It doesn’t come as ‘new news’, that councils are facing a financial crisis. Local government officials warned Whitehall back in 2018 that the Spending Review would be ‘make or break’ for frontline services, citing a funding imbalance of more than £8bn by 2025.
This warning was pre-pandemic, and now councils – without a doubt – must find a bold answer to the difficulties of greater demand, higher expectations, and reduced funding. This necessitates a fundamental challenge to current working practices and the adoption of an operating model that is truly created with the customer in mind.
While central government has pushed shared service delivery models, which can undoubtedly provide benefits, our experience suggests that sharing services hasn’t always been the answer – and, in some cases, has put further pressure on resources. The ongoing negotiations around local government reorganisation and the further development of plans for new unitary models is arguably the better way to secure efficiencies and provide a platform for creative thinking.
Within the current climate, there is an opportunity to make a structural shift now in how councils operate to protect and future-proof them against modern day issues without sacrificing frontline services.
We’ve seen local authorities implement new ‘target operating models’ which allows for a leaner agile structure. Digitalisation has had also played its part over the pandemic, with organisations carrying out reviews on technology and implementing platforms that are fully integrated. Local authorities have also had to become more flexible with employee working patterns and embed a new way of working which can lead to a positive culture.
In addition, we’ve seen councils outline a range of strategies for bringing economic growth and new resources to their communities, which include:
Forming new types of partnerships – between agencies, across the public, third sector, and private enterprises
Creating the right conditions and environment to attract inward and global investment
Implementing ‘skills for future’ programmes
The question remains of whether there are still opportunities not realised because of continued silo working? The emerging integrated care system model would, on the face of it, present a great opportunity to significantly enhance the local offer across the health and care system, but there remains a sense that in many areas local authorities aren’t being involved in the conversation early on.
With increasingly rich evidence emerging – as we digest what has happened during the pandemic over the last two plus years – of great joint and collaborative working both within organisations and across whole systems, it would be a shame if these remaining silos are not removed once and for all.
With talk of reform, it’s key to mention the levelling up agenda and the timing of it, which is critical to local authorities looking to invest in their towns and cities.
The levelling up agenda aims to raise living standards across the country, reducing disparities in health, education, and public service provision across the country. This further reinforces the need for integrated, systems-based thinking where partnership working, place-based thinking and community engagement will be front and centre. Funding should assist each region in realising its full productive potential as each location/region determines its place in the wider economy.
Austerity and COVID have forced the hand even of those local authorities which were reluctant to embrace change and new ways of working, and as we now enter the post-pandemic world, the opportunities for breaking down even more barriers are huge. Councils who are brave enough to embrace this change will see huge benefits for themselves and the communities they serve.
Neel Patel is principal consultant for GatenbySanderson’s local government interim leadership practice.