Listen to our podcast on decentralisation and public service reform

Listen to the third in our series of podcasts, 'in conversation with' Nick C Jones, Director of PwC's Public Sector Research Centre.  This month, Nick is joined by Simon Parker, Director of NLGN, to discuss decentralisation and reshaping public services.  Nick and Simon explore the challenges for public service reform at the local level and emerging approaches that engage the public in innovative ways.


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Hello, I’m Nick Jones and I’m director of PwC’s public sector research centre. I’m joined today by Simon Parker – director of the new local government network and on the agenda is decentralisation and public service reform.

While a lot of focus in recent months in the UK has been on the potential for more centralisation to deliver good growth, local authorities are still grappling with ever tighter and shrinking budgets. So, the challenges for public service reform at the local level only seem to get bigger and the need for innovative approaches ever greater.

Simon, we’ve spent some time recently working with you looking at this set of challenges through the lens of improved collaboration between county and district councils in particular. From your perspective, what are the opportunities and indeed the barriers for councils looking to collaborate and work better together but also council’s working with other public service providers too?

Well, you’re absolutely right that the challenge here is profound. I mean for a lot of county councils for instance, you’re probably looking at something like a forty percent cut in their budget from 2010 to 2020. Now you know at the moment, we’re still in the space for politicians are pretending you can take all that money out and nothing will change and actually local government so far has done a really good job of absorbing the cuts without hitting the front line but that can’t continue and as we go into the 2015 spending review we’re going to get into a position where local authorities have to actually start cutting back on stuff the public notices - parks, arts, leisure - and the only way you can cope with that is through collaborating. The future of local government really isn’t about local government anymore; it’s about collaboration on two horizons. One is with other parts of the public sector, so we have to start thinking less about public services and more about places and the way that services work together to deliver outcomes and the other is reaching beyond public services all together and starting to re-shape the relationship that Council’s and their partners have with the public, because ultimately if we’re going to provide people with less in the way of public services, then the public is going to have to decide what it wants to do about that. Does it want to step up and help provide more of those services itself or is it happy just to take less?

I guess in that there’s a necessity for innovation and doing things quite differently from the way in which councils have worked internally but also with others in collaborating to achieve that. And what are the sort of examples you’ve seen and the sort outcomes that are trying to be addressed through doing things in a very different way?

Well, we’ve been surrounded by stories recently about A&E, overloading A&E, too many people going in. I’m reading today the big problem is so-called ‘bed blocking’, people staying in A&E wards when they could actually be out in the community. Now, why are people getting stuck in those wards? It’s because we don’t’ have intermediate care beds and those are run by local authorities. Now if you go to somewhere like Greenwich where I live, they’ve got a team which patrols the wards in the local hospital, which spots people who can leave and finds places for them to go to. Now that kind of collaboration is radically reducing levels of delayed discharge. But you’re seeing this go further because we are going to see councils cutting back front line services; a really good example is parks. Lots of parts of the country starting to say ‘we can’t afford to main our parks anymore’ so either the community has to take it over or we have to move in to some sort of trust model, some places are even talking about a sort of mini National Trust for their parks. Now when you’re moving into that realm what you’re saying is ‘this is no longer really a public service at all, this is a service which you as the community can look after if you want to and we’ll support you to do that’. This is about supporting the pubic to deliver public goods not about delivering a service to them.

So it becomes very much more, if you like, people to people collaboration and also the council in a role more as broker, a facilitator, helping people to make the connections rather than providing or expected to provide everything itself.

I think that’s right, we’re looking at two big phases of change I think over the next five to ten years and one is going to be that point about integrating with health, integrating with Police, the benefits system and then as we start to get better at that I think we’re going to look at that citizen stuff a lot more and if you want to find a way to make that feel real, take something like a council’s customer contact centre. Now at the moment, a customer contact centre is a place I phone up, largely to pay bills, we’re not going to need councils to have phone lines to pay bills in the next few years because we’ll automate that, we’ll put it on line, all we’ll need is someone to maintain a website. Customer contact is either going to wither, or it’s going to change, and one way in which it should change is we’ll start seeing the customer contact team, as not the people who help solve my problem, but the people who help me to solve that problem for myself. So if I phone up about the old lady who lives next door, at the moment I’ll be routed to social services, what if instead I was given support to help look after that person, to take them a meal every now and again, to go and knock on their door every now and again, to take them to a coffee morning. What if there are no facilities at all, perhaps the Council could support me to get in touch with the local voluntary sector to set something up.

And I guess part of that will also rely on some of the investments now being made in digital and social media helping people with those connections, but as we found from our local ‘state we’re in’ survey there’s quite a big gap between people’s expectation of what’s delivered and actually what is, in practice, delivered by the councils in support. Have you seen that or rather what’s your take on the impact digital can have in that sort of future world?

Well I’ve been looking at the history of the welfare state recently and if you go back to the pre-war period you had loads of social solidarity that was based on place, class. You know, working class communities would look after each other and that’s how they survived often very adverse conditions. Now we don’t have as much of that now because we’re more mobile, but actually technology can help to link us together in ways that can provide some of that social capital, so you know take something like the casserole club, which is an initiative from Future Gov. That’s basically encouraging people to make meals for their elderly neighbours and that’s using technology. You sign up, it will tell you where you’re neighbours are, it will tell you what sort of food to cook for them, it will help to link you up in a network and I think that’s where we’re going with technology, we’re starting to see councils increasing seeing themselves as platforms to enable people to buy things, to work with each other another good example is Breeze-e which is a website Northamptonshire County Council set up, the aim of this is that Northamptonshire is going to get out of the game of commissioning social care, they’re not going to buy care home places any more. What they want over time, is to move everyone on to a direct payment, so if you’re old and you need care, you’ll get money in your bank account and you’ll use Breeze-e to buy the package of care that you need from the market place. Now the council’s going to make sure there’s a market there, it’s going to make sure it’s safe, but ultimately you’re going to be buying your own service and it’ll be technology that links you to all of those people that gives ratings about them, it gives you information about them and that’s how we’ll start to reform social care.

I guess that also leads on to a thought because there’s some really interesting examples as to how this can be scaled up because this is an issue that needs to be addressed across the country and there’s some great examples in individual areas but how do we really scale up to achieve these solutions country wide.

I think we sometimes need to be a bit careful about scaling up particularly for things that are local community based social solutions, you know you could go and look at say, the community land trust that’s building cheap housing in Tower Hamlets and you could say ‘right we want those everywhere’ but it might not work everywhere because every where’s different, everywhere has different land values, different communities. I think the point is not that we need to find a single solution to scale up but that we need lots and lots of things to be happening. The idea I think is that many micros will make a macro, so the point is to have lots and lots of different things, building the houses, engaging the community, lots and lots of different approaches to engaging people in looking after elderly relatives. I think if we look for the big single solution, we’re probably on a hiding to nothing. But if we’re looking for lots of small local solutions that work and we scale up the idea that that’s how we’ll make our public services sustainable, then we might have something that works for the future.

And works for each of the communities as well

Absolutely, because every where’s different

Yep, Simon, we could speak and talk about this for some time but we’ll come to a close there and we’ll pick up a number of these issues as well in our next ‘Local state we’re in’ survey too.

Thank you

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