Capping the pace of change

By Graeme McDonald | 10 August 2020
  • Graeme McDonald

Public administration at a local level has many advantages. The most powerful is the ability to join services and policy together in a way that fully surrounds an issue, magnifying impact.

Replicating this as your geographical footprint increases becomes more difficult – local insight becomes cloudier, organisational and professional boundaries less permeable and decision-making slower, and the implications of failure more significant. This is the core argument for subsidiarity, the importance of local government generally, and specifically, the need for greater devolution in the UK.

It is why the EU was unresponsive to the challenges experienced by many communities across the UK (and elsewhere), and why the concerns of the ‘red wall’ cannot be addressed from Westminster. Not only because of the physical remoteness of Brussels or Whitehall, but because scale is a barrier to different organisations, professionals and politicians working effectively together.

Whitehall, despite many civil servants recognising and working to change this, is not always able to work well across departments. The result is ‘the left hand not knowing what the right hand is doing’.

We see this with local government ministers promoting structural change and reorganisation across swathes of the country, while at the same time the Cabinet Office is introducing a £95,000 cap on public servants’ exit payments, creating a barrier to the transformation Marsham Street seeks to promote.

Exit payments are a vital tool to create incentives for employees to leave during a period of change and reorganisation. Capping these will undermine that incentive for large numbers of employees, including frontline team leaders as well as those in more senior positions.

The cap will slow already difficult change – the UK has been unitarising counties since Local Government Act 1992 – it also risks hollowing out a fragile pipeline of future leadership. If long-serving employees lack the incentive to leave early, reorganisation will push out those who are our future.

Exit payments will remain controversial, but it should be for publicly accountable local employers to decide their fairness and to judge the impact on the organisation’s ability to change at the pace required.

Graeme McDonald is managing director of The Society of Local Government Chief Executives (Solace) and Solace in Business

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