I’m regularly asked to make presentations to groups of people (the last one being to 22 Deputy Lord Lieutenants!) to set out the issues and opportunities facing local government in the light of increasingly painful budget cuts. Of the pictorial slides I use to tell the story, the one guaranteed to have the greatest impact and make people hold their heads in their hands and mutter depressing words of despair is my ‘motivational’ slide that alarmingly shows demand outstripping resources at a frightening pace – often known as the ‘’ or ‘Map of Misery’.
I’ve often thought that the word demand in this context seems very impersonal and almost dehumanising, whereas what lies behind much of this demand are real people, many of whom are vulnerable and in need of our help. When I am in need (and it is possible my time will come) will I simply be an input to someone’s demand curve? An unhelpful driver of financial pressure? Or instead could I be seen and valued as a human being with capabilities but also in need of some help and support? This, I believe, is the danger of expressing difficult financial circumstances in impersonal corporate speak. Too often the emotionless language of costs and reducing budgets facilitates a culture that ignores or forgets that at the heart of this technically phrased conundrum are human beings – increasing numbers of whom find themselves at the heart of diminishing resources.
This use of de-personalised language, with the current issues often only framed as a financial problem, creates enormous and unnecessary organisational conflict which puts the bureaucrats (tasked with the corporate objective of cutting spend) at odds with the service professionals. One sees it as a financial problem, the other a social one. A dangerous knock-on effect of this is the internal friction that is caused with the resentment of other Council departments that see themselves as financial victims of ‘uncontrolled’ spend by the demand-led services.
I’m not for a minute suggesting that bureaucrats (financial or otherwise) are any less caring or empathetic towards the plight of vulnerable people, but a more intelligent use of language and a considered framing for tackling the issue of rising demand and reducing resources, is more likely to build a sense of organisational collaboration to tackle real issues of how public services can continue to help people to cope with vulnerability with more dignity and independence.
Doesn’t it feel better to talk about the need for organisational change in terms of how a smaller state can be more creative in helping people to age well and to retain their dignity and capability, rather than with a negative rhetoric of cuts and declining spend? I think the former is so much more engaging and invites us to think creatively and positively as opposed to the more defeatist approach of reducing spend and squashing demand.
At the end of the day, using a more people-centred language and approach to ‘managing demand’ is far more likely to result in the design of collaborative sustainability solution to support an ageing population that ‘how do we get the money out and fast?’!
Gavin joined Swindon Borough Council (SBC) in 2004, having previously worked in a variety of private sector organisations and market sectors and has been Chief Executive since 2006. Gavin was listed as one of the top 50 New Radicals in the Sunday Observer’s national campaign for Britain’s most innovative leaders and voted one of the most influential leaders in Local Government. Gavin is a Board Member of the national think tank the New Local Government Network, (NLGN), a Trustee of the Prospect Hospice, a Board Director of Forward Swindon Ltd and a Board Director of SOLACE Enterprises,.