Local government is made up of very diverse institutions, in terms of size, tiers, geography, demography and politics. No two local authorities are the same, even those who seem similar in many ways. Each has a unique combination of history, cultures, structures, systems and relationships. Each will have different strengths and weakness. Some councils are flourishing and others are floundering. Yet we often refer to ‘local government’ as if it was one thing, when it clearly is not. Some of that sense of ‘family’ has its roots in long traditions of competitiveness and rivalry as well as cooperation and mutual support. Some can be traced back to the need to be united against the ‘common enemy’ – an over-centralised and capricious central government machine – regardless of any allegiance owed by local politicians to their party when in power.
Local government has occupied a rather eminent moral high ground in recent years. Demonstrably the most efficient part of the public sector, it has remained remarkably resilient in the face of cuts which would have brought any other sector to its knees. Many councils have used the pressure, generated by cuts in income from central government, to drive change, experimentation and innovation but others have not. Some have become highly commercial, with varying degrees of success, while others seek to avoid all risk. Some have streamlined their corporate functions and outsourced support services, in order to be able to focus their remaining resources on frontline services. Some have engaged communities to co-produce and maintain services which were previously the sole responsibility of the council, while others have simply cut non-statutory services. Some have developed excellent and productive working relationships between officers and members. Others are known for toxic and destructive internal and external relationships. Some are supporting and developing their staff to be adaptable, flexible and resilient. Others have downgraded their officer leadership capacity and hollowed out their organisations to the point that they cannot respond to a crisis.
In spite of so much divergence in organisational structures, systems and behaviours, the sense of being part of a family remains. Officers and members share ideas, through writing in the trade press, meeting, talking, arguing and sharing. That level of interaction may mislead us into thinking we have a good picture of what is going on but since the demise of the Audit Commission, no-one has an overview of the state of local government, in all its rich political and organisational diversity. Councils are quick to boast of their achievements, as evidenced by the burgeoning awards business, but very slow to admit to their failures. Its no-one’s job to counsel, warn or intervene when misguided choices have resulted in serious risks to the vulnerable.
As is the case with our own families, the notable failure of a family member reflects badly on all. Our first reactions may be to blame them and to disassociate ourselves from them. We may say, quite rightly, that councils are sovereign bodies. They make their choices and they take the consequences. What duties, then, do other councils owe them when bad choices bring disaster? Perhaps they owe them the duties we all owe to our own family members when they go astray: to challenge them to listen, to accept responsibility, to explain themselves, to put things right but above all to learn from their failures. We should support them if they are willing to come clean and share that learning so all can take heed. That way, perhaps, some small good can come out of catastrophic failure.
Catherine Staite is Professor of Public Management and Director of Public Service Reform at the University of Birmingham. As Director of Public Service Reform, Professor Catherine Staite leads the University’s work supporting the transformation and reform of public services, with a particular focus on the West Midlands. As a member of INLOGOV, Catherine leads our on-line and blended programmes, Catherine also helps to support INLOGOV’s collaboration with a wide range of organisations, including the Local Government Association and the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives as well as universities in the USA, Europe, Australia and China. She was named by the Local Government Chronicle, in 2015 and 2016 as one of the top 100 most influential people in local government.