Total Place?

The UK Experience by Malcolm Morley*

There is clear recognition that there are too many vulnerable people and families receiving services from innumerable public agencies, which fail to work effectively together.

Opportunities for synergy, improved effectiveness and cost reduction are too frequently missed.

We need to find better ways of ensuring that these services are coordinated around the customer rather than the providers of those services.

On the London Underground, an automated voice tells customers to ‘mind the gap’ between the platform and the train. Too frequently public sector service customers have to heed the same warning.

Regrettably, the warning is implicit rather than explicit because the service providers merely concentrate upon their own services.

Part of the reason for this is that we still have too many narrowly drawn performance targets and too many ring fenced budgets which reinforce silo thinking and action. Too little space is given for public servants to use their initiative and common sense for the benefit of their customers.

This is further reinforced by Government Departments organised in silos around functions and not across issues.

It is impossible to have a meeting with a single Government Department representative about any issue.

Similarly, the system of resource allocation does not incentivise early intervention and the prevention of problems. Resources are allocated in silos for dealing with problems after they occur rather than prevention.

Health is a prime example. Hospitals get huge resources, while investment in preventing ill health, and the subsequent need for expensive hospital treatment, remains very small.

Investment in housing can prevent much ill health, but will significant Health Department resources ever be allocated outside of the Health Department?

The fact is that as a public sector we know too little about our communities and customers.

We have failed to learn enough from the private sector about market research and applying resources to meet the needs of the customers.

We still have some way to go to develop a fully engaged relationship with communities and customers across the public sector.

Councils, as community leaders, have a fundamental role to play in leading the public sector in addressing this failure. They must have more influence over how other public sector organisations focus on meeting the needs of their communities.

Place based budgets could be part of the solution – budgets brought together focused on communities and citizens with local responsibility for commissioning services to meet local needs. This could deliver real local accountability for performance across the traditional silos in the public sector.

Where the funding is provided by local taxpayers, accountability need only be local. Where the budget is funded by national taxation, the accountability should be both locally and nationally.

Key, however, would be the removal of the plethora of requirements and inspections by intermediary inspectorates. The engagement of communities is vital to ensure that they are able to have input into both what is commissioned and the evaluation of performance.

Discussions about this type of approach have started. It will be interesting to see if real progress can be made.

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