Governance and accountability: from dull subject to hot topic

Catherine Staite
Accountability is the lifeblood of good governance.  Good leaders understand that they are responsible for the well-being of others, that they need to explain their actions, really listen to those on whom those actions have an impact and act swiftly to put things right if they go wrong.  They know that the higher the level of vulnerability of the people they serve, the higher the duty of care – to serve the powerless and not to demean or demonize them. Good leaders would say that none of that needs to be said because governance and accountability are written through their everyday working lives like lettering through rock. That may be true of good leaders but it isn’t true of everyone.

There are so many flaws in our fragmented systems of governance that it can be very hard to understand who really is accountable when things go wrong.  There has been much focus recently on the negative impacts of privatising regulatory services but that is just the tip of the iceberg. Just think about the outsourcing of benefits assessment to a demonstrably incompetent company, the divestment of social housing from councils, the purchaser/provider split in health and the structural, professional, financial and organisational chasms between health and social care.  All of those exercises in fragmentation result in the people all these different services serve falling through those cracks without ever understanding who is responsible for their suffering. Homelessness is a classic example of this phenomenon. Failure compounds failure and more energy is expended  on shunting the blame than on solving the problems.

That might lead us to believe that all we need to do to put things right is tidy up a bit and then create a couple more regulatory bodies, et voila, job done.  That has always appealed to me; I do love a tidy structure. But even as I crave order, I know that we’ll never achieve it. The reality is that systems, structures and processes in both the public and private sectors are complex and messy and doubly so where sectors intersect, as in public transport or primary care. If we tidy up in one place, we’ll create knock-on messiness somewhere else.  We’d do better to focus on the people in the system – on developing their skills and strengthening their values so they understand the real importance of good governance and the critical role of accountability.

The key to future good governance and accountability lies in the way in which we recruit, train, develop, manage and lead our 21st century public servants.  That is also true of our democratic representatives. A democratic mandate alone does not confer wisdom or effectiveness.  Yet, most councils have cut their staff and member development budgets to the bone, as development is a luxury and not a vital necessity.

We all the see the necessity of the maintenance and repair of our cars, our computers and our washing machines. The maintenance and good governance of our organisations is even more important.  Mechanical failures can cause many problems but the failure of organisations destroys lives.

Catherine Staite 02

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.

Is commercialism the answer? If so, what is the question?

Catherine Staite, Director of INLOGOV

 I often hear local government compared unfavourably with business, often by members who have had careers in business or industry. However, when I ask where they worked – they almost invariably name companies that are now defunct.  That makes me wonder if local government deserves this unfavourable comparison. That’s before I ponder the notable probity of the banks, the honesty of VW and the reliability of Cross Country Trains.

Commercialism is a loose term, covering everything from trading activities to the skills to commission, procure, manage markets and deliver services through complex contracts.  There also seem to be a number of implicit underlying meanings, including ‘entrepreneurial’ as in ‘risk taking’ and ‘tough’ as in ‘winner takes all’.  Those perceived meanings strike me as both very masculine and very old-fashioned.

Commercialism, however it is understood, is not a guarantee of success.  In fact, the wholesale importation of now discredited low cost/low effectiveness models of service from the private sector have actually generated failure demand.

So why do so many commenters think that increased commercialisation of local government’s functions or the acquisition of stronger hard and soft commercial skills is so necessary?  There are usually two key reasons; the need for agility in a time of rapid change and to maximize resources in a time of austerity.

Every book on local government that I have ever read, regardless of when it was published, starts with a statement about the turbulence and unprecedented change being experienced by local government at that time. That does demonstrate that everything is relative.   Was there ever a time  when local authorities were like stately galleons, built for stability not speed, breasting the waves, largely unmoved by external pressures or internal dissent, with the cry of ‘steady as she goes’ echoing through the corridors?

If that was ever the case it certainly isn’t true now.  Now many local authorities seem more like racing yachts – ploughing through stormy seas, with small crews and all hands on deck.  Many are agile, resilient and efficient with some truly excellent skippers who are tacking in response to current pressures while maintaining a clear view of where they are headed. INLOGOV’s study for Grant Thornton in 2014  highlighted the significant differences between local authorities in terms of their likely financial futures, even after taking account of the inequities of local government finance. The difference between the most and least agile isn’t a reflection of varying degrees of commercialism. It’s much more fundamental than that. The best are distinguished by mature relationships between political and managerial leadership, with shared understanding of risks and opportunities that enable difficult choices to be made without blowing the authority off course.

The importance of trust and a new set of skills and attributes, in order to maximize resources, is becoming ever clearer, as demonstrated by INLOGOV’s study ‘The 21st Century Public Servant’ which highlighted the importance of ‘municipal entrepreneurs’. Their role is about a lot more than commercialism. It is more about creativity working with agility while never losing sight of fundamental purpose of public services and retaining all the ethical underpinnings of stewardship.  Our study for DCN on ‘New Ways of Working’ demonstrates that toughness and the short-term pursuit of financial gain don’t bring success, selflessness does.

Mature relationships and 21st century skills are now forming the foundations of Combined Authorities and underpinning ‘devo deals’.  The potential gains are likely to be of an entirely different order of magnitude than those achievable through mere commercialism.

Catherine Staite

Catherine Staite is the Director of INLOGOV. She provides consultancy and facilitation to local authorities and their partners, on a wide range of issues including on improving outcomes, efficiency, partnership working, strategic planning and organisational development, including integration of services and functions.

Do Danes co-produce? Yes, we do! And we do it in other ways than the British, as far as I can see.

Anne Tortzen

Here is a Danish success story about co-production. It involves cycling, of course, as we are discussing Denmark!

I am a Dane, currently based at INLOGOV as a visiting PhD student. I am working on a thesis on co-production in Danish municipalities, and I am getting increasingly challenged by this seemingly ambiguous, slippery and magic concept that is co-production. Is co-production a panacea to democratize and improve public services or is it just a concept invented to ‘sugar coat’ savage cuts in public spending by shifting responsibilities on to citizens? Or is it, for that matter, something in between?

At its core co-production is about active citizens, communities and governments working together to create better outcomes of public services. And I believe that to go on believing in the possibility of this, we must tell the stories of the successes.

So here is a success story about how Danes co-produce. It is about a project called ‘Cycling for all ages’, the core idea of which is that everybody – regardless of age and health – should be entitled to get ‘around and about’ on a bicycle and feel the ‘wind in their hair’. In more conventional terms it is about improving the quality of life of older and disabled people – and improving relationships and fostering friendship across people of different age groups.

So, the essence of the co-production initiative is this: Volunteer ‘pilots’ offer free rides on bicycle rickshaws (funded by the local council) to older and disabled people, who have difficulties getting around – or who would just like some new company and inspiration. The initiative started in Copenhagen four years ago and is now running in more than 60 Danish municipalities with a total of 2500 volunteer ‘pilots’.

The initiative was started in Copenhagen by an ‘ordinary’, but quite entrepreneurial citizen, Ole. At the time he was living close to care home in a residential part of Copenhagen and was observing the inhabitants in wheelchairs being pushed around the block. So the idea struck him: Why not give these inhabitants the opportunity of seeing more of the city? Ole, himself, is a keen cyclist. So he hired a bicycle rickshaw and knocked on the door of the care home, asked to speak to the manager and offered his bicycle services. And this is exactly the defining moment of the co-production process: How does a public servant respond to a citizen initiative such as this? As a bureaucrat thinking about the risks and hassle of the whole endeavor – or with trust and appreciation of an active citizen wanting to contribute? Fortunately, Ole got the latter reaction – and that, I think, tells us that the most important ingredient in successful co-production is trust!

So in which sense is this co-production? I would argue, that we are talking about ‘co-produced design and production of welfare services that enhance the quality of life’ made possible through contributions from care workers and councillors, active citizens and the older ‘service users’ themselves in the following way: The local councillors allocate means for buying one or more bicycle rickshaws and maintaining them. The care workers contribute by promoting the bicycle activity to the older people and assisting Tom in getting ready for his trip. Sometimes the care workers also volunteer to drive the bicycle. Volunteers of all ages (the youngest is only 12) and origins contribute as ‘pilots’ riding the bicycles and taking care of the planning and coordination of trips and of recruiting more volunteers – all via Facebook (check out 12-year-old Christian’s short clip by clicking here). And finally, Tom co-produces his own welfare service by deciding where he wants to go on the trip and what stories about his life he would like to share on the way. And he gets an immense boost in life quality out of it – as is obvious from this film about Torkild, aged 92, on a nostalgic trip through Copenhagen with Ole as his ‘pilot’.

It may or may not be, that this ‘additive’ co-produced service to the elderly saves public expenditure in the long run – but it surely does bring about quality of life and social capital. And that, I think, is the best we can hope for from co-production.

PS: The success story is no longer solely Danish. The concept of Cycling without age has gone international – just like the Danish TV series Borgen and The Killing – and is now taking off in more countries all over the world.

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Anne Tortzen is based at the University of Roskilde, Denmark. Alongside the PhD she works as a consultant on citizen engagement and co-production. Anne is the founder and director of Centre for Citizen Dialogue, which specializes in consulting with Danish and Nordic municipalities, ministries and institutions to develop citizen engagement in public policy and services.

What skills does a 21st Century fire service need?

Dave Cross

Over the past twenty years the fire service, like many other public sector agencies has undergone radical change. Whilst the public’s expectation of the fire service as a response based fire and rescue service remains the same, the organisational expectations of fire fighters has increased markedly. To quote a senior Greater Manchester fire officer “The job of a fire fighter nowadays has changed from not just putting out fires… to almost being a semi social worker”.

This change was precipitated by the Bain report of 2002 and the resultant repealing of the 1947 Fire services Act to be replaced by the 2004 Fire and Rescue Services Act. No longer was it response, but prevention that became the fire service’s primary consideration. In line with this prevention orientated approach fire fighters nationally are now undertaking Home Safety Checks. It is the carrying out of these checks and the increased access into people’s homes that has brought about an increase in fire fighters generic skills. A fire fighter now has to be aware of a range of issues, some way beyond the fire safety sphere. These would include health and wellbeing of the occupant, child and adult protection issues, possible need for a vulnerable person’s referral or other agency involvement.

The rationale behind this is that the most at risk groups fall into the catchments of many public sector bodies. This is borne out in the MECC programme (Making Every Contact Count) and the Marmot review of public health. MECC is a means by which other, agency appropriate involvement can be sought through previously established referral pathways.

Through their prevention schemes, the fire services run a universal programme of home fire safety checks: they are in touch with members of the public from all sections of the community and not only attempt to prevent fires, but are also involved in running prevention programmes from home safety to road safety. They link up with schools, engage and inspire young people, visit people’s homes and develop relationships with the community – they are in the perfect position to deliver interventions and partner with other agencies to reduce health inequalities. The fire services do what every stakeholder involved in reducing health inequalities should do: engage directly with the community, work to provide them with the opportunities they need to live a healthy life and focus on prevention.”

Professor Sir Michael Marmot.

Of more recent concern for the fire service is an awareness of signs of radicalisation and counter terrorism for which the fire service forms part of the first and last line of domestic defence.

In addition to home safety checks fire fighters are actively engaged in local schools delivering targeted, curriculum supporting sessions on fire safety and road safety. Fire stations are considered a community resource. They can be used by external agencies if they are a better avenue into at risk groups.

The perverse incentive that was envisaged by decreasing calls is being realised (fires having fallen by 64% in 10 years). The continuing effects of the government’s austerity measures which has seen fire service budgets slashed by 25% over the last 4 years has seen staffing numbers and appliances decrease. This has come with increasing pressure from central government to adopt more use of retained (part time) fire cover as this is considered to be more cost effective. In response some metropolitan brigades are resisting these pressures believing them to be unworkable in major conurbations. This has brought about an increased and management supported use of social media. It would not be unusual now to find a fire fighter ‘tweeting’ from the fire-ground. Whilst this carries some risk to the organisation and people have on occasion had their fingers burnt. The benefit of informing the public of our activities is seen as outweighing the risk from the odd ill advised ‘tweet’ but is yet another example of the broadening role of the fire fighter.

Commensurate with that reduction in calls is a reduction in fire fighters experience. This has created a double edged sword, for while the public are becoming increasingly safer fire fighters are becoming exposed to more risk. Not just from a lack of practical experience but also because advances in building construction (double glazing, furniture) is making fires hotter and requiring far more refined technical skills to be able to adequately deal with and therefore realistic training needs to increase.

Fire services are now faced with the dichotomy of putting more time and resources into the ‘softer’ skills that, increase public health and safety, complement interagency work but ultimately reduce service demand and funding with the need for increased staff training and awareness not only in the equipment and procedures for personnel safety in an increasingly threatened world but also in the necessity for public awareness and marketing. The role of a fire fighter is not what it was.

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Dave Cross is Watch Commander at West Midlands Fire Service.

This post was originally featured on the 21st Century Public Servant blog.

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.

How can the 21st century public servant survive an era of perma-austerity?

Catherine Mangan

We are launching the first theme from our 21st Century Public Servant project – the need to survive a seemingly unending period of austerity – to coincide with the Local Government Association conference, where austerity is a central theme.

Our research with local government and other public service delivery organisations found that ‘perma-austerity’ is both inhibiting and catalysing change, as organisations struggle to balance short-term cost-cutting and redundancies with a strategic vision for change.

In our interviews with people working in public service delivery and in national stakeholder organisations (more details on research design are here) some talked about the current ‘narrative of doom’ is preventing progress – some talked about a sense of loss and grief for the past; with organisations paralysed by the impact of the cuts, and unable to provide a new vision to work towards. As one put it, ‘No message of hope – leadership is putting council into survival mode by the language they’re using. Nobody is planning for post austerity.’ One interviewee spoke about the effect of losing large numbers of staff: ‘You hear the language of loss everywhere. I get affected by it.’

Although interviewees accepted that the financial context offered opportunities for doing things differently, some commented on the challenge of moving forward whilst dealing with the reality of the impact of large scale redundancies: ‘The cuts are forcing us to confront change. In public service, change doesn’t necessarily happen unless there is a crisis or a disaster, or it happens very slowly. But think tanks and consultancies can find it exciting, for them it’s a massive playground. We have to remind them that people are losing their jobs, services are being cut. There has to be a balance.’ Others commented that the enormity of the challenge needs to be recognized and responded to: ‘It’s not salami slicing because you wouldn’t have salami that big, it’s hacking things off. It’s about rethinking the role of the state in light of the changing economy, technology, the changing ways that people live their lives. The cuts are so big that we have to confront the questions we have been putting off: what is a library service, what is a leisure service?’

The biggest shift being driven by austerity is developing a different relationship with citizens: ‘We won’t have the money so we will have to focus on the enabling and facilitating, enabling the rest of community to do it.’ As one interviewee put it: ‘You can only get so far by being a supply side mechanic, cutting and slicing. You need a better sense of what your people are like, who they are, what their networks are, how they can do more not for themselves but how they can be more a part of the value that you create about what you do as a council.’

However another interviewee described the difficulties she encountered in reconciling the austerity agenda with more relational ways of working: ‘There is a complicated tension between the desire on the one hand for efficiency and rational processes versus the expectations and needs of customers which is more relational and focused on the personal and local. We are expected to do both, to move to the more relational in the government’s commitment to localisation and neighbourhoods. But elsewhere we are moving to customer relationship management and call centres. You phone or visit a call centre, pick up a ticket, it’s not a holistic relationship with the person on the other end of the phone.’

The 21st century public servant will have to ‘find a way through that knot’.

Portrait of OPM staff member

Catherine Mangan is a Senior Fellow at INLOGOV.  Her interests include public sector re-design, outcomes based commissioning and behaviour change.  Prior to joining INLOGOV she managed the organisational development and change work for a not-for-profit consultancy, specialising in supporting local government; and has also worked for the Local Government Association, and as Deputy Director of the County Councils Network.  She specialises in adult social care, children’s services and partnerships.