Acareo Ltd

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Big Society – Your Community Needs You!

People who know me know I am Chair of Governors at a local primary school. I guess that makes me a non-paid up member of the Big Society already! Being a volunteer comes naturally to me – I am not one for sitting in the background moaning so I get off my backside and do something about it instead. Chairing a school governing body is an honour and a privilige and comes with some serious responsibilities ensuring proper care and education for the most valuable asset of the human race – our children. One of my biggest challenges has been ensuring a full compliment of governors and that committees are quorate – getting people to volunteer their precious time is not an easy task, even where it is the future of their own children at stake. That being said, governors are the biggest volunteer force in the country and we get zero financial reward, not even expenses. Those of us who do it do so because we are passionate about education and child protection. Parent governors have a vested interest, community governors are welcome for their fields of expertise, LEA appointed governors bring their experience of political office – and I am fortunate to say in my case no small amount of power and influence as the leader of the local council chairs my finance committee! The point being that getting people to volunteer is never easy. In my community is all too often the same faces on the governing bodies, parish council, local authority and pressure groups (we had a huge campaign against a propose quarry in the village recently).
Cuts aside, there is much about the coalition agenda to be admired, certainly the ambition for more of us to be community minded. However, there are also huge barriers to changing our predominantly apathetic society into David Cameron’s vision of a Big Society. Those who manage change for a living will know that there is nothing harder in management than introducing change to a largely sceptical workforce – imagine trying to do that on a nationwide scale to an apathetic nation wound up by an overtly critcial press core? Already the Prime Minister is coming up against a raft of “doom merchants” in the shape of the BMA opposition to the NHS reforms, police chiefs warning about increases in crime levels if police budgets are cut, unions arguing that its all about public services on the cheap without public servants and charity workers warning that if council funding disappears so do they.
The PM relaunched the Big Society agenda through his closing speech to the Conservative Party Conference – “your country needs you” he rallied calling for people to step up and particiapte in society. He will need to get the sceptics on board quickly and that will be no mean acheivement if he succeeds at that level alone. If, having got the sceptics onside, he actually manages to deliver on Big Society that will be some achievement. If he fails it may well be because the predominant way that the public sector saves money is by shedding staff and a nation of unemployed civil and public servants saying “stuff your big Society, I’ve lost my job because of it”. Quite simply for Big Society to work the public sector needs to get smarter about how it spends and saves money. As for the government it needs to recognise that stopping public spending absolutely (which is what has happened in the last few months in the lead up to 20th October) will only serve to cripple the private sector that supplies government with goods and services. Labour gave out some basic training with the modernisation agenda, the coalition are playing hardball; the public sector needs to respond innovatively with clarity of purpose and not just chop the salami.


E – is it really for everything?

Efficient, Effective, Economic and Electronic? I used to wonder if any finance managers ever cared about Effective and in my experience they were seriously worried about Electronic; it meant spending money to build websites and online access to services that no one would ever use. Lets face it, the e-Government Programme was hardly a universal success for anyone other than suppliers so may be they were right. Or were they? A lot of authorities learned an awful lot about change management and how to get more out of technology back in the mid noughties and they were and will be invaluable in the unprecedented changes now facing our public services. This week Martha Lane-Fox no less has been advocating e-everything as the way to balance cuts with service delivery at SOCITM and SOLACE conferences “Think e first, second and last”. She alludes to NHS choices costing 46p a visit and your GP costing £136 a visit – go figure! A few years ago I did a couple of big-ish studies into take up of e-services, how to measure it and how much it could save authorities. The reports are still around on the web if you dig hard enough (here if you cant be bothered). In my research there was always one big fear of the finance directors in relation to promoting take up of e-services; not that it would lead to channel shift per se, but that it would lead to an unlocking of latent demand. More demand would gridlock the back office and increase costs they argued. The first point they failed to grasp was that  they should close down under-used channels and save the costs. The second point was that any increase in demand is indicative of poorly met need and inaccesible traditional channels and that by realising an increase in take up you can re-target resources where they are most needed. What’s more the web server will give you evidence (volumetrics) to support the decision.
Time will tell if Ms Lane-Fox gets here way – I for one will be watching with interest.


The devil is in the detail

So, George Osbourne has had his day; the public sector, the media, social commentators and perhaps even “the general public” now know where the axe will be yielded – or do they? The Chancellor’s speech was big on headlines, but in line (dare I say) with his two immediate predecessors, very short on detail. As has become the norm of late, a plethora of background reports have been published today and it is in these reports that the detail is contained on exactly where the cuts will be made and to what degree. It is not all doom and gloom either – there are some significant announcements on investment for the future:

  • Health spending to rise to £114bn (actually a net loss in real terms
  • Rail transport (£14bn to Network Rail),
  • M-way improvments and the Mersey Gateway (£10bn)
  • rural broadband (£530m),
  • £5,000 towards the cost of a new ultra-low emission vehicle from January 2011,
  • £200m to local government for transformation
  • 150,000 new social homes to be built

to name a handful. However, how has the Chancellor managed to cut the overall spend by around £81bn (19%) and yet still find some money to invest? Which services are suffering and what will be the price we pay? Labour are already saying that this settlement will hit those least able to afford it the most – time will tell and they may well be correct. But, at first glance, a large cross section of us will be paying:-

  • Retirement age to increase to 66 by 2020 – affects all of us of working age
  • Incapacity Benefit/Employment Support Allowance to be restricted to 12 months whereafter, if you dont qualify for Disability Living Allowance, you go onto Job Seekers Allowance – affects around 1 million claimants and may impact adversely on men from manual labour backgrounds
  • Local authority budgets to be cut by 7.1% per annum for four years (28% in total) – will affect all of us to some extent but impact will vary locally
  • Police and fire budgets cut by around 13%
  • Estimates that 490,000 public sector jobs will go within 4 years – a net cost of around £8.5bn to the economy in terms of reduced spending power
  • Child benefits to end for higher rate tax payers, regardless of total household income (do I make my partner a co-director of my company so she can receive half the company dividends ergo we keep our Child Benefit?)

Will efficiencies through moderising working practices, removal of non-value adding processes, sharing service delivery and infrastructure be enough? Of course not, but they will certainly help public bodies transition through the next four years with less pain for their citizens. The Spending Review Report states that government will utilise digital channels as the default for service delivery wherever possible. Whatever the rights and wrongs of this, it is a big statement for such a short sentence. However, what it does do is offer up the opportunity for significant change with local government being given a £200m pot to pump prime such change. There is an issue about how that money will be distributed and expected benefits realised – too many of the existing funding routes are tarred with failure to deliver anything meaningful. Failure to do so again and grasp the opportunities to be seriously radical about how we deliver public services to our needy citizens will be a failure of responsibility amongst the decision makers. The 16 pilots for place based budgeting have a huge responsibility to make it work and identify what is possible – I wish them every success (and if anyone needs any help please shout!). The alternative of mistakenly slicing the sausgae into ever thinner slices may keep the bean counters happy but anyone taking such an approach will have failed their public and in doing so, failed in their duty.


‘Super councils’ and ‘deserving poor’ – are these new or do we need a history lesson?

Anyone remember the Met County Councils? For those who can’t it is only as far back as 1986 that these leviathans were abolished by the then Conservative government as being too big, too unwieldy and too remote from their citizens to be accountable – they also had some vast budgets.

The Metropolitan Counties of England 1974-1986

The Metropolitan Counties of England 1974-1986

Their functions devolved to the Metropolitan District Councils (or London Boroughs) who, for some functions such as waste disposal and fire, set up county-wide joint boards to govern them. Other functions like highways were subsumed by each district.

When they were established under the Local Government Act 1972 and came into being in 1974 they were modelled on the London set up. The original report produced in 1969 had recommended huge swathes of the shires of Cheshire, North Yorkshire and Staffordshire be included in their near neighbour Met County areas but the government shied away from dismantling the shires in such a radical way. Only Southport was added in at the former County Borough’s own request – some might argue it has spent the last 30 years trying to get back into Lancashire!

What many might not know is that there were proposals for “super councils” to cover:-

  • Most of Hampshire including the Isle of Wight
  • Central Lancashire (now Preston, South Ribble and Chorley) but then an emerging New Town area and
  • The Thames Estuary covering northern Kent and southern Essex (deja vu viz the LEP proposals?)

Each of these additional super councils were rejected by parliament, decisions in the main taken as a result of insufficient population density.

It is also interesting to note that these super councils were only ever charged with a strategic role looking after regional stuff like waste disposal, highways, trading standards, strategic planning and emergency services – it was never envisaged that such large bodies could deliver “local services”. Of course, back then we had significantly poorer communications but we also had significantly fewer local public services; education, housing and “the rates” being the main ones alongside public health and town planning. Social Services was in its infancy as a local government service having been a health service from 1948 (when the Poor Laws were axed) to 1970. Indeed in relation to social services there are some interesting corollaries between current government policy on welfare and the policy of the Victorians who introduced welfare reform; the concept of the ‘deserving poor’ and ‘undeserving poor’ was first enshrined in policy well over 150 years ago when Henry Mayhew wrote his articles on the street workers of London.  The continuity doesn’t seem to end there either.   The Victorian concept of ‘less eligibility’ and the new benefits cap – set no higher than the average wage – appear to have a striking resemblance to each other.

Access to services is now better than it has ever been – but there is still a vast amount of room to improve this still further. Already the government are backtracking on the concept of a single universal benefit payment – it really is hard to introduce without some seriously losing out and without some major up front costs. The promise in the Spending Review Report (at para 1.104) that the Govt will use digital means, such as online and digital telephony, as the default option to deliver more of its services is bold but will also need investment of time, money and, critically,  vision to make it happen. It is a way, an opportunity even, to join up services around citizen’s needs rather than organisational needs but it requires great leadership to make it happen. Labour tried with the e-government Programme; it made a difference in so far as it helped modernise some woefully arcane business processes and opened up some new ways to access services but few succeded in making a major difference to peoples lives or in reducing costs – the opportunity was missed.

Those of us who have worked in or for public services for many years have always known what goes around, comes around, sometimes for better, sometimes for worse. What history tells us is that it is incumbent upon policy makers not to repeat past mistakes regardless as to whether that past was a long time ago or within the last decade. History also tells us, unfortunately all too often, we do not learn from past mistakes.


Cuts – Is It Really That Simple?

It is fast becoming apparent that the “cuts” are likely to be much more widespread than many people could have anticipated. Talk of 40% cuts is, simply unprecedented in the UK public sector; nothing on this scale of savings has ever been demanded before. Most (but by no means all) public bodies have offered up some serious efficiencies over the last 6 years since Gershon showed the then Chancellor, Gordon Brown, that there was some serious scope for such efficiencies.
Back in 2004 those public bodies who were leading change and had, in their own eyes, done much to put their own house in order already. They argued that it would be difficult to achieve 3% efficiencies year on year. These authorities got a minor reprieve and were allowed to count efficiencies from the previous year. Now they are likely to be asked to find betwen 25 and 40% savings! Quite simply, the salami sausage chopping will no longer be looking to wafer thin slices, but to great chunks being ripped off – or will it?
Is it really unfeasible to actually change for the better the way that public services are delivered AND save money? My experiences suggest not, indeed there is still huge scope for improvements that dont cost vast amounts of money and will lead to savings. After all, there are 352 local authorities in England and Wales offering around 900 services – DIFFERENTLY. Yes, at its worse that’s 352 different ways of delivering each of those 900 services. Not by anyones definition can that be efficient. Sharing common processes would be a start and indeed, for back office stuff like IT and HR sharing has started, mainly through out sourcing contracts. What no one has yet cracked is the sharing of the customer.
Areas such as cross boundary sharing of customer information, focusing on the citizen’s needs rather than the disparate and often conflicting needs of the organisations. Localis and Total Place principles are a step in the right direction but it musn’t just be about community of geography. Total Place solved nothing – but it did start to show what was possible – it has to be about sharing the customers with a community of need. If the public sector, working alongside the 3rd sector, can eliminate the amount of duplication of effort required around application forms, assessments, eligibility checking, inspections then they can revolutionise public services in this country AND save money. Evidence for many customer segments support this in places like:-

  • Birmingham (alocholics and drug addicts)
  • Leicstershire (victims and perpetrators of anti-social behaviour)
  • Greater Manchester (young families in poverty)
  • Cumbria (older people)
  • Blackburn (children with a parent who has an alcohol problem)
  • Nottinghamshire (workless)

All have concluded that reducing duplication of effort and focusing the scarce resources more keenly on early interventions will yield significant benefits for the public purse and significantly improve outcomes for citizens.
However, to make this happen requires real leadership and sharing of resources. It also requires the big central government departments to be able to work at a local level to make change happen for local people. So far this latter point has been the biggest single stumbling block to progress around shared customers – DWP and HMRC who hold all the aces on customer information simply cannot make significant changes at a local level. This has to change if there is to be any hope of sharing the customer and preserving service quality whilst saving major sums of money at the same time. Whilst the noises coming out of the Conservative Party Conference are more than background blurb, Big Society has not yet aligned itself with what local people need.


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