In his latest blog, C.Co’s John Knight considers why zero based thinking will be necessary for the future sustainability of Local Government. 

As we emerge from the eye of the COVID-19 hurricane, we are seeing talk of a ‘new normal’ becoming the most over-used rhetoric of the time. It is language that imagines the future from where we were previously. However, the future is likely to look nothing like the past, and it is time to take a ‘zero based thinking’ approach to consider how a local authority of the future will operate.

A few years ago I was asked by two councils that were considering a merger to produce a strategy and an outline budget for the smaller of the two, to show what an alternative to merger might look like and taking a minimal spend approach. I used a zero based budget and re-designed the council from the bottom up, with no sacred cows, stripping out historical activities that would have to stop entirely or be picked up by an alternative organisation. Remaining services were made lean and based on good practice from elsewhere. It also allowed for new services to be built if there was evidence that these were needed and valued by residents.

It went way beyond the ‘easy-council’ comparison, as it didn’t try to re-build what went before or to generate income, but instead to only do things that truly added value to residents.

The outcome of the exercise was to halve the budget of the council. (Not unexpectedly) rather than be used as a think piece to truly consider future options it was used as a bogeyman to scare any doubters into the merger. It allowed members and officers to make minimal change to the way things had been before.

It now feels like we are entering an era where zero based thinking will be necessary for future sustainability, where the ‘unthinkable’ decisions of the past become the norm and where a key principle will be knowing when and what to quit, and if necessary, actually quitting.