News and Comment

he 21st Century local authority – how will you make decisions about yours?

Thursday 10 November 2011

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Local authorities across the country are getting to grips with continued budget pressures, and the consequences of wider policy changes. These changes reflect the concept of the diffusion of innovation (Everett, R. 1962) – some authorities are creating new ways of working and organising, others are adopting some of their solutions, while many are watching and learning to see which approaches are successful and applicable to their circumstances.

 

We often work with the innovators and the early adopters, so that we can then support the many as they consider approaches. Over the past year we have worked with a number of innovative authorities, as well as designing and facilitating a simulation of new models of productive councils on behalf of the Local Government Group (LGG).

Others, such as the Institute for Local Government Studies (INOLGOV) and the New Local Government Network (NLGN) have also written of some of the issues and prospective solutions that they see ahead. Bringing these ideas together suggests there are a number of key questions that authorities should consider as they explore options.

Who decides?

One important early question is: who makes decisions? Our recent experiences reinforce the importance of involving a reasonably wide audience early. Any successful change is always a mix of the structural and behavioural. Success in being an effective local authority will be enhanced if at least some of those people who will work in it, or in partnership with it, are involved in the future design. While it may seem quicker, and perhaps more secure to involve a few senior leaders, councillors and managers, eventually the choices will have to be explained and demonstrated. Leaving the involvement of others until later can set hares running, create misconceptions or worse, as we have found with some of our local authority partners.

Involving an array of partners, and those involved in delivery, will mean choices will be better informed of the realities of delivery in your place. We have found that simulations and facilitated systems design can develop the wider engagement required to build a critical mass of support on which to build choices about models.

A strategic choice: hands-off or hands-on with suppliers and providers?

A second strong theme emerging, particularly from our simulation work with LGG, and the INOLGOV paper (which categorises many of the emerging models), is the choice about how an authority will relate to those they fund, contract, commission – recognising that there is an array of language to describe the nature of the relationship between a service provider and an authority.

At the highest level it appears that local government has a strategic choice to make between a hands-off approach (i.e. this is the contract, we’ll decide who we want on these criteria; here are the reporting and billing arrangements), and a hands-on approach (i.e. help us with the design specification for this need, share the savings we make together – reflecting elements of supply chain management seen in organisations such as Toyota). While such a choice may reflect political imperatives, they do have implications for how the authority and its staff work, as well as for the relationship with those providers and partners.