Conceptually, as well as managerially, the scale of change needed is huge. The good news, we’ve just been given a small amount of headroom to get started. We must use it.
Jeremy Cooper, Director, iMPOWER