Local government: keepers of the moral compass?

Catherine Staite

Barry Quirk’s excellent article in the Local Government Chronicle highlighted the often overlooked role of local government as the guardian of public ethics.

Public ethics happen in the space where the state, in all its manifestations, civil society and the individual meet.  That space is highly contested and consequently difficult to navigate. We need a very good moral compass to find the right course through all the arguments, often fuelled by ignorance and blurred by misunderstanding, about who takes precedence – the majority or the minority? As we attempt to protect minorities are we inadvertently discriminating against them by failing to hold them to account?

There are no easy answers but examples like the child sexual exploitation in Rotherham highlight what happens when local government and its partners mislay their collective moral compass and lose their way.

What causes such failures? The fragmented nature of local government is both a blessing and a curse.  Councils are so different: their geographies, challenges, politics, culture and finances vary much more than the many over-simplified, generic journalistic, references to ‘town halls’ would suggest. The blessings stem from local knowledge, closeness to communities and relative agility – at least compared to national bodies. The curses lie in cultural isolation.

There is a lot of collaboration, integration and sharing of best practice and new ideas across the local government family but there is also quite a lot of  inward looking, ‘not invented here syndrome’ as well.  It is in that self-referential, parochial, isolation that the moral compass can be lost without anyone noticing. That isn’t a problem which is confined to local government – the ‘institutional racism’ of the Metropolitan Police and the unspeakable cruelty of Mid Staffordshire demonstrate how the lack of a moral compass can lead to the normalisation of moral and ethical failure.

So how do organizations maintain their moral compasses in good working order? It’s far too easy to place our faith in that mythical answer to all our problems: ‘leadership’.  All good leaders know that they are nothing without good followers. Old fashioned heroic leadership required unquestioning followers and that is a recipe for disaster. The most vulnerable leader is the one whom to whom nobody dare say ‘you are wrong’. Good followers are not sheep, they are engaged and challenging – not least because they know so much about what is good and bad in their organisation.  Good leaders and good organisations treasure and reward good followers.

Is external scrutiny the answer? The Audit Commission became a bit of a bête noir for local government before its demise but some of that reaction was generated by it doing its job well and challenging bad practice and groupthink.  It will certainly be re-invented at some form in the future because of a growing recognition of the need for positive and supportive external challenge. The Local Government Association makes a good fist of sharing good practice and its peer reviews offer some gentle challenge to those who invite it but it is a political organization and it’s not its job to be both advocate and enforcer.

One of the consequences of the Scottish Referendum is a reinvigorated debate about devolution in England.  As you’d expect, this has quickly resolved itself into discussions about structures and institutions but those discussion are missing the point. Successful devolution requires the explicit transfer of both powers and duties and one of those duties is responsibility for the moral compass.  The need for effective local guardians of public ethics has never been greater.

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.

When will they ever learn?

Catherine Staite

The news of the death of Pete Seeger has reminded me again of his old song ‘Where have all the flowers gone?’ The line ‘oh when will they ever learn?’ has been running through my head since I saw an item on the local news about police officers and mental health professionals working together to prevent people with mental health problems ending up in police cells for want of the right support. ‘Good stuff!’ you might think.  Indeed it is  – but it is also profoundly depressing to hear such a venture being reported as ‘new’.

In 1993 I led a multi-agency, multi-disciplinary team, which diverted people with mental health problems and learning disabilities from custody.  The team included all the right skills and necessary statutory powers – a specialist social worker, two community psychiatric nurses, a senior probation officer and a police inspector.  We had the backing of all the chief officers and the team went wherever they were needed, the police station, the bridewell below the magistrates court and the remand and hospital wings of the local prison.

The approach was simple but effective. By bringing the right skills into the system at the right time, we were often able to help get the right decisions and find the right services. Within a year, the prison hospital wing was no longer full of prisoners with mental illness and learning disabilities. This was a time when the local mental hospital was being run down for closure, so it was no small feat. Of course, some of our clients were very disturbed and a small number were dangerous, or had committed very serious offences so they had to stay in prison or be moved to a secure hospital but at least we knew who they were and where they were.  We advocated for them. They were not dumped and forgotten.

We shared our learning and even wrote a book about our approach which was replicated and adapted all over the country. It was cheap and effective because it made better collective use of existing individual professional skills, capacity and powers and partner agencies’ budgets.  It was about reducing demand, reducing costs and reducing re-offending – but most of all it was about reducing risk and suffering.

‘What’s not to like?’ you might ask and you’d be right but, somehow or other, twenty years later, police officers and mental health nurses are re-embarking on the same journey. Is it because mental health services are still the “Cinderella’ – and their budgets have been cut even when the rest of the NHS has had increases in funding? Is it because we are still so ignorant and fearful about mental illness? Or is it because innovation is generated by enthusiasts on short-term funding so it doesn’t get mainstreamed or embedded? Perhaps it is all of the above.

Whatever the reason, our collective inability to use the available evidence to guide our thinking and to take shared professional and organizational responsibility for public policy challenges means we are doomed to keep making the same mistakes.

When will we ever learn?

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.

Where have all the politics gone? On wildebeest, lions and other political animals

Catherine Staite

One benefit of spending many days mass catering and washing up over Christmas has been the companionship of Radio 4 news programmes.  Sadly, I now feel a bit like those women who decide on divorce just after Christmas.  Prolonged exposure to political reporting has left me feeling betrayed and irritated in equal measure.

Perhaps it isn’t Radio 4’s fault. Perhaps they can only do the best they can with the dross they have to work with.  Perhaps the lack of substantial topics and forensic interrogation are products of the absence of principle and passion in political debate.

There is the obsession with retail.  I like a bit of shopping myself but retail trends and their reflection of wider society and their impact on the economy are reported with mind-numbing and repetitive banality.  If I hear more bland stories about ‘cash strapped families shopping around’ I’ll cry.

Why aren’t the world’s best journalists digging underneath these seasonal superficialities? What about the differences in spending power and standards of living between rich and poor?  The poor are rarely mentioned, unless negatively and simplistically as  ‘working age benefits claimants’.  What about the places our goods come from and the people who make them? Whether we get our bargains from John Lewis or Amazon – they all come across the sea in big containers  from the same places but the people who make them don’t get a fair return on their labour and are often brutally exploited. This only gets reported on when thousands die at one time, which makes the issue newsworthy  – until it is promptly forgotten again.

Immigration is perhaps the topic where a lack of intelligent, questioning journalism is most evident.  National politicians resemble small boys playing football – all dashing after the ball together with a woeful lack of strategy or even tactics.  The ball they are all chasing is a nasty construction of xenophobia, fear and ignorance, held together by nostalgia for a misremembered past. At other times they resemble wildebeest (other herding animals with a tendency to mass panic are available).  Is UKIP now a lion?  Only if the wildebeest think so.

Where are the facts?  How much do immigrants contribute to the Exchequer, our culture and our quality of life?  Lincolnshire farmers could not harvest their crops without immigrant labour. Our hospitals could not function without  immigrant health professional. So the answer has to be ‘lots’. How many of us – that’s us to distinguish us from them who come in ‘hordes’, determined only on scrounging and/or destroying our way of life – are immigrants or the descendants of immigrants ourselves?  Lots and lots. Instead, we get a diet of unchallenging reporting of the prevailing narrative which is creating bias merely through repetition.

Reporting of the floods has not been accompanied by many facts.  Bald statements about the money allocated to capital works and cuts to revenue  leading to job losses leaves us no wiser about the costs and benefits of flood defences and  the public policy choices to be made about the best way of allocating scarce resources remain uncharted waters.  Cameron was reportedly issuing stern instructions to local government about fulfilling their duties – without challenge.  No reporter questioned the authority of someone who couldn’t navigate his way out of damp carpet to instruct sovereign  bodies to perform their expert functions.

Going back to work has been a welcome relief from shouting at the radio but I’m still suffering from a deep sense of dissatisfaction.  There are questions to be asked and answers that really matter – but who is asking them?

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.

A reply to Fraser Nelson: the only thing astonishing is how little power local authorities have

Catherine Staite

Fraser Nelson’s article on Birmingham City Council last Friday was a very disappointing offering from an experienced journalist and a reputable paper – more Daily Mail then Daily Telegraph. 

It was riddled with inaccuracies.

Birmingham City Council does not have ‘astonishing power’. What is astonishing is how little power local authorities have, even in big cities.  Central government has as iron grip on local government. Money – how it is raised and spent – and policy – the thinking which underpins those choices – are the two key levers of government and central government controls them both.

The average amount of local authority income derived from Council Tax is 16%.  Council Tax is a regressive tax based on 1991 property valuations and bears no relation to the real costs of providing local public services.  LAs cannot increase CT by more than 2% without a referendum, for which they must pay.

The remainder of their income is made up of rents, fees and charges (local authorities can’t make a profit) and business rates (which central government gathers and re-distributes to a national format).  The remainder comes from grants from central government. BCC’s take from Council Tax is only 7.5% because of poverty and property values, which means it is disproportionately dependent on central funding, which has been cut by 35% since 2010.

The gap between rising demand and falling resources is getting wider by the minute in Birmingham, just like it is in Chicago.  The difference is that Chicago can run a deficit of billions – and has done so for the last ten years.  BCC has to balance its books.  It is still obliged to deliver over 1700 statutory duties – from trading standards to disposal of the dead to the protection of children. Year by year it has less and less room to manouvre.

What is really astonishing is that Birmingham and other local authorities still manage to deliver very good services. A recent Ipsos Mori poll showed satisfaction remains high.  That is because authorities have protected frontline services in spite of losing 15% of their jobs since 2010.

Splitting up Birmingham City Council would make no sense at all. The comparison with Manchester is entirely spurious.  The geography and demography of the ten unitary authorities in the Greater Manchester area is very different to Birmingham but the success of that area is built on collaborative upscaling not on separatism. They have banded together to create a Combined Authority. It’s the only way to get the economies of scale and critical mass to compete, bring growth and deliver infrastructure.

The West Midlands is not made up of unitary councils – it is a mixture of unitaries and two tier areas – encompassing counties and districts.  This makes it harder for Birmingham and the wider West Midlands to emulate Greater Manchester’s collaborative progress.  In Birmingham, some services are run at a neighbourhood level, and a district structure helps support better engagement and differentiation but there is nothing to be gained by splitting the city.

Birmingham is a global city, competing with Chicago, Melbourne and Guangzhou and dividing it up would be a nonsense.  Last week senior people from Birmingham City Council were in China, drumming up business for the city.  Would Beijing be interested in talking to Kings Heath District Council? I think not.

Blaming Birmingham City Council for the architectural failings of the 1950s is like blaming David Cameron for Suez.  It’s entirely pointless. Most cities have some 1950s and 1960s monstrosities but Birmingham is being very successful in transforming the city centre. The Bull Ring works, New Street Station is being transformed and whatever Prince Charles thinks about the new library, I think it is truly amazing.  It is beautiful and original.  What is more important is that it works.  Hundreds of thousands of people have flooded through its doors and librarians have had to work hard to keep up with the huge rise in demand for books.  That is the real measure of its success.

People hark back to the happy days of Joseph Chamberlain who as Mayor in the 1870s and thereafter transformed the city and created the legacy of civic splendor, including the University of Birmingham.  The difference between then and now is that he did have ‘astonishing power’ because he had control of both the money and the policy.  In spite of the herculean efforts of Lord Heseltine, central government controls the big money for skills, growth and infrastructure.  It is to the credit of Birmingham that they have done so much with so little.

Poverty is indeed a problem in Birmingham but not one which the city council can solve. National policies drive national poverty which is then concentrated in big cities. Birmingham is super-diverse and has a high proportion of young people.  Ethnic minorities and the young have been disproportionately effected by the recession.  Central government’s cuts to benefits to vulnerable people are shunting the costs of poverty onto local government at a time when they have few resources with which to respond.

Child protection is a stark example of this phenomenon.  Most child abuse has its roots in poverty, drug and alcohol addiction, domestic violence and mental illness.  Local government cannot solve all those ills alone.  Every serious case review and every inquest highlights a very simple lesson.  Children can only be protected when all the key agencies work together – schools, GPs, mental health services, the police, the hospitals – as well as children’s social care.  Cuts in public sector funding have a knock on effect on child protection.  West Midlands police cannot attend all the case conferences they should.  It is in those circumstances that children fall through the net.

Somehow it is always the Council that gets the blame.  They do hold the ring in a complex network of agencies, professionals and responsibilities – but they cannot always be expected to hold the blame.

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.

A new response to the ‘jaws of doom’

Catherine Staite responds to Local Government Chronicle’s anonymous ‘Insider’ columnist about the ‘jaws of doom’ and INLOGOV’s New Model of Public Services.

Dear Secret Chief Executive

I’m so sorry to hear you are having such a miserable time.  Leading in difficult times really does take it out of you. However, this isn’t like you – so buck up.  If you give way to despair, how will your staff cope?

You describe an impossible conundrum.  You have rising demands and falling resources – otherwise known as the ‘jaws of doom’.  You know that the solutions of the past aren’t going to solve the problems of the present or the future.  You need some new thinking.  The good news is that there is a lot of it available and much of it is pretty much free.

At INLOGOV, we’ve developed a model that you can use to re-think the way you meet your challenges. We’ve tested the model with many of your chief executive colleagues who’ve shared their time, insights and inspiration with us so we can offer something useful to you.  Our book ‘Making sense of the future: do we need a new model of public services?’ is available to download on our website. There are chapters on building better relationships, behaviour change and demand management, co-production and risk and resilience.  Chapters on collaboration and integration and on income generation will be added shortly.  The book is a gift from us to you.

In brief – here’s some of our thinking. You operate in a whole system. Changing the way you think and operate in one part of the system will have impacts elsewhere.  The old thinking – a focus on the deficits of individuals and communities, which placed councils and their partners in relationships of power over communities – doesn’t work anymore.  There isn’t enough money to be all things to all people  and perhaps it isn’t good to try to be.

staite 1

Here are some questions you might ask yourself:

  • Are we clear what the Council is for?  Do we know what we must do, what only we can do and what could be done as well or better by others?
  • Is political and officer leadership aligned and focused on shared ambitions? Can anyone I meet in the corridor tell me what those ambitions are? Now ask a few people in the street what matters to them and see if there is a strong match.
  • Do we have strong relationships with our communities? If not – what can be done to foster better relationships?
  • Are our services building confidence, capacity and resilience – or perpetuating  dependency?
  • Do we encourage and support co-production? Could our residents do more for themselves and others? Do we make the best use of volunteering to enhance lives and maintain services e.g. libraries, in our communities?
  • How do we recognise and build capacity in individuals and communities?
  • Do we understand the pattern of demand? Have we managed out waste and the demand  which is driven by service and communication failure, not need?
  • Do we invest in early intervention and prevention?
  • Do we understand how we need to change perceptions and influence behaviour to improve lives and deliver better outcomes?
  • Are we maximising income and using prudential borrowing as leverage for income generation and growth?

You might  think about creating a virtuous circle like this:

staite 2

If you can sew braid onto your daughter’s skirt, then the people you serve can also make a contribution to their own welfare and that of others.  Give them access to braid and sewing lessons and then let them adapt their own metaphorical skirts. If you can do it – so can they.

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.

This post was originally featured in Local Government Chronicle, September 2013.

The Health Act 2006: Behaviour change in action?

Catherine Staite

The Health Act 2006 is a very dull title for an Act of Parliament which has had such a profound and universally beneficial impact on all our lives.  It enacted the ban on smoking in enclosed places to which the public have access.

When I was training to be a solicitor in 1976, I shared an unventilated basement office with an etiolated, chain smoking Welshman.  He chain smoked Gauloises and I went home every night with a bad headache, smelling like a kipper.  His right to smoke – and the social acceptance of smoking – trumped my right to breathe. How things have changed! But why have they changed so much?

In the 1950s the UK had one of the highest rates of smoking and consequently one of the worst rates of death from lung cancer in the world.  However, smoking began to decline in the 1960s and death rates began to fall from 1965.  In 1979, 45% of the population smoked but by the 1990s that number had fallen to 30%.  Between the introduction of the smoking ban in 2007 and 2010 it fell a further 9%.

There was much controversy at the time with dire predictions of damage to businesses, particularly pubs. Smokers argued that their human rights were being attacked. The tobacco industry complained that it was leading to a reduction in the number of cigarettes smoked and a significant rise in the number of people quitting. Fancy that!

So why has the smoking ban been such a success?  Firstly, the time was right.  Research at the time showed that there was very strong public support for the ban.  It has been largely self-policing; note how quickly people react if anyone breaches the ban. That is because the reasons for the regulations are well-understood and the benefits are now clear, in the same way our air is now clear.

The smoking ban did change behaviour but it achieved it by building on and reinforcing longer running changes in behaviour and attitudes.  It made it clear that the right to breathe trumps the right to smoke.  In 1976 I didn’t feel able to assert my right to breathe clean air in our dank little office.  In 2013, I don’t need to, because Parliament championed and legitimised my right not be harmed over the rights of others to harm me.

At INLOGOV we are very interested in behaviour change and how changing public expectations and behaviour can impact, both positively and negatively, on public services.  Behaviour change has come to be seen as a’ quick fix’ for all sorts of perceived ills.  The experience of the smoking ban shows that it is all much more subtle and complex than that.  It also demonstrates that the right legislation, at the right time, can work with the grain of changing  social attitudes and can help both to change the behaviour of the unwilling and to embed that changed behaviour in new social norms.

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.

Catherine has recently co-authored INLOGOV’s latest book, Making Sense of the Future: Do We Need a New Model of Public Services. The chapter ‘Beyond Nudge‘ by Catherine Mangan and Daniel Goodwin deals specifically with behaviour change.