Doing things differently

By Paul Marinko | 16 April 2024

Every so often it’s what isn’t said that proves more intriguing than what is.

That’s not to suggest that the participants from the upper echelons of a wide variety of councils weren’t full of insights with their comments for this round table on the fringes of The MJ’s Future Forum at Pendley Manor in Hertfordshire.

There were ample ideas for change and innovation in this discussion about ‘doing things differently’, organised in conjunction with Local Partnerships. But silently floating around the audible insights were hints of barriers.

The beauty of local government is its diversity. The assembled chief executives and senior managers provided a plethora of examples to illustrate how they were doing things differently.

While one illustrated the scale of their financial pressure by succinctly saying they were ‘doing everything, everywhere, all at once’ another said their simple focus was to ‘get back to basics’ with good governance and a clear vision.

Others were bringing services back in house while some were prioritising building their presence in communities and creating multifunctional hubs in libraries.

While each had different focuses there was little disagreement around the commonsense behind all these approaches.

And, of course, there was unquestionable agreement with a particular financial comment from one voice around the table, namely: ‘Unless the Government does something to help us, we will not be able to close the gap.’

Yet – this being local government – sitting alongside demands for adequate central funding for local services was evidence of all councils doing what they can to keep the lights on.

This need to act has inspired innovation and a rich pool of examples of councils doing things differently. Differently from what used to be the case and differently from each other.

This is rightly assumed to be a good thing, but there was just a hint of how it may also restrict the sector.

The part of the discussion which began to show this was around ‘what good looked like for councils’.

Finances being an ever-present headache, the ‘not going bust’ response was somewhat inevitable, but as the gathering began to dig down into it, a knotty issue started to emerge.

Looking at technology, one participant pointed to the fact that councils nationwide were often doing the same things and there was plenty of room for standardisation of systems of processes.

There was a tale of 26 councils being asked what they were doing on the tech front and 26 answers coming back, with no one doing the same things. Sharing these innovations, it is suggested, would allow all to benefit with little effort. In other words, avoiding reinventing the wheel.

It was mooted that there was scope for the Local Government Association (LGA) to step into this space and coordinate effective sharing, assisted by those in the space to support delivery and provide capacity and capability services, such as Local Partnerships.

Fans of standardisation around the table were keen for more uniformity to make life easier for councils and customers.

‘If we were in the private sector, we would all have the same app,’ suggested one debater.

But there were others present who were lukewarm about surfing the standardisation wave, with one emphasising the need to design services around local needs because ‘not everyone needs the same things’.

The unspoken insight here appeared to be that the diversity of approaches by councils, coupled with strong views of a unique local need, could potentially scupper opportunities to share.

An even stronger sense of the unique challenges for councils emerged at the suggestion central government may be able to contribute to what ‘good looks like’ for local authorities.

One participant suggested there was a need to review what councils are responsible for. And that may look different in different places, depending on community need.

The suggestion central government should have a role in deciding was thus robustly countered.

‘Who are the Government to tell us what good looks like,’ they added. ‘If I want advice I speak to a local government colleague, not the Government.’

There was also a call for fewer inspections to take the burden off local government – given the Government’s opinion is ‘unimportant’ and only the opinion of customers is relevant.

Additionally, there was a plea for Whitehall just to give councils money directly and leave them to decide how to spend it, dispensing with sieving it through the likes of Homes England or forcing authorities to enter bidding wars.

And the pushback on giving central government any scope to influence ‘what good looks like for councils’ kept coming.

‘If we believe that localism is good we have to be tolerant of difference,’ said one.

‘If it reflects what communities need, that’s OK.

‘It’s a myth that we can get rid of a postcode lottery.

‘If government is going to tell us what good looks like there is no point in local government.’

These were strong words and, indeed, easy to sympathise and agree with. But, also difficult to square realistically with the sector lobbying central government for adequate funding. It remains to be seen if the two can sit amicably alongside each other.

But the deeper question emerging from this round table discussion was how much the need and desire for localism could potentially stand in the way of standardisation and the implementation of shared learning?

Of course, there are plenty of examples of councils learning from each other and implementing excellence which has been developed elsewhere.

But the challenge may be that the need for councils to ‘do things differently’ – not just from the past but also from each other – could stand in the way of them implementing shared ways of work and technological initiatives.

Opinions on the potential for shared learning and standardisation were clearly varied. Some around the table felt there was ample scope. Others felt opportunities were fewer.

Frustration at local government being stretched and strained by Whitehall led one participant to also ask the question: ‘What if we stopped saying “yes”?

‘We roll with the punches and we get picked off.’

This tendency to be ‘picked off’ may illustrate the difficulty the sector faces in having to focus locally while also having a national perspective.

Possibly another indication that the need to ‘do things differently’ risks being a hinderance as well as an opportunity.

For the avoidance of doubt, doing things differently remains unquestionably a force for much good. Equally, learning from the diversity of innovation across the sector will continue to serve councils well on their improvement journeys.

Yet an unexpected insight from this round table was that local government may face some challenges in agreeing on a common view of shared opportunities and the scope for standardisation as the diversity of need and experience grows.

Maybe this is an overly pessimistic reading of the willingness to standardise and share. Perhaps it also over emphasises the desire to be unique at a local level. Are both schools of thought really that mutually exclusive?

These ideas about sharing and standardising have been doing the rounds for a considerable amount of time.

Is there something else standing in the way of faster progress?

Round table attendees

Helen Bailey, Chief executive – Sutton LBC

Michael Coughlin, Executive director of prosperity, partnerships and growth – Surrey CC

Stephen Evans, Chief executive – Windsor & Maidenhead BC

Adele Gritten, Chief executive – Local Partnerships

Catherine Howe, Chief executive – Adur & Worthing BCs

Rachel McKoy, Director of law & governance – Hounslow LBC

Ian Miller, Chief executive – Wyre Forest DC

Stephen Moir, Chief executive – Cambridgeshire CC

Rob Polkinghorne, Chief executive – Cheshire East Council

Heather Jameson (chair), Editor – The MJ

Paul Marinko (reporting), Deputy editor – The MJ

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