Immediate Reflections on the 2015 Solace Summit

I shared my immediate reflections on this year’s Solace summit in the following tweets which, to be clear, contain my personal views and are framed partly as provocations, the provocative nature often enhanced by the character limit!

Reflection 1: Devo will give birth to people-place-changing awesome 21st C Municipalism (except where it miserably doesn’t)

Reflection 2: *Evidence* is an emerging must-have (for deals, for a slice of the 36% pie, for being better at what we do)

Reflection 3: We urgently need to scrap the word Digital because the word itself is obstructing progress – say what you mean

Reflection 4: We’ve not figured out how we will handle LA failure yet, partly because the first ones to go weren’t in the room

Reflection 5: LG needs to get more factional to make meaningful cases (and drive economy), without fundamentally falling out

Reflection 6: We must rethink the nature of engagement between LG & its private sector arm (a) at the summit (b) in life!

I’ll be taking these reflections – especially 6(b) – with me to a Harvard Kennedy School week on Creating Collaborative Solutions later this month.


Take-Aways from #LocalGovCamp 2015

Consolidating my thinking and in a spirit of sharing …

The Right Conditions for Digital

Paul Brewer (@pdbrewer) pitched a session about the Right Conditions for Digital (see his blogpost) based on his experience at Director of Digital and Resources at the very interesting Adur and Worthing.  This could have been a longer session.  Paul is clearly enjoying the extent to which he is making progress in his new role, but knows enough to realize that some of this progress is down to some untypical circumstances which apply there.  This is in contrast to common trait in local government which is to assume that “the good results I am achieving are because I’ve got my stuff together and if only people would just have the sense to copy me all would be well”.  Some of the Beacon thinking and indeed some of the Awards schemes potentially fall into that trap.

Paul is smart enough to reflect on what is going on, and to tease apart the ingredients for success.  That he adopts that kind of reflective approach is almost certainly one of the reasons he is being successful, it seems to me, and not something he himself mentioned – so I am saying it here.

Paul’s blog hints at some of the unusual circumstances at A&W, and in the discussion we reflected on the fact that the new Chief Executive at A&W early on created a very compelling vision for the council encapsulated in a document Catching the Wave – I think that anyone wanting to make change happen in local government should read this.  It’s a masterpiece.  And by securing agreement to it a space has been created that is the right shape for innovation.

I was interested to know whether the fact that Adur and Worthing are two separate councils with one shared management team acted as a brake on innovation and it seems not – the level of integration between the teams is very high.

I’m always keen to put the level of innovation which a council exhibits in the context of the resources it has and the financial pressures it is under – and I have some data from an external source which gives a rating for the level of stress that councils are under.  Both Adur and Worthing are around about the middle of the pack in terms of financial pressure – their success is not (for example) because they have loads of spare cash and are burning it up!

There was also a bit of a discussion about how it is possible to make the case for IT – which is perceived as a back office cost to be minimized especially when front-line services are being cut.  The back office/front line language really doesn’t help – it is far better to use language that reflects that the right “back office” spend – eg on the right sort of “digital” multiplies the effectiveness of the front line, and multiplies the effectiveness of the council in the community.  The Resources Directors Network, of which I am a part, wrote a report about the Future of the Corporate Centre which uses the language that is used in the army for support functions to the front line.  They are referred to as “force multipliers” which you have to admit is a better name than “overhead costs”.

Governance Challenges of Devolution

Ed Hammond (@cfps_ed) led a discussion about the governance challenges of devolution.  In great Localgovcamp style that brought together people with diverse perspectives and interests, including some insights into Amazon anthropology (the place not the online retailer) as well as knowledge of a range of devolved models an devolution bids.  It’s interesting how unconsidered this all is – there is a lot of detail still to be filled in about how the deals (which have been hammered out behind closed doors due to the speed imperative) will be governed, scrutinized, and how they will engaged with their relevant populations.  It is a blank sheet.

It was interesting to reflect that while there is a central government preference for an elected mayor, with the success of the London model in mind, no-one is requiring the scrutiny and accountability mechanisms which London has – ie the Greater London Assembly, Mayor’s question time etc.  In a way that’s not surprising – it’s a costly operation and repeated referenda have shown that there is little public appetite for a new layer of politicians – but it does mean that we need to think through the accountability mechanisms, and I am pleased that Ed and the fabulous Centre for Public Scrutiny are going to be doing some work on this.

The local media can be a mechanism for holding to account, and it’s interesting to spot that whilst some of the combined authority areas have a “natural” local paper (eg the Manchester Evening News in Greater Manchester) there are others that do not.  It will be interesting to see how the practice of different Combined Authorities is affected by different levels of coherent press scrutiny.

Uberising Rural Travel

Adam Walther (@adamwalther) from FutureGov led a session about rural transport – whilst there is much excitement about app-driven  disruptive entry in terms of things like Uber, and more gently with things like CityMapper, these focus on urban areas and relatively wealthy people.

There’s an interesting set of issues around whether the technologies can support different models of transport – eg a dial-a-ride that takes someone to a bus stop rather than to the ultimate destination.  There may be scope for deploying community resources – eg minibuses with volunteer drivers, car sharing – if there can be some way of surfacing the currently hidden demand for services.  We see what people do, not what they would ideally want to do.

The FutureGov work is clearly at an early stage but I was fascinated to hear about the transport systems in Helsinki where there is a deliberate design intent to make car ownership irrational.  “Mobility as a service”.  Thought provoking stuff.  There’s a Guardian piece about this, and it’s one of my main takeways from the day.

An Open Data Session that I Enjoyed

Simon Redding (@simonredding) from the Environment Agency did a session engaging a select but enthusiastic band of folk around discussing how Defra should prioritise making all of its datasets available.  I really enjoyed a session about Open data that was about thinking about creative uses of data, and thinking about where to land the ideas, rather than … the usual session that seems to happen about Open Data!  For those interested a jumping off point to find out more is on GOV.UK here  though there is clearly an opportunity missed to put an advert for analytics software on that page*.

*(An on the day in-joke).

Devolution: The end of Localism?

(This is a bit of thinking out loud in an entirely personal capacity)

In future times as we look back on the process of devolution now beginning, we may see that this was the point at which localism came to an end.

This may seem contradictory – surely devolution is a decentralising force and therefore utterly consistent with localism?

Localism is in the eye of the beholder.

Because I did some work a couple of years ago on a scenario planning exercise called “The Four Futures of Local Government”, and because a number of local authorities and their senior teams were kind enough to invite me in for a discussion about it, I have had the chance to discuss localism with very bright and committed people in a range of different contexts, and to confront with them:

  • the natural tendency to see the optimal point to which power should be ceded to be coincidentally exactly “my” level, wherever “I” happen to be
  • the apparent simplification of issues the lower something is cascaded – for those to whom the cascading is happening – but the tremendous fears of loss of control and accountability to those further up the chain, with an explosion in aggregate apparent complexity and non-standardisation as issues are cascaded lower.

It’s all about managing complexity.  If we are thinking about devolving health to meet social care, for example, (which is something I’m thinking about for a variation of the four futures exercise, currently), the complexities (and natural footprint) of a health economy appear to be something which needs a larger area than that of many local authorities.  The devolution of health is welcome, but I feel that as health comes down to sub-national areas, that social care may have to aggregate to meet it.

I am becoming aware of some smaller authorities who are seriously considering a degree of aggregation of their child and adult social care services with neighbours, in order to achieve the scale that is needed, and this feels like a more powerful force than the pressures to take health to an even lower level than, say the current CCG level.

If this is true, and we’re going to see the combined authorities, with their elected mayors, becoming superpower-authorities with significant sway over economy, health and social care – and possibly benefits and local taxation, over time, then the complexities at that level will be hard to push down further – not because the vision will be lacking, or because the concept isn’t appealing, but simply because the practical politics, and the sheer administrative/organisational burden, will be so high.

Will this be better than the current system?  I believe it could be – I am a localist, I am willing to simplify at the sharp end and accept the ambiguity and complexity which this will bring to the higher-ups.  But I am disappointed that we may find the decentralisation getting stuck at such a high level.

A possible solution which might break through that will be a focus on personalisation, and/or user centred design.  If the process of achieving joined up solutions can do an “end run” from the combined authority to the individual, or to the individual family, skipping over the intermediate layers of local government and other local administration, then this may give us what we need, overall: remorselessly efficient and highly relevant, joined up public services for the individual.  Combined authorities will, I hope, have the scale and firepower to undertake proper user-centred work, collaboratively with the user community, and coproduced with them, in order to achieve this in a way that steadily denuded local authorities may not.

These thoughts are what I am hoping to test through observation, and hands-on where I can, as Devo rolls on.

What do you think?

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: 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!

Building a Platform for Evidence Use in Local Government

This blog was originally published on Demsoc’s Open Policy Blog.

I attended the “Informed Future” workstream at the 2012 Solace Summit, and whilst I won’t try to give a blow-by-blow account I want to share here some of the key things which emerged, for me.  There is a lot of hard work at many levels required before Local Government in general can be really effective in this domain, and unless we progress each of the strands simultaneously the process will take much longer than it needs to.

Two statements of principle (to give us purpose)

– A rigorous  evidence-based approach will be essential for tackling some of the huge issues we face – especially long-term multi-agency preventative interventions. We have early examples which are tremendously encouraging – the work of the Dartington Social Research Unit looks especially strong in that regard. A lack of robust needs-based segmentation means that many folk are given services that are not aligned with their needs and so waste resources (arguably “Troubled families” are an extreme example of this).

– Evidence is not in opposition to judgement or democratic choice. Evidence informs both, but can only ever be one input.  It was startling how often in discussion even quite well-informed and senior local government folk appeared to regard evidence as being something which removed the possibility of judgement or democratic input.  It speaks to the lack of a culture of use that familiarity with a notion of democratic objectives and judgement giving rise to research questions which require interpretation and the addition of yet more judgement and democratic input does not seem well established.

Two things that Chief Execs can do in their authorities (to help it happen)

– develop a culture of use of evidence. This may mean a critical self-appraisal of their own comfort to engage with this, and the skills needed around them. Recruitment and personal professional development decisions in the next few years should all bear in mind a need to lead by example with emphasising the value of information. This is about incorporating and developing the evidence base into a coherent narrative of the organisation that it is the job of the CE to co-produce with members. There is almost certainly an opportunity to draw on public health expertise in this area.  A small step councils could take would be to add a box for “evidence base examined” to the many other pro forma boxes such as “legal implications”, “equalities impact” etc on their formal public decision-making committee reports.

– support data improvement.  Even if we resolved all of the cultural issues immediately we would be hampered in our ability to apply rigorous evidence by data quality and data sharing issues.  There are technical people in our organisations who are trying to resolve these issues; they should be sought out and supported – small investment over time will have a big impact when we need it to tackle the really wicked choices for our communities beyond 2015

Two issues for the Sector (that need to be handled at that level)

– We need to begin a discussion about use of evidence and engage/educate in issues around how we will test interventions. We need to get upstream of issues such as the ethics of control groups, randomised control trials so that when we are actually ready to do these things, this doesn’t suddenly become the constraint.

– We need to back LARIAThe Alliance for Useful Evidence, “what-works centres” etc as central repositories of research knowledge and expertise. Their results won’t be perfect first time, but there are some areas where we really cannot afford to have each authority in the country developing its own overview of all relevant research, and there must be benefits of collaboration.

The Question Every PCC Candidate Should Answer

On November 15th something incredibly important happens – as a country we elect Police and Crime Commissioners (PCCs) for the first time.  These will be people who will have considerable sway over the nature, shape and priorities of policing and crime prevention in our area.  To have such roles subject to election is new.  There is considerable speculation that the level of engagement and turnout will be low.

In a “normal” world the fact that we are doing this new thing might not matter too much, but the next few years are going to be far from normal for the police forces – there is likely to be a c25% cut in police budgets.  As such the elected PCCs will have to make some incredibly difficult decisions.  In choosing the PCC for your area you may well wish to understand how they will approach that task – I certainly want to.

I have emailed the two candidates for election in my area (Hertfordshire) the following question, and I will post responses received here.


Dear {Candidate}
I am considering how to vote in the forthcoming PCC election.  I am a resident of Hertfordshire.  As I see it a fundamental question to ask of any PCC candidate is:
During your tenure as a PCC, you will be required to make decisions relating to a large scale reduction in the budget (some figures suggest 25%).  What are the fundamental principles which will underlie your decisions, please?
I am also writing to {the other candidate} and propose to place both answers received on my blog.
Jonathan Flowers


I would urge interested readers to send something similar to your candidates (you could share the answers here too, if you like).

You can get more information about PCCs here


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.