Local government is digging deep into its financial reserves and hiking council tax bills by double inflation, but still anticipates making further service cuts in 2021–22. The Public Accounts Committee report earlier this month shows how central government support hasn’t matched Covid-related budget reductions. More positively, at the same time, councils and partners are eyeing the improvements made to commissioning and procurement during the pandemic and asking whether these could help balance the budget. Can adding value to local government’s annual procurement spend of £100bn help improve outcomes for citizens, sustain local councils, and build a better recovery?
As NESTA’s recent report, A Catalyst for Change, evidenced, councils’ collaboration with other public sector bodies, citizens and the voluntary and private sectors was at the centre of the response to COVID-19. Local authorities ‘stepped into their role as conveners, leveraged their existing relationships and partnerships, and forged new ones to dynamically address key issues. This allowed organisations to link up volunteers with vulnerable people, support businesses, deliver food parcels or find temporary accommodation for rough sleepers’.
I’ve heard from some of the council managers on INLOGOV’s teaching programmes of the amazing agility and flexibility councils have been able to develop with partners in areas such as social care and housing. Commissioning and procurement processes that in the past were seen as inflexible, slow, risk-averse, price-obsessed and lacking innovation were transformed rapidly in response to the immediate threats of the pandemic. Data was shared in more depth and quickly, enabling better targeting of services. More flexible financial and performance management arrangements opened the door to flexible service delivery.
Now, a major research programme led by Dr. Richard Simmons at Stirling University, called Optimising Outcomes, is looking at the impact of Covid on partnering and procurement. The programme is working with key sector bodies such as CIPFA and SOLACE as well as universities and research councils, to answer key questions such as:
- How, and how effectively, are local authorities deploying their commissioning and procurement functions to address the challenges posed by Covid-19? What are the successes to be celebrated? Where are the tensions that need to be managed? Where is the system at risk of breaking down?
- What are the opportunities for improved procurement performance? How do local authorities optimise every aspect of procurement spend?
- Can local authorities adopt more innovative, strategic, entrepreneurial and relational approaches to strengthen local resilience and avoid a weak and incapacitated system?
- What role can greater data-analytic capacity play in supporting a more agile and effective response?
As part of this research, council managers have been invited to take part in a survey to capture learning from the many challenges and achievements of the sector during the last year. The survey is aimed at all UK council managers (there is a separate survey for procurement teams) and takes around 10 minutes to complete. The closing date for responses is 21st June.
If you are a UK council manager and haven’t yet taken part, please would you complete the survey here.
This is a great opportunity to ‘build back better’ by applying the lessons and innovations councils and partners have developed over the last 18 months. I’ll report back on the results later this year.
Jason Lowther is Director of the Institute for Local Government Studies (INLOGOV)