While the recent Civica Exchange Conference highlighted just how many pressures public sector leaders are currently having to deal with, one common thread ran through the majority of conversations I had during the event – trust.
The ongoing Brexit fiasco, the collapse of Carillion and its impact on public sector contracts, cyber security breaches and, in some cases, a perceived drop in service delivery levels, are among the factors contributing to falling levels of trust amongst the general public. However, according to many of the people I spoke to at the event, there’s an opportunity for local authorities to rise above the problems at central government level and build trust.
One of those people is Rob Whiteman, the Chief Executive of the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy (CIPFA) and former Chief Executive of both the UK Border Agency and London Borough of Barking and Dagenham Council.
“Trust is being discussed as a them to a greater extent than ever before,” Rob told me. “It’s a really big issue. Interestingly, if you look at polling and attitude surveys, people have an instinctive trust of local more than national government. We’re seeing this in the UK through the support for devolution in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, but actually people in the south west or north east of England feel just as removed from Westminster.
“People, almost unconsciously, feel that the more local something is the more they have control of it. Local government therefore has a head start when it comes to trust. However, when you ask people about the overall state, people are mistrustful in a way that’s never happened before. They feel like they aren’t allowed to articulate how they feel, which is worrying.”
This, Rob says, leaves local authorities in a quandary. “On the one hand, they’re on the receiving end of deeper cuts than any other part of government – local government is spending 30% less than it did eight years ago, has 50% less government funding coming its way and is having to make big savings and cuts across the board to drive efficiencies. The flip side is that there is an opportunity to open dialogue with citizens and communicate better. When you’re closing libraries, withdrawing youth services and so on, it’s perhaps understandable. If it can explain to the public that in order to provide these services they have to change they way they do it, it may be accepted. If people don’t accept the way it’s consulted upon and done, they’ll feel that local government is part of the state, rather than a local institution they have control over.
“Then, when it comes to technology, people have a natural mistrust. The public also has a natural mistrust of outsourcing and the use of the private sector. Very often, technology is linked to using the private sector. What councils tell me they have to do is talk about the benefits of technology and how it improves efficiency or provides access to services in a better way that’s more user-friendly. The use of the private sector to achieve that has to be secondary.”
The Brexit impact
Of course, there’s no avoiding Brexit at the moment. When I ask Rob if the ongoing uncertainty around this is creating an opportunity for local government to stand up as the ‘trusted provider’ carrying on with services, he responds by saying the long-term prospects look good.
“When Brexit’s over, we’re still going to have this discussion around how does society feel fairer. Local government has a vital role to play here. I think, in the way we’ve seen devolution to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, we are likely to see more responsibility being passed to local government.
“Local government is enduring the most difficult period it probably ever has, but I think it’s short-term. But, in the long-term, it probably has the best prospects ever because it is the solution to people feeling they can influence what goes on where they live. Good local government is already stepping into that space. Leeds City Council and what they’re doing to make the experience better for citizens highlights that. I think this is wise.
“My advice to any organisation, public or private sector, is that you have to avoid the ‘victim mentality’ about how the world will affect you in a way you can’t control. My god you get sad! If you see the changing sand in front of you as an opportunity you can do very well. Local government isn’t one institution. The strength of local government is that there are 400 organisations doing 400 different things and innovating in different ways. At the same time, there’s a normal distribution curve of good and bad! Sometimes, the authorities with less capacity to change find it hard to learn from the ones who are dealing really well.”
Rob’s comments highlight how local authorities could and should be aligning transformation plans and implementing change more closely by sharing services. Does he think shared services detracts from the local advantage of authorities or are the benefits too big to ignore?
“I cannot see an argument against shared services,” he explains. “Yes, as a local authority the public expects you to have your own approach to youth crime or dealing with transport for the elderly, which is unique to your geography, for example. But, there’s no unique local perspective on journal transfers or recruitment, or indeed running systems. I would always be encouraging of councils to be more radical about sharing services, whether that’s in-house shared services to drive economies of scale, or outsourcing.
“Even a combination of local authorities will lack the expertise to build new systems that you can incorporate from the private sector. IT is an area that I don’t view as public versus private sector. I see it as a collaborative approach between people that you employ who do one thing, working with others who have economies of scale and investment to do other things. Collaboration is important.”
Rob concludes by saying: “Get it right, do it well and you can build trust at this most important time for local government.” That pretty much sums it all up.