Building communities to bridge the gap

Daniel Goodwin

England is around halfway through significant reductions in public expenditure and heading for a ‘new normal’ at much lower levels, whilst seeing demographic and other pressures rise. Local Government is currently projected to see a £10.5bn funding drop between 2010
and 2020. Pressures on services are projected to rise by around £6bn, resulting in a £16.5bn total gap, under-resourcing services by around 30%. This average masks a wide variation – the LGA predicts that some of the poorest areas are projected only to be around 55% funded by 2020, whilst some shire districts will be 100% funded.

This shortfall is highly unlikely to be closed by efficiencies, voluntary redundancies, shared services, linking up with other parts of the public sector, outsourcing, or other changes on the supply side alone. New ways of thinking about the demand for public services are therefore needed. This challenge is political because it derives from what politicians and the media consider to be an acceptable level of taxation and the public service priorities of the national government; and it is cultural because it reflects the changing assumptions that people make about what it means to be a citizen, our overlapping roles as patients, taxpayers and citizens, and the ability of public service institutions to completely reconsider how they operate.

For ‘the gap’ is actually in the operation of society as a whole and what constitutes public service need. In looking to unlock resources to bridge the gap we should not just think of local government finance, but of the wide range of financial, logistical and human capital resources available in the public, private and civic spheres of society. That means that we cannot consider local government, or even public services in isolation, but we need to think more widely about the social contract and to look at what everyone’s contribution ought to be to the community. It’s a clear choice: personal tax to pay for services or time spent to build more resilient communities that need lower public service levels.

The big question for the future is therefore not simply about public services. In fact, there is a range of questions we need to answer about the deal between people and state. Who is really talking about it? How does it translate into personal, household, neighbourhood, city, regional or societal rights, responsibilities and realities? What are the respective (and respected) mandates of politicians at the national, regional and local level? How does all this relate to ideas of a good life in a good community in a good place? If it works at the individual level why should I engage at all? Isn’t that what politicians should be stewards of? Can we use the democratic system and the resources of the community to change the point at which publicly funded services intervene? Are we scared of having a view about what ‘good’ means, or of having a debate in a pluralist culture on what our underpinning societal values are?

Local government has a vital role to play in shaping this debate. For the responsibility for the development of a new discourse on the strengths, warp and weft of a community and its public service needs (and responsibilities) must surely be with its leaders and set within the political mandate. I consider that this mandate should logically extend to all public services and other activities that impinge on the locality.

Such a mandate also carries with it the responsibility to ensure that a community is in turn playing its part in wider society. A traditional view of the role of the politician is one of holding public services to account on behalf of the community. And yet the value of what people should be bringing through their own strengths and abilities, to benefit the common good, suggests that there is a need for politicians to engage in new ways and to develop a dialogue with the community to hold it to account too. That is the trickier dimension of the political mandate, one which is perhaps understated. It is a very tall order for the many politicians of goodwill who came into local politics to sort out bad planning decisions or because they were the only one prepared to be a communication link with the council.

These thoughts point me towards some new form of social settlement based upon ideas of community and prosperity, which is adaptive, emergent, co-produced, strength- or asset-based, and where local government is not a byword for the dead hand of bureaucracy. This cannot be a technocratic solution – it requires astute political and managerial leadership which helps to form truly meaningful communities that play their part in national life, and public services which support the development of social strengths rather than papering over the gap.

Know your local Councillor Photographs - St Albans - May 2008

Daniel Goodwin’s career has mainly been in local government, starting in libraries and cultural services and progressing through policy and corporate services. He is particularly interested in policy into practice issues, largely relating to local leadership and the politics of communities and place, and is a regular contributor to journals, conferences and seminars. Daniel was chief executive of St Albans City & District Council for 2006 to 2012 where he oversaw significant corporate improvements and budget reductions. He was Executive Director of Finance & Policy at the Local Government Association from January 2013 to March 2014, where he oversaw the LGA’s Rewiring Public Services campaign and the refinement of its public finance strategies. He is currently on sabbatical having decided to return to an operational leadership role and is pursuing personal projects, consultancy assignments and writing. He plans to return to a chief executive role in 2014.



Towards a people-centred language of demand management

Gavin Jones

I’m regularly asked to make presentations to groups of people (the last one being to 22 Deputy Lord Lieutenants!) to set out the issues and opportunities facing local government in the light of increasingly painful budget cuts. Of the pictorial slides I use to tell the story, the one guaranteed to have the greatest impact and make people hold their heads in their hands and mutter depressing words of despair is my ‘motivational’ slide that alarmingly shows demand outstripping resources at a frightening pace – often known as the ‘’ or ‘Map of Misery’.

I’ve often thought that the word demand in this context seems very impersonal and almost dehumanising, whereas what lies behind much of this demand are real people, many of whom are vulnerable and in need of our help. When I am in need (and it is possible my time will come) will I simply be an input to someone’s demand curve? An unhelpful driver of financial pressure? Or instead could I be seen and valued as a human being with capabilities but also in need of some help and support? This, I believe, is the danger of expressing difficult financial circumstances in impersonal corporate speak. Too often the emotionless language of costs and reducing budgets facilitates a culture that ignores or forgets that at the heart of this technically phrased conundrum are human beings – increasing numbers of whom find themselves at the heart of diminishing resources.

This use of de-personalised language, with the current issues often only framed as a financial problem, creates enormous and unnecessary organisational conflict which puts the bureaucrats (tasked with the corporate objective of cutting spend) at odds with the service professionals. One sees it as a financial problem, the other a social one. A dangerous knock-on effect of this is the internal friction that is caused with the resentment of other Council departments that see themselves as financial victims of ‘uncontrolled’ spend by the demand-led services.

I’m not for a minute suggesting that bureaucrats (financial or otherwise) are any less caring or empathetic towards the plight of vulnerable people, but a more intelligent use of language and a considered framing for tackling the issue of rising demand and reducing resources, is more likely to build a sense of organisational collaboration to tackle real issues of how public services can continue to help people to cope with vulnerability with more dignity and independence.

Doesn’t it feel better to talk about the need for organisational change in terms of how a smaller state can be more creative in helping people to age well and to retain their dignity and capability, rather than with a negative rhetoric of cuts and declining spend? I think the former is so much more engaging and invites us to think creatively and positively as opposed to the more defeatist approach of reducing spend and squashing demand.

At the end of the day, using a more people-centred language and approach to ‘managing demand’ is far more likely to result in the design of collaborative sustainability solution to support an ageing population that ‘how do we get the money out and fast?’!


Gavin joined Swindon Borough Council (SBC) in 2004, having previously worked in a variety of private sector organisations and market sectors and has been Chief Executive since 2006. Gavin was listed as one of the top 50 New Radicals in the Sunday Observer’s national campaign for Britain’s most innovative leaders and voted one of the most influential leaders in Local Government. Gavin is a Board Member of the national think tank the New Local Government Network, (NLGN), a Trustee of the Prospect Hospice, a Board Director of Forward Swindon Ltd and a Board Director of SOLACE Enterprises,.