Understanding, managing and ultimately changing demand must be at the centre of local governments thinking as it begins to plan for 2015/16 and beyond. Whilst this perspective has gained a healthy level of traction we’re still caught between the acceptance of the argument and our confidence to act on it. Albert Einstein once remarked that “no problem can be solved by the same level of consciousness that created it.” The great man couldn’t have crafted a more prescient message for local government had he tried. Councils have done incredibly well to make the savings demanded of them up till now but what enabled them to save that money is precisely not what will enable councils to save the next chunk. The next significant win for local government is a whole system focus on demand management and prevention. However, only isolated pockets of creative demand and prevention work exist across the local government landscape and these represent the exception, not the norm.
In truth we have spent the last three years exhausting the well of supply side solutions – squeezing economies of scale where we can. We have run out of road, so to speak, on our traditional paths to savings. Simultaneously, we have acknowledged the demand side issues, but failed to look them square in the eye. This is no longer an option. We are heading into unfunded mandate territory and the transformation options available to local government leave little but a predominant focus on demand and prevention left. We are therefore left with a twelve month window, before the next round of budget planning starts, to figure out and agree how to ‘do’ demand management and prevention.
There is not a codified answer to this. We are all innovating in uncharted territory but there are two universal truths, that apply to every council and every partner, that offer a framing for the challenge ahead. Firstly, we must confront head on the question of certainty. We are now moving to a different kind of whole system transformation, one where the focus is on altering the behaviours and attitudes of individuals, where the change is both atmospheric and physical. In this world, we would assert that the promise of certainty from a whole system approach is nothing more than a fiction. Secondly, there is no best practice, there is not even good practice, the practice is emerging. We are creating examples as we go. We must therefore confront head on the requirement for certainty with the knowledge to hand that we are building a new playbook. More honesty is needed and we must acknowledge that in many cases certainty has been become a destructive opiate that both public (including politicians) and private must be weaned off.
The difficulty, at present though, is not necessarily in finding the ultimate answer but rather having confident leadership that is decisive enough to act on what we know and place demand management and prevention at the heart of transformation. Councils will need to create the space to innovate in this field and instead of certainty of outcome we should value the rapid testing, prototyping and piloting of ideas and techniques. We fail fast and scale faster. By starting with the behaviours we are trying prevent we can develop a new approach to system prevention that runs alongside the management of demand and in the process we can build confidence, skills and evidence. The evidence to date shows that you can make a real change happen. Fostering and adoption, SEN transport and residential referrals are just a handful of areas in which a targeted focus on demand has had a significant and measurable impact. We need to and must take this work further.
Therefore, in support of a sector wide effort, we alongside a small number of local government Chief Executives, have decided to create a platform that will help spread this message further. Today sees the launch of the Centre for Public Sector Behavioural Economics. A virtual learning institute that is a free to access resource on demand management, prevention and behavioural insight work in local government and the wider public sector. Starting small, we will be encouraging those with new practice to share it and a programme of events and workshops will be announced in the coming weeks to help debate and disseminate it. We recognise that this thinking is very much in its infancy within the local government family, but we share the sectors ambition and alongside others feel the time is right for a venture of this nature. The goal is to share emerging practice from our sector and create a safe space where it can be discussed.
Local government, by being so good at what it does, has in fact changed the nature of the problems it is there to address. It is now much harder. Transformation should become about focusing externally and on doing things that create a response. A continued obsession with structure and process is nothing more than an exercise in vanity, we must wriggle free of its comforting embrace and roll the dice. The higher purpose of change can only be served by stepping into the unknown. In short, we must embrace the heavy burden of building our places futures, if not local government, then who?
Article originally produced in The MJ – www.themj.co.uk