Benjamin Franklin famously claimed that the only two certainties in life were death and taxes. For those of us involved in public service the modern version of that statement might be there is never enough money to meet all our aspirations, and most of whatever money is available will go to the NHS. If that has been the story of the last decade, post COVID-19 that certainty will be even more evident.
I doubt that the Government will continue with an austerity agenda, but the trouble is that the future claims on government are going to be even greater than they have been for the last decade. It’s not just every aspect of public service that is going to be asking for money, virtually every firm (bar perhaps Zoom and Amazon) are going to be asking for some financial assistance. In addition, higher levels of unemployment will see a massive escalation in the benefits budget.
If ten years of, in effect, playing Oliver Twist did not play well for local government finance, then expecting it might work better this year seems to be somewhat optimistic. I would expect some recognition of the pressures on adult social care, but that will be ring-fenced, as I suspect will funding for some other services. So, let’s consider three other truths which might suggest another way forward.
First, we have to anticipate a second phase of the virus. We do not know where, we do not know when, but we do know it is very likely. The advice of the WHO is clear. There must be rapid coordinated local action (the test, track, trace and isolate mantra). If we need coordinated local action by government I cannot think of any clearer description of what local government can do. So let’s make the case for local leadership for the next phase.
Secondly, we know we are going to face economic devastation much worse than we faced post the financial crash. And unlike 2008 the prospects of a coordinated international response are less promising. In making this point I am not trying to make a cheap political point in contrasting Gordon Brown with Boris Johnson (tempting though that is). But even Brown would find it challenging to get some alignment between Donald Trump and Xi Jimping.
The challenge for government is therefore even greater, but nationally it too has more limited options, with much of the array of tools already used up. We will need a bold fiscal stimulus, but we also need local leadership. The devastation will impact places very differentially. Cornwall and other places highly dependent on tourism face the prospect of the equivalent of three consecutive winters, whilst the Institute for Fiscal Studies highlights the Isle of Wight and Torbay as particularly fragile economies due to their demographics. Meanwhile we know that some economies have been more effected already because less of their population have been able to work from home (Teesside, for example). If we depend on a national solution for economic revival we know it will be uneven, and we know some places will be left behind. Again, sanity requires local leadership.
Thirdly there will be unprecedented challenges for public services. The NHS Confederation is calling for NHS Reset. In other words, not going back to the past, but making sure we build on some of the innovations that this crisis has stimulated. That ambition is too weak, as demonstrated in the title, it’s not an NHS reset that we need but a public service reset that is required (Total Place on steroids if you like).
Is it going to be easy to do this? Of course not. What we do know is that if you don’t make the argument you don’t win the argument. Or put simply we need to change the mantras and abandon ‘Please sir can I have some more’, and replace it with ‘Carpe Diem’. In addition let us recall a mantra from Total Place - proceed until apprehended. Do not wait for national government to approve but instead set the agenda and allow national government to catch up.
Joe Simpson is director of the Leadership Centre