The Future of Local Government – no way back

By John Knight | 03 June 2020

Since March local government has been on a ‘war footing’ in its response to the COVID-19 crisis. Residents have seen more clearly what their councils do on a daily basis and how this can impact their lives directly.

We have also seen councils, sometimes known for being bureaucratic, act with extreme pace, doing things in days that in the past may have taken months.

To look beyond the present situation and consider what it is telling us about the future for local government C.Co conducted a survey of chief executives and other senior officers in councils across the country to get their views on the scale of change they think will be required as we emerge from the current situation. We looked at a range of aspects beyond the perilous future financial position, from the services to the staff, and some common themes arose, both on the magnitude of the challenge, the aspects that will require attention and the opportunities that it may present.

Chief executives were very clear that in the medium and long term the change required for local government will be unprecedented in modern times.  All said that there would be significant change needed by the council over the next six months and year ahead and almost half (46%) said the scale of change would be ‘fundamental’ over the next three years.

Whilst most (90%) agreed that they had been able to cope with the continued delivery of essential services over recent months, only half had any confidence that they would be able to do so in the future. We were told clearly that there would need to be change in not only the way services are delivered, and this meant not just around the levels of service, but whether certain services will still be provided at all.  Only 50% felt strongly that they had gained a better understanding of what their residents needed and valued during this period, but in further conversation we were told there must be a period of reflective engagement with residents to understand what is important. There was however 100% agreement that COVID-19 has meant that some groups or individuals have been disproportionately disadvantaged and this also provides an opportunity to consider ways to level up how services are provided in the future and focus on protecting the vulnerable. These competing demands of what residents want, and what the council is able to pay for in the future is likely to mean a ‘perfect storm’ for local government and a complete re-think of its core purpose.

We asked a range of questions around how relationships with partners had been over the last few months. Relationships with other local government partners were working well, albeit with pressures and fears were expressed about future local government reorganisation. However, only 40% strongly agreed that relationships had been good with central Government. We also saw only 60% in strong agreement of the effectiveness of partnership working with health, which is surprising when public health at a local level sits within councils and we are experiencing a global health pandemic. Historic silo-based working and recent concerns over data sharing may be at play here but is still surprising, nonetheless.

There was unanimous agreement that the future impact on the workforce will be huge, with home working becoming the norm, and a new set of skills and business rules will be needed to manage this effectively. There was a strong recognition that staff have had to work very differently, and most were positive about the robustness of their ICT systems and the ability to cope with the new demands placed on them to manage home working.  Another potentially significant finding related to the future use of office space and accommodation, where 100% of respondents said that what they have learnt may lead to future changes to their physical asset requirements.

Whilst there are still many unknowns, what councils do know is that the world of local government will be changed permanently and there will be no going back to the way things were just a few months ago.

The full findings of the C.Co survey can be found at: https://wearec.co/category/c-connect/

John Knight is programme director of CIPFA’s consultancy service C.Co

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