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.

Creating our fate through our own behaviours

Anthony Mason, Senior Associate INLOGOV

The American author Henry Miller is supposed to have said “we create our fate every day . . . most of the ills we suffer from are directly traceable to our own behaviour”.  Funnily enough, if you use a well-known search engine to try to find where and when he recorded this weary aphorism, you end up with pages of circular references to quotation lists.  But given his complex love life (five wives and many lovers) it sounds just like the sort of thing he should have said, whether or not he did.

Those local authorities currently in deep negotiations around devolution deals or on complex partnerships with health organisations should hear Miller’s (supposed) words ringing in their ears.  INLOGOV has recently completed research for the District Councils’ Network to look at a range of partnerships either led by or centred on districts.  The resulting report “Building Better Collaboration” is now available from INLOGOV’s website.  It was launched – perhaps appropriately – at a joint district/county summit on devolution in two tier areas.

One of our roles is to ensure that relevant research is given a practical application, so the study draws on a considerable body of academic material about partnership working to stress that individuals who will be good at collaborative working can too often be hidden away in vertical structures.  “Boundary spanners” and “collaborative champions” are needed in every partnership and need to be identified, developed and encouraged.

We identify five organisational behaviours/attributes that seem to be disproportionately important in determining the success or failure of collaborative ventures: leadership, selflessness, trust, momentum and risk.  Of these, the most significant for project outcomes seem to be: “audacious” early leadership; trust – grounded in an organisational culture of self-awareness; and momentum – where too many projects proceed at the speed of the slowest partner.

We noticed that in many of the partnerships we reviewed, there was at least one partner that seemed to put in much more than it could ever expect to get out in measureable benefits.  We termed that selfless behaviour and the term captures something of the particular contribution that the best districts can make to partnership working.  We explored why this was so – and in a way, the answer is a simple one: for districts, selflessness is actually role-appropriate behaviour.  Districts represent local communities and geographies; and so minding their local interest in collaborative projects must be “creating their fate…through their own behaviours”.

As you find so often, there is a flip-side to selflessness heard in the charge of parochialism levelled at a few districts, especially by some business voices.  Districts might reflect that being only champions of the local can have downsides – especially where a wide range of interests have to be reconciled for the common good, for example around a combined authority bid.

We suggest that the national local government bodies – the LGA, CCN and DCN can do much more to model good collaborative practice.  Where this goes wrong, they might reflect that “…most of the ills we suffer from are directly traceable to our own behaviour.”

Anthony Mason

Anthony Mason is a senior associate at INLOGOV where he specialises in consultancy around partnership and collaboration.  He started his career in local government and then spent more than 20 years in PwC’s public sector consultancy practice.  His professional background is in housing and neighbourhood regeneration.

New ways of working for district councils

Anthony Mason

My primary school history teacher always taught that the shires of England were mapped out by Alfred the Great. For me, that story was confirmed by an illustration in my treasured Ladybird book on the great man (Alfred – not the teacher) that shows four burly Saxons knocking in a waymark post as they lay out the boundary pattern. I still have that book. I later learned that while the reality was much more complicated, it is essentially true that much of our shire county structure would be familiar to a returning Anglo Saxon – even if not much else would be.

And while our present pattern of local government boundaries isn’t quite so longstanding, the institutional structure of local government outside the cities and metropolitan areas in England has been much more stable than the landscape in health administration – which seems to change with every incoming Secretary of State. Of course, we’ve seen some reorganisation in the shire counties in the years since 1974, when the foundations of our present system were put into place, but much of rural England is still governed by two tiers of council – three if you count the parishes.

The relative stability of the system doesn’t prevent people talking about changing it. On the contrary, no gathering of local government officers or members would be complete without talk of the supposed delights or evils of unitary local government – especially in the bar later at night. Our counterparts in Wales and Scotland have gone down the unitary path some time ago; and for some, the crazy English mosaic of cities, unitaries, counties, boroughs and districts is an affront to rational workable local governance.

Eric Pickles isn’t among these. And while the great man is famous (or infamous) for many things, his mythical “pearl-handled revolver” ready for the first person to come into his office and propose the structural reorganisation of local government, must be one of his most repeated aphorisms. For once, he may be on to something. Recent work by the New Local Government Network points out that while there are savings to be had from “unitarising” two tier councils, there are costs involved as well. The report also makes a strong case that some of the claimed savings from reorganisation may already have been realised as district councils increasingly work in collaboration and share services and even management teams in some cases.

INLOGOV is now working with the District Councils’ Network (DCN) to explore further the case for retaining the essence of the two tier structure after the 2015 general election. This doesn’t mean no-change: rather, it recognises that structural reorganisation of itself may offer little stimulus to change. Transformation comes from adopting new and sometimes radically different ways of working and collaborating across the public and voluntary sectors rather than worrying about tiers of councils. We’re relatively early in the project and the DCN team has just issued a “call for evidence” to districts (and indeed others) to showcase new and innovative models of working – especially where there is good evidence of positive outcomes.

So now is the opportunity for those in two tier local government to map out the case for innovation and creativity in the way they work – but still set in the 1974 institutional structures. You have until January 16th 2015 to make a submission.

Perhaps my Ladybird book (price, 2/6d) can have some currency for a little while longer?

Anthony Mason

Anthony Mason is an Associate at INLOGOV and works mostly on local government systems and organisation and on improving public sector partnerships.  His early career was in local government followed by more than 20 years in PwC’s public sector consultancy team