Martin Cresswell

How productive is local government?

February 13, 2018

It was going to happen sooner or later, and in reality, given the scale of the challenge that local government has faced, it’s a surprise that it’s not been sooner. The emergency measures put in place in Northamptonshire and alarm bells being sounded elsewhere in the country are sadly not a surprise to those who have worked with and within local government over the last decade.

Whilst local government must continue to fight its corner, the stark reality is that there will be very little – or indeed no – additional funding to prop up Council finances. At a national level there are simply bigger political priorities and the Cabinet is not focussed on local pressures.

To gain better traction, local government needs to evidence universal progress towards new models of public service.  The main question ringing in my ears these days is therefore this: how productive is local government?

Without doubt, local government is far more efficient that it was 10 years ago: supply side costs have been reduced dramatically and services have been stripped back. But productivity and efficiency are different beasts, and therefore the real question we should answer is to what extent councils are creating value for every pound they spend.

There needs to be a more credible sector response to this question from which to argue for greater control of local public services. Local government needs to reframe the problem.   One way to answer this question is to explore, understand and act on the variability of productivity in services.

iMPOWER had been pioneering practical work in this space, looking at major service groups and comparing outcome measures (and relevant proxies) against spend. Outlined below is our assessment of the variability in “productivity” across London Boroughs, Unitary Councils, and County Councils.


Our analysis shows:

  • There is no correlation between type of Council and productivity
  • High spend does not equal high quality outcomes
  • Councils do not perform consistently across all service groups

Rob Whiteman’s recent article demonstrates that in aggregate there is still some money to support transformation. So more than ever before, councils must begin to learn from each other, deliver new service models that create independent living, and be the driver in transforming all local public services.

Before we get defensive, it’s important to note that this can only be achieved because of the transparency that exists within local government. Other public services simply don’t have this level of accountability.  Our suspicion is that in other public services the level of variability would be even greater.

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