Councils in 2043 – the Next Thousand Words

I was delighted to be asked recently to contribute a piece to LGiU’s 30 birthday celebration work, an imaginative idea that asks 30 people to project what councils may be like in thirty years’ time in 2043.  The post is here: http://www.lgiu.org.uk/30birthday-jonathan-flowers/ and is an imagined conversation between two un-named individuals at a mono-bus stop!

In writing the post I was determined to make it be from a citizen perspective rather than that of the council, and I wanted to present something that was a bit different to “now with less money” so I imagined a world in which council services were more consumerised and customised than they are now.  In doing that I left out a whole lot of stuff, and left quite a lot to the imagination.  I was constrained to three hundred words!  Since my piece is generating some actual interest, or, at least, tweets,  I thought I’d take the opportunity of my own blog to add a few more words, and perhaps leave less to the imagination.  My additional comments are in italics.

“Blooming monobuses, you wait and wait and then three come at once”

I have no idea what a monobus is, but it sounds futuristic!

“Yeah, too right … how you doing in your new flat?”

“It’s alright actually, me and the missus are choosing our council package tonight”

“What are you thinking about getting?”

“Well, obviously we’ll be getting the standard citizen package, and we’ll both be taking the free ID-phones because we don’t mind them knowing where we are if we get a free phone out of it, but we’re thinking about our extras”

It would be a fun exercise to consider what will be in the “standard citizen package” and how the identification of the base package would infuence the way people felt about it.  This is potentially the bit that people pay council tax for.  It’s also interesting to think about whether the “standard citizen package”, if we were thinking about it in these consumerist terms, is what we will end up with after many more years of cuts – I suspect not.  In terms of the narrative behind this dialogue it would be interesting to speculate on whether the “standard citizen package” was re-established after failure of universal services due to the pressures on demand-led ones.

The ID phone notion is intended to prompt a question of how people will feel about their data being used commercially.  In this version of reality clearly people are quite relaxed about it, much as we are now relaxed about what facebook knows about us based on content we give it freely.  I suspect that if councils – and commercial organisations – were able to use the data provided by mobile phones about peoples’ location and activity then this would generate enough “value” for (many) people to get the phones for free.  I think this will either happen or definitively not happen long before 2043, but this was a way of injecting that idea.

“I always go for the health care plus”

I called this “social care plus” in my first draft but someone pointed out to me that “social care” is a label that local government people use so I decided that if it were ever marketed it would more likely have a health label.

“What do you get in that one?”

“Well you get your credits towards the dementia insurance, health checks and double credits for using the leisure centre once a week, so that’s included”

The notion of dementia insurance came to me after hearing Andy Burnham at the LGA saying that the current means-tested funding for elderly social care was essentially a “dementia tax”.  The health checks and double credits for staying fit are a quick nod in the direction of incentivised demand management/prevention.  Maybe we’ll be sufficiently far-sighted to have free leisure centres by then, though I suspect that people will value it more if they feel they are paying for it.

“Mary gets the dementia insurance credits for us both through her work policy, so we’ll do pay as you go on the leisure centre, but we’re thinking about getting the waste booster”

If we are all insuring ourselves against the costs of dementia in some way then there will probably be many options for that.

The use of the terminology of mobile phone packages is deliberate.  It seems to be the way we tend to think of services now:  A core “headline price” service to which you get to add things based on your particular need.  A form of self-funded personalisation?

I can see a story for local government that finds its core offering reduced and reduced and that the only way of getting more citizen money into the system is to start charging for things individually (unless anyone has the political courage and persuasion skills to convince people that “taxation is the price of admission to a fair society”).  If it’s done right, and if it’s done in a way that people recognise and value, it might work.  You get your standard citizen package out of your council tax, but extras cost.  If councils had to justify the value of those extras, and innovate in how they were provided and packaged to ensure that it was aligned with actual citizen need then that might not be a bad thing – especially if in doing so they got additional resources?

“What does that one get you?”

“Choose the day of the week for collection, though we’ll probably go with the default option to get a discount on that; double collections and a tree at Christmas, unlimited cardboard and they sort your recycling for you”

This is what I would pay more for.  As someone said to me though, we’ll probably have automatic recycling separation for everyone long before then.

“That’s just lazy, we get the kids to do ours, to earn their pocket money.”

I put in a mild swear word here which got censored at the suggestion of a colleague!

“Yeah, well we’ve got to decide where to get our advice package from, because we’re going to want help applying for schools, and we’re thinking about putting in an application for a conservatory”

This is building up to the last notion I wanted to insert- the idea that “consumer-led” local authorities might actually compete with each other in some respects. I don’t think we’ll get competition for core services (that standard citizen package again, perhaps) but if we get into a world where advice services are an extra cost, then why wouldn’t I be able to choose where I get that advice from, since location doesn’t really matter?  And if I were wanting some professional advice on applying for schools I might prefer to buy it from someone independent but expert – like another local authority?

“What have you narrowed it down to?”

“Well we used to get our advice package from Staffordshire when we lived in the black country, but now that we live in Dalston we’re thinking of getting it from somewhere more local, like Barnet … their app gets 5 stars in the govstore, and it’s only £500 a month”

I am assuming a degree of inflation!  And that sterling remains a thing.

“Nice one. ”

What I haven’t commented on in any of this is the strength or otherwise of civic society and social cohesion, the state of local democracy in general, social media, the use of other sectors in service provision and a host of other things that would be relevant and might underly this little dialogue.  The ommission doesn’t mean that I think there won’t be any of those things.   It meant I had 300 words!  And I had a hunch that those areas would be covered by others that LGiU would ask!

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What became of the broken hearted?

There was a really good session at the Public Sector Launchpad (#pslaunchpad) last night (5th November 2013) and this blog is about one tiny offshoot of one of the conversations.

The conversation was about resistance to change in organisations.  A young and enthusiastic local government worker was discussing the difficulties of getting a long-term workforce to change.  It reminded me of a situation earlier on in my career when I encountered a similar situation, and the comments I made last night seemed to strike a chord so I thought I’d write a short blog to share it.

As a starting point in analysis I find it helps to accept that everyone is always rational all of the time.  Therefore if someone is resisting a change which is pretty demonstrably good, not only for them and their working practice but also for the service user, then it can be baffling as to why they’re not whole-heartedly engaged.  Some conversations I had helped me to realise that these people were basically “broken-hearted”.

As some point, perhaps early on in their career, they had been engaged in a change process which offered similar benefits and they’d gone for it – full throttle – sacrificed (temporarily) family considerations and worked their socks off to make the change happen, but for whatever reason (change of management, change of political administration, poor implementation) the change hadn’t actually happened, or hadn’t delivered the desired benefit.  This was a real disappointment to them (they were gutted), but when the next such change came along they thought “this time – let’s make that last wasted effort worthwhile after all…” but sadly, and perhaps for a different reason, that intiative failed too.  They lived through a third and fourth, and possibly even more change intiatives and became, basically, broken-hearted – they have been “jilted” by the organisation so many times that there is real pain in committing themselves to another programme which, of course, to the initiator, is perfectly logical and consistent and how could anyone not…

So I thought I’d share that thought.

Obviously, not everyone who is resistant to change is “broken-hearted” in the way I’ve described.  Some of the most change resistant people can be young people who are experiencing a change that is happening to them rather than led by them and for whom this is suddenly the biggest thing in their world.  And in some cases people have other motives for resisting change – but I think that “broken heartedness” can be a useful explanation for some.

What’s the solution?  That depends massively on the specific case and the specific individual.  Talking to people about their past experiences of change can often be really insightful – you may even learn from things that have gone badly (or well) in the past, and you may be able to help people realise that something really has changed or is different this time.  In some cases it may take a couple of years of actual delivery of change to convince people that this time it’s really going to happen.  Sometimes people are so totally jaded that they need a change of scenery and a new role, possibly in another organisation – I am conscious that that sounds like a threat and no doubt it would be perceived that way, but sometimes it’s true.  The solution may be about involving them in a co-designed process (though I suspect that they’ll also have had that before too).  The last category of solution if you have a whole organisaiton like this to deal with is to introduce an external change so significant that people have to react – a merger of authorities, a full-throated implementation of a Commissioning approach, a TUPE transfer to another entity (not necessarily private sector) – may be the kind of intervention that will help lift them to a new stage of change – it depends.

What sort of “no chief executive” are you?

This article was first published in LGC

The growing diversity of local authorities in their local situations makes it very difficult to generalize about local government.  Some are tempted to say that “all councils should always have a chief executive come what may”.  This is quite interesting – clearly there are a number of local authorities currently doing without a formal chief executive and those of us old enough to remember some of the spectacular messes left when this was tried in the past might be tempted to make a general comment, but we shouldn’t.  We’re at a stage where we need to learn from the diversity of examples in many local authorities, whether that relates to the chief executive model or any other area of innovation.

These are some questions I ask when confronted with a council that doesn’t have a chief executive:

  • Who gets the chief executive’s mail?  If something arrives addressed to the chief executive, whether it’s a complaint from a resident or a letter from the secretary of state, who gets it? Is it always the same person? (This incisive test was suggested to me by a thoughtful head of paid service currently working in a “no-CE” council.)
  • Who chairs the corporate board meetings?  If a corporate director is ill or unable to attend work, to whom do they send a message letting them know?
  • Who represents the council at Solace meetings?  Who at interest group meetings eg CCN?
  • Is there one person that others tend to turn to when they want to know how an initiative or an issue sits with the wider narrative of the organisation and its change?
  • Is there one person for whom local partners get grumpy when they don’t turn up for meetings, or if they send someone else instead?
  • Who ensures that opposition groups are briefed on developments, and advises them on their manifestoes coming up to the election?
  • Is there one person who tends always to be up first at staff events?
  • … and who is the “head of the paid service”?

If the same name keeps cropping up then the council has someone who is essentially taking on the chief executive role, so the next question is: are they the council’s most senior officer with the constitutional powers to fulfill their role, whatever their formal title, or specific job description? And if a council doesn’t have someone who consistently comes up in the answers to these questions – then how do they deal with these issues and ensure consistency and clarity?

Recruiting for Commercialism

This article, which appeared under the name of myself and Veredus colleague Evelyn Dougherty, was first published in the MJ

As we travel around the country visiting a diverse range of local authorities it is clear that “commercialism” is on the rise.  We are often asked about the practicalities and pitfalls of recruiting people with commercial backgrounds.  Cross-sector expertise can make a huge difference to authorities, but  fundamental questions need to be asked before the recruitment begins, not when the candidates are in front of a panel, and especially not when the shiny private sector implant has failed to live up to expectations.

Start by understanding why is commercialism important to you? We think there are (broadly) four reasons why authorities want to be more commercial – (1) to generate profit to offset the effect of cuts (2) to change the culture of the organisation in good ways (3) to support becoming a “commissioning council” and lastly (4) to be better able to understand and support business in your place

In terms of generating profit start by checking that everyone is really aligned with this – some authorities are even nervous about the word and use convoluted phrases like “net revenues” or just “income” because the P-word has corrosively negative connotations in the culture.  If this is you then your issues may go deeper than simply the absence of a commercial director type, and it is hard to imagine the whole organisation getting behind an initiative to take on other service providers and win.  Which brings us to another taboo subject – the notion of competition.  A lot of people really like the collaborative nature of public services and it can be deep in an organisation’s psyche, but if you are going to enter a traded service marketplace, say,  then you need to compete and win – there is no prize for second place, only wasted bidding costs.   This also has an impact on what you need to pay to get people – there is no point in recruiting someone to lead your profit generation if they simply get ticks in the person specification boxes but aren’t actually good enough to lead a win.  Moreover you will need to commit council tax-payers money to marketing and business development at a time when you are almost certainly making headline-worthy cuts elsewhere.  We think there is huge potential for authorities to become more commercial, but that aspiration needs to be more than one person deep.

The issue of cultural change is one that we hear quite a lot.  There are many admirable features of good commercial organisations – responsiveness to changing customer needs, quick decision-making, innovation – that many people, often especially elected members, contrast negatively with what they sometimes see in local authorities.   This one needs challenging, thoughtfully.  Public and private organisations exist in a completely different context – local authorities are regulated as monopoly providers of important publicly-funded services – they are hugely scrutinized and accountable, with very high requirements for consultation and with measured, transparent decision making.  There is no “private sector pixie dust” that can completely overcome this.  So the cultural aims are good ones, but realize that achieving them will require fundamental rethinking of the organisation, up to and including Overview and Scrutiny.  Councils that wish to be commercial have an interesting choice about whether to try to create the commercialism from within, or to place it in some kind of arms length body.  It would appear that the arms length route seems to be working better in terms of achieving the commercial objectives, and cultural change within the arms-length folk, but that doesn’t necessarily translate into culture change in the core.

Commercialism is undoubtedly important to commissioning councils.  This is most obviously true on the provider side – the parts of the organisation which are asked to behave as providers, and in many cases to compete and grow their business elsewhere.  However it is also important that the commissioner side is commercially strategic as there may not be well-developed markets for some of the services they wish to commission, so markets may need to be created.   Really smart commissioning will not only lead to service improvement but it can boost the prosperity of the place as a whole, which brings us on to the fourth benefit of commercialism.

Empathising with the needs of local business will be a useful side-effect of greater commercialism.  We often find that well-intentioned council officers don’t seem to understand the impact on small businesses of cashflow – we have seen big procurements split into small lot sizes in the hope that this will attract small local business – but the duration of the procurement and transition phases have such high up-front cost requirements against an uncertain return that no entrepreneur could risk it, and they might not be able to afford it even if they knew they were going to win.

Once you are clear about the nature of commercialism in your authority and what you are seeking to achieve the recruitment will become much easier.  In our experience there are many well qualified folk in the private sector who would actively enjoy working in the public sector (though there are also an annoying number of people who think it’ll be an easy life).  Recognise that you may need to find ways of being creative about salary, or finding other benefits that someone may value – many commercial folk live out of a suitcase so there is a huge family benefit in a council role.  Review your recruitment processes, especially early on in the cycle.  The private sector recruits differently.  One council had a standard application form which was a huge turn-off for private sector candidates, it confirmed all of their worst fears about penpushing bureaucracy.  We ran the initial process on a “letter and CV” basis and did the standard form only at the shortlist stage when we could explain the reasons for it.  Above all think about the induction and integration of people into the council.  Help them to succeed by pointing them at people who have made a successful transition.