By Professor Donna Hall, CBE

Our NED, Professor Donna Hall, CBE led Wigan Council in a fundamental reformation. Here, she explains the thinking behind the move and how it transformed the relationship between the Council and residents and had a major impact on costs.

We started to seriously rethink our role and core purpose in Wigan back in 2011, during the first round of local government funding cuts and the start of austerity.

We watched councils around us making huge cuts to services, raising thresholds for eligibility criteria, increasing council tax by the maximum allowed percentage every year, effectively passing the cost of austerity to residents. We didn’t want to do this.

Courageous political and managerial leadership

Despite being the third most cut council in the UK, according to the IFS, we realised we did have some amazing under-utilised and under-valued assets. These weren’t buildings or paintings; they were the people of the Borough – all 323,000 of them.

Previously we had viewed citizens just as passive recipients of services, as need, as demand. We hadn’t appreciated what we had.

We had recently undertaken some brilliant pilot work in two areas of Wigan; thinking differently about the role of communities in public service reform. Both projects told us the same thing. Our services were badly designed, bureaucratic and complicated to access.

What was even worse was the way we didn’t work with partners in the NHS, mental health support, housing, DWP, police to design services around the person, the family, the neighbourhood.

We always started with the service not the person. We were spending upwards of 80% of our resources and energy on continual assessment through the lens of the silo services. These assessments were repeated over and over again by different organisations so that we were spending upwards of £500,000 per family per year on assessment, and at the end of the year the family was usually in a worse position than at the beginning.

Both projects also told us that we virtually ignored the citizen in the design and delivery of services and in support for the socio-economic infrastructure. There was no partnership with citizens – it was a transactional, top-down relationship.

Rather than file these findings away in a folder marked “Interesting work we did in Scholes and Worsley Mesnes”, we took the bold decision to roll out a response to this learning at scale and pace across the entire council, and eventually the NHS and other partners too.

The response was a new social contract between the council and the citizen, between public servants and communities. This was The Deal.

The King’s Fund evaluation of the Wigan Deal ( https://www.kingsfund.org.uk/insight-and-analysis/reports/wigan-deal ) said that the two elements of the Deal that made it a success were:

  • Clarity of Purpose
  • And Constancy of Purpose

I think redefining the core purpose of local government, of wider public services, is the start of The Reformation.

The Principles of the Wigan Deal

The principles of the Deal were simple:

  • Give frontline teams the permission and the support to innovate with the person at the centre of reform rather than the service.
  • Establish multi-agency neighbourhood teams, where professionals come together to support people in a joined up way, building on their strengths.
  • Invest more in local community and voluntary groups to provide bespoke and local support.
  • Don’t pass increased costs onto the citizen through council tax.
  • Have different conversations with citizens, removing the hero narrative and replacing with a human-to-human dialogue.
  • You CANNOT do enough listening to people with lived experience.
  • Stop doing the things that don’t help the person or their family. This is where a lot of our resource goes currently and why we see “demand” as the issue.
  • Be courageous. This stuff isn’t easy.

At the end of the first eight years the outcomes were:

  • £160 million saved
  • Improved perception of the Council despite this.
  • Council tax had been frozen for seven years, saving on average £500 per year per household.
  • An increase of seven years of healthy life expectancy in the poorest wards.
  • Best Council to work for, according to staff surveys.

The old role of hero council is no longer fit for purpose. It’s time for a bold Reformation.

If you want to be part of this Reformation, our team, including our NED Donna Hall, can help you build a true picture of your cost and impact, develop a framework for strategic outcomes, engage with your community, and be brilliant at the basics. Contact us at speaktous@wearec.co