I was delighted to be asked to speak at a New Local Government Network event yesterday, on the subject of financial forecasting and its impact on HR, based on the ‘Fit for the future’ article that appeared in the Local Government Chronicle article the other week. I took as my starting point the financial settlement we anticipate for the coming years and then set out our approach to tackle the twin challenges of budgetary constriction and fundamental organisational change.
Perhaps my optimism is misplaced, but I do see this period as one of great opportunity and certainly not one where we should be keeping our heads down in local government. There is a real chance to take a lead, to address some of the local democratic deficit that exists in other parts of the public sector and, in a two/three tier area, to help to localise the wider policy choices made in the County sphere. This will help to realise a ‘Total Place’ approach at a local level.
Achieving such change requires us to be much clearer about the kinds of jobs that people need to do, the decisions that need to be made and the form of organisation that must develop to achieve them. Our new organisations need to be developed with the public and the staff team to help us to avoid processes and practices that are wasteful or unnecessary. We also need a careful approach to costing, based on workflow techniques and done on a modular basis, to ensure that the plans we put in place can flex without requiring complete redrafting each time projections change.
Recruitment is critical to any change, and it will be vital to induct all staff into the new organisation. So what kind of person will be part of the new workforce? I think it will require people with a strategic compass and political understanding, who can work with community groups. This will require people with the right attitude, as well as ability, who can manage and motivate themselves, displaying resilience and taking personal responsibility for performance.
There are risks of capacity and delivery arising from capability, key staff leaving, a sometimes problematic age profile; delivering present projects whilst doing fundamental change and the possibility of getting staff relations wrong, one way or another. Challenges include consideration of sustainability in all senses, and having clear explanations as to why change must happen. There is also likely be significant resistance from the public and staff when hard decisions are made, so helping politicians to consider and weather such questions will be key.
Nevertheless, we must make sure we balance the books and underline the absolute need to use policy priorities to drive financial strategy. We need to use this opportunity to develop sector wide financial strategy, learning and practice. This is the time to develop new ways forward and not to wait for the guidance, to talk to politicians, colleagues, think tanks and academics and to take the initiative in new forms of organisation and partnership.