Daniel Goodwin

Futures, fleetness of foot and assuredness of grip

Recent events such as the calls for evidence by the Commission on the future of Local Government (www.civicenterprise.gov.uk), together with the experience outlined in a previous blog of LocalGovCampNW have caused me to think a little more about what the future holds. How will local government look in the coming years, what can it do to influence its future and what it can do to regulate itself in order to secure reputational advantage? This post sets out to describe that landscape and proposes that instead of introducing a form of self-regulation or self-policing, the local government sector should look to accreditation as a more open and responsive way forward.

Looking to the future, there is a move towards pluralism in service delivery, through the imperatives of localism and personalisation. As I have said elsewhere, Local Government sits squarely at the intersection of all three sectors, public, private and voluntary, and will need to engage all three approaches in its future service delivery palette. Furthermore, the tendency in local government funding is away from central government grants and towards more locally determined funding sources, including a greater weight on the citizen themselves through service charging. This trend towards a more localised balance of income will have a critical impact on the relationship between central and local government, with regard both to functional control and weight of influence.

Such changes will also be reflected in local government’s approach to people and place. Overall resilience of the community will become a critical concern, with particular regard to securing economic stability, appropriate skills, community cohesion and capacity, and in particular addressing the linked challenges of public health and care of people in old age.

Further, there will be the emergence of new local and national policy positions which will depend on the interrelationship between policy development and events. The natural ebb and flow of politics will carry away and deposit legislative flotsam and jetsam and with luck the local government sector will be able to take the initiative and surf along the waves and build its own forward progress.

However any progress will depend on the sector being able to set a course which is attractive and comprehensible to the public and accepted as legitimate by central government. To do this, the sector needs to build its reputation, gaining improved confidence in its services and its political and community leadership. It also needs visibly to improve its responsiveness and employee productivity and in particular work out, urgently, how to better engage with technology. Thirdly, it needs to become far more able to engage directly and less defensively with the community and harness its capacity to help reduce service demand.

Two key factors will be critical to such a change. The development of effective sector-wide improvement frameworks and some form of sector regulation, in the effective absence of externally imposed national responses with the demise of teh Audit Commission. The Local Government Association has rightly taken sector responsibility for both. However its improvement offer is largely a legacy of the erstwhile Improvement and Development Agency, which now looks rather flabby and flaccid, and a new approach to self-regulation is yet to be developed.

The relationship between regulation and risk is an interesting one, for surely there should be one. Yet there has been little discussion to date on the subject other than articulation of a desire not to repeat previous systems of scoring councils which gained little public traction. Accordingly I would like to offer some simple thoughts which might help to take this discussion forward.

First, if there is to be some form of self generated regulation by local government, it should have regard to the varying levels of risk which pertain to different services in different places. At present, as a result of central government perceptions of public risk, Ofsted and the Care Quality Council have responsibility for inspection of services at the local level. It is likely that even if this could be devolved to local government some form of detailed inspection would be needed to give assurance that personal services to the most vulnerable would meet particular standards. However at the other extreme of place-based universal service, the public might well function as its own inspector, provided it knows what to expect.

For all services, there need to be simple criteria which set out what public expectations of local government should be, covering the range from local leadership to delivery and allowing people to determine whether they are in receipt of an acceptable level of service when balanced with the level of local taxation or other income generation.

Finally, I believe that we have leapt too easily to thoughts of self regulation or policing, where perhaps there might be more mileage in a framework which is based on sector-led accreditation, reflecting changes elsewhere. This would lead to a far more open, less prescriptive form of regulation. In the following diagram I have set out four types of regulation  based on an alternative mindset which the sector might adopt:

Regulation accreditation

Such an accreditation framework would require a public statement of expectations of the sector by the sector and involve local government and its agencies in signing up to minimum standards by which to be judged rather than submitting to external inspection or policing. To provide further assurance there would be some expectation of risk-based inspection similar to current external regulation of the highest risk areas such as childrens services and adult social care, and there would need to be some form of clear separation of an accreditation function.

However, overall this could provide a framework which is fleet of foot and which could extend to, say, Bronze, Silver and Gold accreditations of different services when councils sign up to deliver them to levels above the basic expected standards. This would also enable an element of community choice and balance and also help to drive up standards differentially depending on the choices made.

Until recently the LGA’s work on sector self-regulation has been understandably dormant, given the level of change that the organisation has undergone. However with a new team coming into place I hope that debates within the sector might widen to include forward looking forms of sector-led improvement and assurance along the lines described here.

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This entry was posted on March 4, 2012 by in Local Government Futures, Public Value.
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