In the Bleak Mid-Decade: The View from Bartle Borough Council in 2017

It’s 2017.  We are halfway through the projected decade of austerity. 

Bartle Borough Council is a (fictional) unitary with 250,000 residents. It describes itself as a “commissioning council” and more than 80% of its services are provided by the private or voluntary sector. Resident satisfaction is pretty good – just below upper quartile. 75% of its back office services are shared with Anderton Borough Council and Charlesworth Council, and sharing services means that its unit costs are in the lowest quartile of similar councils. Since austerity struck social care costs have been halved per service recipient by a combination of redefining thresholds, and descoping care packages, plus some more positive intiatives – but there are a lot more service recipients.

Despite all this good work from 2012 to 2017 the council faces a budget crisis. Reserves are at 1.5%, and there is a £10m gap in funding for each of the next five years (on the current base of £200m, which used to be £300m in 2009). Relentless demographic pressures, and worklessness take their toll on council services. Health inequalities have worsened but no-one seems as bothered by that these days. Where once there were 40 officers in the top three tiers of the council there are now 15. The chief executive is also the statutory director of adults and children. The Deputy chief executive covers resources and transformation, and there’s a Director of universal services covering roads, the (one) library, environment and schools.

They can’t believe that after five years of slog, and doing all of the right things, that they still have a budget gap. They feel poised on the brink of sliding down to the awful position which other councils are in, basically rationing ever more meagre services, and patching things up as best they can, seeing emergency national resources going to the less well run councils. Was this all that effort was for? Simply delaying the slide?

So here’s the question: Is this plausible – would a council which did “all the right things” actually be in this position? What can it do next? What should it have done 5 years ago? I have some views – what are yours?

I originally wrote this blog on a dark day in December last year and got too depressed by it to publish it (!)  though it has since then been quite a powerful motivator for me to think of solutions.  Since then I’ve had some injections of positivity too – not least last weekend’s LocalGovCamp and the LGC Future Leaders event, but we’ve also had the LGA graph of doom analysis  – so I’ve decided to put this out there and see what happens.  Please don’t hit me.  I’d love for this not to come true.

Thoughts arising from … #LocalGovCamp

Attended my first localgovcamp this weekend, (though it wasn’t my first unconference). These are my 10 takeaways – a clever format suggest by someone (possibly even Dan Slee) a little while ago:

1. Struck once again by how extraordinarily easy it is to enjoy the company of people who share a common passion and with whom you have “broken in” a relationship on Twitter. An attractive combination of the joy of meeting someone for the first time and greeting an old friend.

2. Chatting with an attendee who is a senior player in a local authority about the buzz and energy in the room – why can’t a day at the office be like this? The private sector place I work now is closer to the buzz and energy of a “camp” than the local authorities I have worked in and I think there is a relatively simple explanation – ratio of energy givers to energy takers. Having said that, culture, clarity of objectives, and performance culture can affect whether someone is an energy giver or taker – it’s not just innate to the individual. The culture of a localgovcamp is spectacularly encouraging.

3. Interesting thoughts about the parallels between the Victorian development of physical civic infrastructure and the current development of a civic information infrastructure in a locality. I am not a historian, but my perception is that at its best this was shaped by an enlightened relationship with business which realised that civic growth and economic growth went together. Does the fact that “business” now tends to be national or even multi-national mean that the bold local entrepreneurs of the past don’t quite exist in the same way, and therefore we won’t see the same positive inter-relationship? A different question: are we – can we be – as clear about the end goal if we’re thinking about civic informational infrastructure as it was possible to be when it was pretty obvious that roads, sewers, health systems and schools would be a good thing? Anyway, was pretty clear to me that much of the discussion about this appears to muddle two distinct things – technology in support of the physical city (eg Smarter Cities), and technology in support of the virtual, social media, digital city – if indeed such a thing can actually exist meaningfully in a geographical sense.

4. I need to find out more about the work that Wolverhampton homes are doing about digital inclusion – it sounds as thought they are doing some exemplary work.

5. A question arising from a discussion with Lloyd Davis – “how can you make good things happen in a society/community with as little structure as possible”. Underpinning the question are complementary desires for economy in a cash-strapped world, and a desire to interfere as little as possible. I wish “We Will Gather” the very best, and will track this (and, separately the fascinating Bristol Democracy project – go look).

6. A quote for which I do not know who to attribute – “there is no such thing as civic apathy, there are just barriers to entry” – further reinforced by a discussion with someone who said that as a councillor candidate the most common question he was asked was where one should go to vote.

7. Yet further realisation that the incoming Police and Crime Commissioners could be “problematic”, especially as they will be taking on their somewhat uncertain roles and having to make decisions about huge cuts in service straight away, decisions which will be scrutinised by new panels also uncertain of their own role. The glass half full version of this, thanks to a lover of local government, being that it is better that these decisions are taken locally as they will certainly be taken somewhere remote if not. I would like every PCC candidate to be asked the question “What specifically will guide your thinking as you decide where to cut costs by 20% or more during your term of office?”

8. A simple idea that a mechanism for public consultation about a location is simply to ask them what makes them sad/mad/glad about the place. No more structure than that. Don’t impose a set of questions about council services in council language until after you’ve had that unprompted response.

9. The idea of a “procurement camp” was mooted as it increasingly became clear that the methods of public procurement at present appear to be a blocker to innovation. In fact DCLG held a session a bit like this a few months ago, with folk present from private sector, voluntary sector and buyers from local gov. I was struck that simply by having folk from each of those constituencies speak for ten minutes about the view from their perspective that an extraordinary amount of value was added. So if procurement camp happens we need to ensure that we recruit enough folk from each relevant constituency. If I had a quid for every time someone simply failed to understand a perspective during localgovcamp, I’d have had, well … not that much, but certainly enough to pay for my excellent Garlic Chilli Paneer at Manzil’s the night before.

10. Lastly, what is #localgovcamp for? Is it a talking shop? What action comes out of it? Personally I don’t think that there has to be a specific tangible action – the law of two feet says that if people don’t find it useful they won’t go. If “fortune favours the prepared mind” then I think all of our minds are a little better prepped, to make connections as yet unimagined in the days and weeks ahead. Having said that, one of the things that I found really nice about the Brighton City Camp is that the open unconference day is followed by an “ideas hack day” where a smaller number of ideas can be worked up in greater depth, and the good ones are then supported through implementation by a degree of awarded cash, and monthly supportive meet-ups to provide continuity.