Challenging focus

The UK Experience by Malcolm Morley*

As I’m writing this article Councils who have made bids for unitary status are waiting to hear if they’ve been successful. It is rumoured that the number that will be successful will be less than ten. This will mean that in some areas of the country either the District Councils will be abolished or the County Councils will. Where neither has been successful both will continue in existence.

The successful Councils will have a lot of work to do to prepare for the abolition of their partners. Those to be abolished will have a lot of work to do to prepare for the hand over to the winners.

If history is anything to go by some will struggle to cooperate fully in their demise. Perhaps the biggest challenge, however, will be for those where the status quo is the decision.

The bidding process for unitary status has created many challenges to partnership working where District and County Councils have had to compete to argue their case for survival. Relationships in some areas have become very fraught. It is going to take a long time for the wounds of competition to heal. This challenge, however, is going to have to be addressed very quickly.

The Audit Commission, in looking at the successor to Comprehensive Performance Assessment (CPA), is moving towards Comprehensive Area Assessment (CAA). This new assessment will evaluate how public sector investment within an area is producing improved outcomes for local communities.

The key is the ability of public sector organisations to cooperate and to work in partnership to deliver synergy and to remove duplication. This means the alignment of organisational priorities and resource investments, shared accountability for outcomes and the freedom/flexibility to respond to local issues.

Councils, as community leaders, will be assessed in part on their ability to deliver improved outcomes from public sector investment within their localities as a whole. As we all know encouraging national and regional organisations to align their funding to local priorities is a big challenge. Encouraging Councils recently subject to acrimonious competition to work together is going to take time.

An example of this challenge is in relation to the carbon footprint of communities. Councils will increasingly be judged, as organisations, as service providers and as influencers of public sector resource investment and community behaviour to reduce the carbon footprint of their communities. This will require local partnership working across the public sector.

Perhaps as a spur to this partnership working the Government has floated the proposal to make assumptions about efficiency gains. It is proposed that an assumption is made that Councils will achieve annual cashable efficiency gains of three per cent. These efficiency gains will be taken out of the revenue support grant provided by Government.

This proposal is going to force Councils, who have already made significant efficiency gains, to look radically at how they provide services.

Previously cashable efficiency gains have been able to be re-invested in services to match local priorities. It appears now that the proposal is that they are to be used to reduce Government funding of Local Government.

It looks like a combination of fiscal and regulatory pressure will encourage barriers to partnership working to be dismantled. At the end of the day the focus must be on the communities served.

The community is not interested in public sector organisational challenges. It wants solutions to the issues affecting the quality of life within the community. The real challenge for the public sector is to ensure that the focus of attention remains on delivering more value for the community rather than on organisational issues.

*Malcolm Morley is Chief Executive of Harlow District Council and can be contacted via the Editor, email info@lgfocus.com.au The views expressed in this article are not necessarily those of his employer.