News and Comment

Changing Times with Carolyn Downs, Chief Executive of the Local Government Association

Friday 3 May 2013


In our weekly Changing Times series we hear the views of some of society’s sharpest minds on how public services should respond to today’s radical challenges. Today, it’s Carolyn Downs, Chief Executive of the LGA, and also a speaker at OPM’s forthcoming public interest seminar, in which we’ll be looking at how public services can develop a more successful commercial approach without compromising vital values?

If you compare today’s society and the society into which you were born: what’s most strikingly different, and what’s most surprisingly similar?

The obvious difference is technology, which has certainly quickened the pace of the way we are able to do business, it’s helped to deliver savings and has opened up access to knowledge and information. We now operate in a 24-hour working day allowing access to most things at any time of the day or night. The media is now open for business 24-hours a day and events are reported in real time. This allows more scrutiny of public institutions, making the business of public services more transparent.

In the wider context, technology has shrunk the world to a click of a button, opening up learning and knowledge to everyone.

What is similar is the commitment of people working across public services to do the very best they can for the people they serve. Whether it is as elected councillors, council officers, nurses, teachers, people still want to make a difference and improve the lives of other people.

Given difficult choices have to be made, what one public service or source of support do you think we should prioritise most highly, and why?

Good heavens this is a hard question – however people should have the fundamental right to a home and increasingly we see homelessness around us – I would prioritise affordable and decent housing.

If you could choose one person to be the Prime Minister’s adviser, who would that person be, and why?

As we currently have a Conservative Prime Minister I would choose our Chairman, Sir Merrick Cockell. Merrick is an experienced, pragmatic politician who deals in the art of the possible. As a passionate advocate of local government, he would bring a local perspective to central government, which is sadly often missing when policy-decisions are taken which affect local communities. National policy is still all too frequently made by anecdote rather than a solid, evidence-based approach. This often leads to new burdens which can hamper councils’ ability to deliver on locally-based priorities.

Public services rely on voluntary support more than ever: is this to be welcomed?

Absolutely. As we move towards a more local, collaborative, placed-based approach to the delivery of public services, voluntary support and the voluntary sector will have an ever-increasing role to play alongside other local partners. I think this is likely to increase as individuals take on more to support their local communities. Whether it is as a carer, school governor or just popping in to check on an elderly neighbour, there is a role for people and organisations to support public services.

By working together across sectors at a local level, assets, budgets, resources skills and expertise can be maximised to tackle local priorities. The model and approach will be slightly different from place-to-place but whatever the model, the voluntary support will have an ever-increasing role to play as the model of public services is re-shaped.

In the best case scenario, what will public services be like by 2023? What about the worst case scenario?

In the best case scenario, public services will be transformed to deliver high quality, cost-effective services across a range of public sector partnerships, supported by the business and voluntary sector. Councils will sit in the middle of local delivery models, occupying a critical leadership role. The relationship between central and local government will be strong, supportive and seen as both being equal partners in a successful, modern framework for the delivery of good public services.

Residents will be better engaged with councils to determine what services councils should provide and what they should not provide and how public behaviours can influence the demand on council services. We will have a financially independent and sustainable model for local government which will enable us to change lives for the better.

The worst case scenario is that councils will be in a position where they are fulfilling a local administration role rather than local government, delivering little more than waste and adult social care services.

Previous Changing Times contributors

Matthew Taylor, Chief Executive of the RSA.

Professor Kate Pickett, epidemiologist and author