Dotted around the country at the moment are small groups of people trying to think through the question of community budgets. A few days ago the government sent all local authority Chief Execs a letter setting out a proposal for two pairs of areas to pilot a whole budget approach. We are invited to respond to a prospectus in the autumn. I think this is a positive step and would like to set out some early thoughts.
First, I would like to consider what we can learn from the recent past. Is this simply the reinvention of ‘Total Place’ budgeting? I do hope not. I was disappointed with both the implementation and then the withdrawal of the Total Place initiative. There seemed to be a failure of ambition and also a jump to detail much too early in the process. The biggest problem was that it seemed to jump into the development of budgets. The work on family based community budgets is an honourable exception.
Actually all that was needed was some thought about transparency of community accounting and then to create a means of discussing priorities and the flows of money into long and short-term fixes. So as a starting point this is what I hope for the forthcoming community budgets work. A way needs to be found to establish a method of accounting which identifies spend by area and community which provides the basis for debate, decision making about priorities and scrutiny of results. I believe that in any case this will be a prerequisite for work in support of change heralded by the Open Public Services White Paper and changes to business rates and Council Tax benefit.
Such an approach does not need to be onerous, it needs to provide management accounts including service data and ratios that are accurate enough for decision making but no more than that. Estimates and proxy numbers may have to do. The purpose should be to galvanise the public, private and voluntary sectors around a debate about their places and communities and to then begin to open up budget flows between them at the local level. This will need to address all three categories of service identified in the Open Public Services White Paper, personal, neighbourhood and community. It will also need to be scalable to cater for variations in local structures.
Clearly there would need to be joint work between organisations to agree harmonisation of reporting cycles, but one would hope that the introduction of international accounting structures would aid combination and comparison.
My proposed approach to community budgets would see immediate transparency improvements for the public, pave the way for appropriate pooling arrangements and fulfil the need for a scalable, localist solution that would not cost millions to trial or implement. I hope that something like it will be found in the prospectus to be published in the Autumn. And of course the reason I believe this to be the Rosetta Stone is that it can be a real and truthful translator between the wide range of languages in public services. And the potential Esperanto of pooled budgets might just never be needed in the form we imagine if we get the accounting basics right.