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Jeremy Cooper

Keeping local government on the agenda at Conservative Party Conference

I was delighted to be part of a fascinating fringe session at the Conservative party conference last night, which asked the question: what does ‘good’ look like for local public services?

Adam Lent (Director, NLGN) chaired the discussion, which built on a similar debate we were involved with at last week’s Labour Party Conference.

I was particularly struck by the following comments from my fellow panellists:

Councillor Rachel Bailey (Leader of Cheshire East Council) observed that the first step to understanding what ‘good’ means is not to just believe what you are told, but to get out to the front line to observe what is really going on.

Councillor Heather Acton (Cabinet Member for Family Services and Public Health, City of Westminster Council) reflected that you have to take a view of what is good across the wider system, citing an example of a scheme in Westminster to support people at home when they come out of hospital. This was loved by the Council and hospital, but was less popular with the Clinical Commissioning Group as it involves more work for GPs, and is therefore at risk.

Councillor Charlotte Haitham-Taylor (Leader of Wokingham Borough Council) argued that local government is essentially marking its own homework as good, drawing parallels with the water industry and proposing a stronger role for regulation of local government.

In my contribution, I explored why it is so hard to define what ‘good’ is in local government. Over the last few weeks I conducted a straw poll with Chief Executives and Directors to find out what they saw as the clearest measure of success over the next year. I got a remarkably consistent answer – saving money. This is a problem, as very few of them (or their teams) came in to local government in order to simply ‘save money’.

I used our philosophy of change, EDGEWORK, to argue that there is a chance to set an inclusive ambition with the public, council staff, politicians and partners – if we reframe the challenge. Instead of concentrating on cuts, savings and efficiencies, we should instead be focusing on outcome productivity – the overall outcomes that public services achieve for the money put in.

This would mean that councils and the sector would need to grapple with the question of what outcomes actually matter most. We have started this off by creating the IMPOWER INDEX, which:

  • Defines outcome productivity as the goal
  • Suggests a default list and weighting of outcome indicators that would count as ‘good’ across different domains
  • Creates a way to compare councils (and ultimately a league table comparing council performance per pound spent).

We haven’t – and won’t – publish these league tables in full. But we are very happy to share the information in a context of a local discussion on what ‘good’ looks like.

The panel discussion left me with a feeling of hope for the sector. All the panellists talked about including residents in defining what ‘good’ means. That would create an opportunity to improve the overall value of local government as well as enabling good practice to be more easily shared.

I ended by making three recommendations for the sector and each council:

  1. Relentlessly focus on outcome productivity
  2. Establish a clear consensus on a definition of which outcomes matter
  3. Make honest, un-defensive comparisons, and act on this insight.

To put it simply, councils that do this will thrive. Please do contact me if you would like to discuss this further.

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