Since lockdown began, all across the country people clapped every Thursday to show their support for our key workers - the people we valued the most at a time of national emergency. As well as the NHS and care staff it also included a vast army of cleaners, refuse collectors, delivery drivers and others whose contributions to maintaining the quality of our daily lives, and the essential services on which we depend, were so important.
These last few months have allowed people to literally see and be part of what goes on in their street and in their area from their front window and gain a deeper appreciation of what’s important and, in many cases, how they can contribute to their local society.
Whilst it is becoming increasingly clear that financially we will be looking at an extremely daunting period ahead for all, including for the public sector, it will therefore also be coupled with a much sharper focus by citizens on what they value and need. As the country tentatively moves out of this current phase only the most ardent denier would refuse to accept that there will need to be a seismic shift in the way the local government does business. So now is the time for local authorities to open up that conversation with their residents to get their views on what they want for the future.
Research undertaken in the early days of local government austerity suggested that, even then, members of the public generally wanted to develop an ‘adult-to-adult’ relationship with those providing services. That kind of relationship would be characterised by clear language, respect, equality and – most of all - compromise. This way, local government can work with its citizens in collaboration, with all parties negotiating the solutions to problems and taking shared responsibility for future services and their direction. Whilst up to now there has been a reality that the majority of citizens have felt less engaged in influencing local decision making, the last few months have provided a brief opportunity for councils to engage and consult on their services, before an expectation is built that things will return to the way they were previously.
At CIPFA C.Co we have recently been working with authorities across the country who have asked us to undertake extensive consultations and engagements with their residents. The results have not only helped them to shape their strategies and plans going forward, but have informed them on the things residents value most and also do not value – and these have sometimes been surprising and enlightening. Our recent support to a library service consultation for Northumberland CC received a remarkably high response and included many in-depth one to one telephone conversations with residents who were very keen to engage and express their views. Not only were these views well informed and passionate, they were also pragmatic, widely accepting of the current financial realities and setting out their expectations for the future.
If councils can connect the current ground-swell of citizen engagement with the realities of future funding there is a much better chance that they can provide a sustainable post-COVID offer of services to their residents. This engagement would be encouraging people to participate in the life of their communities, offering time to improve in some way the lives of their fellow citizens. These contributions could include volunteering, collaborating with their neighbours to address shared problems, or becoming involved at the fringes of public service delivery and taking ownership for issues and services.
The consultations can provide an immediate opportunity for councils to think more radically about their future offer – but based on citizen led information and testimony, not on a rear-view mirror look at the services that councils have always provided. However, this period of recovery affords a very limited window to do more than a basic reshaping, or even a reformation, of current service provision and systems and a more radical approach means that the diminished resources can be concentrated more effectively on the most pressing range of concerns. It won’t be easy or painless, but an honest, wide ranging and frank dialogue on the future prospects will be more likely to mean a sustainable outlook for the council.
John Knight is programme director of C.Co, CIPFA’s consultancy service