Today’s report by the Audit Commission and the LGA on the future of the local government workforce re-states some stark statistics.

“Government funding for local government will fall by 26 per cent, or £5.5 billion, over the period covered by the Spending Review (2011/12 to 2014/15), and councils must find most of the savings in the first two years. Because staff account for nearly half of all spending by councils, workforce costs have to come down.”

In England, the report adds, local government has already lost at least 145,000 jobs.

The study suggests fairly bullish attitudes to transformation, as you would expect, and outlines some concrete examples of future outsourcing. But the report also says that councils intend to “extend competition to cooperatives, social enterprises and mutuals” (Work in Progress, par 69). This is interesting, but does competition exist between cooperatives and mutuals? is there really a competitive market? Are there any examples of this already?

Of course, it is part of councils’ role to make markets to meet their needs, but how far down this road are we and is this a credible strategy for major cost saving in the short to medium term? If it is, where is this happening? And if it is not, are some councils still unwilling to talk about traditional outsourcing.

Incidentally, the Guardian has an interesting piece on the outsourcing of Islington’s education service by Mark Taylor director of schools, Cambridge Education. This is written by the outsourcer, any other perspectives?


A little over a year ago, I was called to a meeting with two senior civil servants, from two different government departments, to be briefed on the government’s public service reform white paper, Open Public Services. The aim of the paper was to present a new angle on the government’s strategic agenda. Yes, there was austerity, yes there would be cuts, but the white paper would present the positive case for reform, joining up the change agendas in health, police, schools and local government. It was explained that, at the next election, the government wanted to be able to say more than it had cut the deficit. It also wanted to be able to articulate its underlying strategy and achievements in public service reform.


However, the white paper, as then drafted, never saw the light of day. It was caught up in inter-governmental disagreement, partly between Conservatives and Liberal Democrats, partly between departmental interests, and partly between those who believed in harder or softer policy. In the end the paper was re-written several times and, although accompanied by a strongly worded article by the Prime Minister in the Telegraph, it was eventually launched to a bit of a shrug of the shoulders from public service chief executives. Everyone could see its pro-market  rhetoric, but what impact would the words on the page actually have in the real world of services designed or commissioned? It was written as if market forces didn’t already exist in great swathes of public services and yet had little to say about how more would be done in this direction.  Furthermore, perhaps because it was read as a post-hoc attempt to make sense of existing (and much harder-edged) policy commitments in health, police, schools and local government, it had nothing like the bite of those departmental drivers.

Interestingly, therefore, Ben Brogan at the Telegraph has an update today saying that “Downing Street is starting all over again on public service reform.”

I agree with Fraser Nelson who says this is “depressing,” but it is not surprising. The white paper was always a bit of a badge, stuck on to create the impression of change, but running the risk of over-promising what the government had no idea how to deliver.

Noting Sir Gus O’Donnell’s views on the importance of checks and balances in

Sir Gus O'Donnell, Cabinet Secretary, Photo CC UK in Canada

good governance, from yesterday’s Observer:

“What is the secret to his survival through four such different PMs: Major, Blair, Brown and Cameron? “Civil service values,” he insists. “They didn’t want ‘yes men’. They’ve all wanted people who tell them what they think objectively. It’s important.”
O’Donnell admits he was no fan of “sofa government”; though he won’t name Blair or indeed criticise any prime minister. “I’m at the more formal end. I like calling PMs ‘PM’. I like the proper committee structures, properly recorded minutes. I want government to have a safe space where people can disagree and argue – to be accurately recorded and kept private.””

Photo, CC UK in Canada

In New York for a few days and crossed the Atlantic with Delta Airlines for the first time and was really surprised by how poor the quality of service was. I had no idea that there could be such variation between transatlantic carriers. The service prior to boarding was good and we left on time, but once aboard I was surprised at how old the aircraft was. The bathroom furntiure was held together by bits of twisted wire and there was no at-seat entertainment. In principle there ought to have been a film on small screens that we could all tune in to watch, but there was a problem with the system so they weren’t working. In any case, this was a long way from personalised entertainment systems that other carriers seem to have as standard where you can choose a film to watch, rather than everyone on board having to watch the same channel, with no ability to pause, rewind, change your mind etc..

The crew were also extremely old-school (and this had nothing to do with their age) and I heard many passengers from the US and France commenting on how unfriendly they were.

Which all got me thinking about markets … My experience will certainly mean that I will not fly Delta again in a hurry. But why did I choose them in the first place, and how could I have made a more informed decision? The public sector does a lot to promote transparent performance, customer information in order to inform taxpayers, citizens and customers. Part of the rationale is that this replaces the market mechanism where informed consumers make free spending decisions. But in my case, at least, I made a rather large spending decision based entirely on price with no wider context about what to expect in terms of quality. Again in my case, Opodo was selling airline tickets as if they were a commodity, as if one were the same as the other, whereas in fact, in my experience, Delta is not equal to other carriers. Over time, I can see that the market will regulate itself by reducing repeat business but aren’t consumer aggregators missing a trick by not including customer feedback in their sales transactions, especially when this might mean people trading up so as to avoid the really poor performers, even if they are the cheapest?

I’m in Coventry this week doing a piece of work with the City Council and partners for Macmillan Cancer Support. The essential driver for the work is that the cancer profile in the UK is changing. Due to our lifestyles and our growing life expectancy more people get cancer, but due to investment in prevention and to advances in medical care, more people survive cancer. In other words, as Macmillan chief executive Ciaran Devane puts it, “the number of people dying from cancer is falling but the number of people diagnosed with illness is rising.”

Macmillan estimates that the number of people living with or beyond cancer stands at two million and is rising by more 3% a year.

The challenge for the country – and for charities like macmillan and for statutory and government agencies – is how to support the growing number of people for whom cancer wasn’t a death sentence, but whose lives have been deeply affected by the disease.  (See for example the National Cancer Survivorship Initiative)

My work for Macmillan, with Coventry, is to take a look at existing community services for people affected by cancer and to make some recommendations for improvement. I have a five day programme during which I will be speaking to services users, frontline professionals, GPs, consultants, service managers as well as elected members, directors and the chief executive. After 2 days I have been impressed by people’s willingness to engage and encouraged at their openness to new ideas.

It goes without saying that this is not a project can hope recommend huge amounts of new spending, so the emphasis is on innovation and service redesign. Not the old cliché about doing more with less, but doing things differently. Doing the right things and doing them better.

Many years ago I worked as part of a team providing advice to the Scottish Office as they developed Best Value policy north of the Border. This was at the beginning of the Blair era, before the creation of the Scottish Parliament. The Scottish Secretary was Donald Dewar, Henry McLeish was the minister responsible for local government and the driving force was Wendy Alexander, special advisor to Dewar and general modernising whirlwind of the time.

Donald Dewar and Wendy Alexander

Best Value, as it had emerged in England, seemed to those of us working in public service reform in Scotland, to be an overly mechanistic and superficial regime that would produce huge amounts of bureaucracy and have little chance of changing the ways that large organisations operated. The critique of English Best Value policy was that its focus on reviewing a set number of services, over a set period of time, put too much emphasis on operations without questioning strategy. In other words, it prioritised efficiency over innovation. We, therefore, argued for a Best Value policy in Scotland which followed Drucker by asking whether we were doing the right things before asking whether we were doing things right. We wanted Best Value to start with questions about service users/citizens/customers and their needs, rather to accept traditional definitions of what a service was. Through this focus on service redesign we thought councils would be liberated from doing things as they had always done them, they would design services around people, places and communities and their needs, not around along traditional service and professional tramlines.

As we wrote to Ministers at the time (in 1998), “Emphasise that Best Value should challenge the definition of services not simply endorse them. Services should be considered in terms of the needs and experience of service users, not historically defined council activities. For example, some older people may receive a service to support them in their own home. This may involve activities from several council departments, the health board and other agencies. Imaginative Best Value service reviews might take all of these activities together, redefine them as a single holistic service, and review how they work together and how they can be improved.”

We went on to say that we had a concern that “councils are further entrenching historically defined activities by performance benchmarking rather than benchmarking processes and recording and adopting best practice. This will often mean that benchmarking is restricted to other councils doing much the same thing, based on much the same service definition.”

At the time did a lot of thinking about how services were defined and contrasted the kinds of services that councils put up for challenge and the services that users or citizens perceived. We had various services in mind that we would use to challenge councils, including “reception” services for older people of vulnerable adults seeking information and advice. However, we also had in mind the corporate leadership of services. None of us believed that there was anything ideal or necessary about leadership taking a hierarchical form (it worked well, but it had inherent dangers). So what would it mean to benchmark the service provided by directors or chief executives and to look at other ways of procuring that service? Was it conceptually or practically impossible for councils to source leadership/corporate management from outside? We thought conceptually yes, but practically no.

it is with huge interest, therefore, that I follow the experiments in new forms of leadership/corporate management that are springing up across the country. I want to acknowledge and state very clearly that there is no example I’m aware of that is born solely from a desire to innovate, or produce better services. They all come from a mix of political expediency, the desire to be seen to be doing something and more noble goals. I expect that we will continue to see reversals in some places, where new political leaders decide they want to appoint their own person. It was always thus, that’s how political organisations get run.

But the examples of west London where Kensington and Chelsea, Hammersmith and Fulham and Westminster are coming together in an asymmetrical hybrid is the apotheosis of pragmatic and principled change. In the east of England we see a three-way marriage proposal between Breckland (Norfolk) and South Holland (Lincs) (who are already espoused under Terry Huggins as joint chief executive) and Great Yarmouth (Norfolk).

What both these examples show is that in the same way that councils source services from across the country, from across the globe, it is becoming possible to procure leadership and corporate management in this way also. So far councils are not straying too far from the traditional role of chief executive as embodied in a single person, but I expect we will see where the chief executive role becomes more and more high level, they will bring in other forms of professional advice and expertise from a wide range of sources to replace that given by senior permanent staff who have more and more been stripped away. There is nothing wrong or broken with the traditional chief executive model. It has never been fixed, it has always evolved. My point is that over time, therefore, we will see the evolution of leadership forms in local government that are more open to external sourcing for some of its roles and functions.

What is the right thing? Leadership. What is the right way? There ain’t one.

Thanks to the Daily Record for the picture of Donald and Wendy.

William Hague at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, Whitehall

The Foreign Secretary has delivered a speech defending the Foreign and Commonwealth Office which is well worth a read for those of us interested in this administration’s attitude to government and for its direction of travel on public services. Beside what he has to say about UK foreign policy, the speech is remarkable for what it says about how government works. At a time when most ministers (of this government and the last) go out of their way to denigrate their officials, William Hague’s speech provides a fine counter example.

The Foreign Secretary praises junior officials, talks about the need for good policy and management skills, and mounts an eloquent defence of the need for institutions themselves. He says:

 “Strong institutions are necessary in civil society, to encourage participation and keep in check an overmighty State; they are necessary to our judiciary and Parliament so that the law is upheld and the making of it respected; but they are also necessary within the State, a point tragically overlooked by those Prime Ministers who have created and abolished departments on a fancy or a whim, destroying as they did so the pride and continuity of thousands of public servants while rendering government incomprehensible to the average citizen. The whole country should know what the Foreign and Commonwealth Office is and what it does, and all those interested in foreign policy at home or abroad should see it as a centre of excellence with which they aspire to be associated. This can only be achieved if it is in itself a strong institution, able to attract and retain exceptional people from a wide range of backgrounds and to generate powerful ideas.”

This is true, but it is not something that has been obvious in recent political discourse. The Foreign Secretary is right to pinpoint the fad for “machinery of government” changes that tend to characterise the annual Cabinet re-shuffle. While reform of government departments is perfectly legitimate in order to focus governmental resources on priority areas, the reality of these reorganisations have often been skin deep; a re-branding exercise required by factional, horse trading rather than any genuine re-direction of governmental attention.

But William Hague’s speech also brings into the focus this government’s aspiration to deliver a post-bureaucratic state. The theory behind which is perhaps most concisely captured by David Cameron himself:

“We’re living in an age where technology can put information that was previously held by a few into the hands of almost every­one. So the argument that has applied for well over a century – that in every area of life we need people at the centre to make sense of the world for us and make decisions on our behalf – simply falls down. In its place rises up a vision of real people power. This is what we mean by the Post-Bureaucratic Age. The in formation revolution meets the progressive Conservative philosophy: sceptical about big state power; committed to social responsibility and non-state collective action.”

What is striking about the post-bureaucratic state language is how complete and all-encompassing it is. It does not suggest an evolution in which government machinery is made incrementally more transparent using information technology, but recognising that central expertise would always be necessary. It suggests instead, that dispersed “people power” can and should entirely replace the power of official structures of expertise; of bureaucracies.

Oliver Letwin, for example, talks about the “post-bureaucratic age” in terms of the “point we’ve reached in our and the world’s history.” And he compares present social changes to the very beginnings of modernism and the invention of the printing press. “We don’t think that the coming of the internet age and the associated sociocultural changes are just something that’s happened that’s sort of interesting in the way in which the invention of some new machine tool or whatever might be interesting. We think it’s a profound a shift as the invention of printing with as much effect on the way in which cultural and social life is conducted as that had.”

The Conservatives’ post-bureaucratic age was an ambitious attempt to hook a programme for a new government to deeper social changes that would undoubtedly affect the administration’s work. Why, however, the government let itself claim that our age had moved beyond the need for organised expertise was surely a misjudgement.  It is therefore interesting, and the first that I have noticed, that a senior member of the government is prepared to stand up for traditional institutions, for governance and significantly to defend the necessary role of official expertise in our democracy.

Photo: FCO on Flickr

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