A view from Barnet’s Chris Naylor: how the class of 2014 are responding to perma-austerity

Chris Naylor

Two weeks ago I gave the lunchtime pep talk to a dozen young hopeful students each vying for a coveted place on Barnet’s graduate programme. Furiously clever, ambitious for Barnet and public services more generally – I didn’t envy those with the task of making a final selection. Like the alumni who have come through the Council’s programme before them, many of whom a decade on, as senior managers, continue to make a profound contribution to the success of the borough, the Class of ’14 will truly be the 21st Century Public Servants. Over the course of the next 40 years (probably 50….) they, with others, will come to define the scale, purpose and breadth of public services locally, nationally and perhaps beyond.

Along the way, the challenges that they will face are beginning to take shape. There are three striking features:

  •  deficit reduction and growing service demand, particularly in health and social care will mean public sector spending reduction and then restraint that has the potential to last deep into the second quarter of the century;
  •  meanwhile customer service expectations are rising exponentially and the public sector has so far proved too slow in response. From an inability to book appointments with the doctor, to the maddening requirement for the citizen to constantly re-provide to the state, information about themselves the state already knows and in some cases originated – serves to frustrate, erode trust and catalyse disengagement. And this coming at time when the scale of change facing the public sector requires greater proximity, not less; and
  • traditional interventionist measures to promote social mobility and other social outcomes will be challenged by a scarcity of public resources. Furthermore, rising health and social care demand, highlights the need to ensure that the public sector can properly demonstrate that services are provided fairly. Indeed there may well be a need to properly demonstrate that services are withdrawn fairly too. Fairness, of course being a concept that is ripe for debate and challenge!

Over the last 12 months Barnet Council has been working hard to develop ideas and options that address these trends, particularly as we expect them to manifest in the second half of this decade. The Council’s “Priorities and Spending Review” sets out a range of ideas to save money and achieve priority outcomes. They include many of themes identified by those interviewed by the 21st Century Public Servant Project: efficiency-particularly through the application of new technology; measures to promote economic growth; demand management; greater community enablement and facilitation and partnership working/integration. In Barnet, over the coming months these ideas and others will now be considered politically and with service users, residents and other stakeholders so that a conclusion can be reached. These decisions won’t be easy, by the end of the decade Barnet will be spending roughly half what it did in 2010 on the provision of public services.

In this context our workforce will quite understandably be concerned about job security. Not least because on the 1st April 2016 our workforce budget will be £68m per annum, while our savings target for the period 2016-2020 will be higher at £72m. All other things being equal – that will feel like a circle that can’t be squared. But the public sector will not disappear, realistically Barnet will still spend some hundreds of millions of pounds and employ many hundreds of staff, directly or indirectly, to provide services that require heavy personal involvement – Google has not replaced teachers, even if it has changed and enhanced the way they teach.

More importantly local government will continue to consist of good people doing good things for people – and it is this sense of moral purpose that attracts the Class of ’14, in much the same way it has attracted others before them. In this context, for public service leaders, at all levels and at all points in their career the truth is that the magnitude of change before them is not just a challenge to their skills and capability, but for some – many perhaps – it is a challenge to their philosophical outlook. To exemplify the point,consultation we undertook to inform the Priorities and Spending review revealed that many residents want Barnet to effectively market council services and the talents of staff – they are willing our organisation and workforce to be more entrepreneurial. It’s not, however, an attribute that universally characterises the culture of most local authorities. Indeed some folk will find the very notion alien to a public sector ethic. In Barnet the desire to be entrepreneurial has led us to establish ‘Re’, a joint venture with Capita to market our development and regulatory services. Several of the staff in the service/company have joint employment contracts, enabling them to provide a commercial service alongside their regulatory responsibilities. From its inception, it is a proposition that has had its supporters and opponents, notwithstanding the fact that the business model for Re sees a growth in employment and not a reduction. Winning the support and commitment of those staff transferring to the joint venture has been the leadership challenge both during the development of the proposal and for the post go live period. At the risk of sounding glib, the only way to win the hearts and minds of workforce in question has been to appeal to both their hearts and their minds. Reason, coupled with an on-going conversation and debate about their motivation and conviction to achieve good outcomes in Barnet.

One final observation: The 21st Century Public Servant research, rightly alerts to the tension between technology-led commoditisation of public services and the desire/requirement for a more ‘relational state’. But I would challenge a view that asserts too strongly that both responses are mutually exclusive. Insight derived from joined up data gives us the potential to engage more directly with individual residents based specifically on the services they use or the place where they live. For example we can already send details of a planning application in a resident’s street directly to the phone in their pocket. Ideally they could use that phone to work out their chances of getting their child into a particular school.  And if we know they’ve been looking at catchment areas, much as Amazon directs to similar products, we too should point “here are some children’s events in our libraries”. We hold that information, we just need to get it packaged and sent in a way that is useful to a resident.

The Class of ’14 were born between 1992 and 1994. They’ve been using social media and the internet before they became teenagers. The application of new technology to re-design services and better engage service users isn’t a novel idea – to them it’s both obvious and assumed. Over the coming years we should expect them to adopt the best levels of personal engagement from the most customer orientated parts of the private sector and develop new forms of civic engagement – using big data to make small but regular differences that change our residents lives for the better.

Chris Naylor is Chief Operating Officer at Barnet Council.

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