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Olly Swann

Debating public services at Labour Party Conference

I spent yesterday at the Labour Party conference, to take part in an important panel discussion on local government. It was an honour to line up alongside Cllr Nesil Caliskan (Leader, London Borough of Enfield), Cllr Clare Coghill (Leader, London Borough of Waltham Forest) and NLGN’s Adam Lent as we sought to consider ‘What does ‘good’ mean for local public services?’.

The Labour Party have openly stated that, should they come into power, they are committed to empowering local government, both financially, and through the devolution of powers.  Given that context, it was fascinating to explore how authorities could or should be judged on whether they are delivering the best possible outcomes. I was keen to explore three particular questions:

  • Why is it so hard to judge what ‘good’ looks like in local government?
  • What difference would it make if the sector could judge what ‘good’ looks like?
  • How could that be done in practise?

In my experience, most people work in local public services because of an inherent desire to make a positive difference to people’s lives, at an individual and community level.  That clearly isn’t an easy thing to do when budgets are being cut year-after-year.  But based on all the work IMPOWER has done in public services, it is clear that it would be easier for local government to improve people’s lives if there was a greater focus on outcomes.  The proverbial ‘win-win’ with this, is that good outcomes tend to also cost less.

However, the reality is that at the current time, there simply isn’t that focus – and there is a reason for that.  Austerity has meant that almost all of the debate around funding for local public services has been around the amount of money that councils receive, and on how efficiently they deliver services, rather than on the value obtained from what is spent.

So, if we could resolve the first issue, the next challenge upon us would be to determine what difference it would make if the sector could judge what ‘good’ is.  First and foremost, it would allow comparisons to be made between councils and their approaches, and encourage the sharing of best practice and innovation.

Furthermore, you can also envisage such a cultural shift acting as a catalyst for improved decision-making in local government, improved outcomes for service users, and in turn, reductions in the overall cost of delivering public services.

The third and final point is probably the most difficult one; the ‘how?’.  This would need to involve the sector in defining the standard of outcomes that services are striving for, and identifying which investments give the best possible trade-off between spending and outcomes improvement.

My day at conference revealed that many people are still stuck in ‘the now’.  That is by no means a criticism – many of the attendees are dealing with the consequences of service cuts day-in-day-out, and it is sometimes difficult to re-frame a problem when you are that close to it.  But what is clear is that many of them are still looking in the same places they have been for years; funding envelope, devolution, and “where can we find the immediate cashable savings?”  All of these topics are related to dealing with the present, rather than thinking beyond that.

At IMPOWER, we are clear that the way forward for the sector is for it to agree what good looks like, so that all councils can learn from those who are doing best, and the public can benefit from the best services possible with the money available.  The unknown question is whether a government would actually be brave enough to empower such an approach – over to you, Birmingham, when we debate this same topic next week.

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