By John Knight

We came across a council’s business plan recently. It contained strategic priorities to deliver:

  • A prosperous community
  • A safe and healthy population
  • A green and natural environment
  • A sustainable transport infrastructure

All very laudable, but these are from a plan that is over 18 years old.

So the question is, is there anything in the local community that is discernibly better as a result of this plan? Are the residents prosperous, healthy and living in a green and pleasant land? Has the Council ridden off into the sunset, saying ‘our work here is done’?

Most local authorities would probably suggest just the opposite, and that things are worse than they were 18 years ago. And they would put this down to a well-rehearsed list of reasons including, increased ‘demand’, ‘demographic changes’, a pandemic, the economic situation, global instability, BREXIT … !

The list goes on, but it’s always external factors and someone else’s fault. In fact, sometimes it’s stated that it’s even our own citizens’ fault, for getting older, poorer or needing different things than they did 20 years ago!

The End of the Hero Council?

The root of the problem is that many councils, including both their staff and elected members, see their role as to ‘fix’ things on behalf of their residents. They are benevolently paternalistic and their role is to ‘look after’ people, because the councils know what’s best for them. They ride in to rescue those in need, based on a very clear and well defined set of long defined rules. They use their power to make unilateral decisions, based on an internal council view of the world.

Time for The Reformation of Local Government

But this simply can’t work anymore; it is time for a fundamental Reformation in thinking.

The future role of local government must be to enable communities to do things for themselves, whenever they can. Councils need to support communities to get things done for themselves and actually to ‘get out of their way’ – removing barriers, bureaucracy and red tape.

Councils need to help communities by supporting them, spending the wealth of professional knowledge and skills that are held in local government, rather than using all their energy and resources battling their citizens and explaining why things can’t be done.  The future council will use its leverage to connect partners who can help solve problems together, to get sensible, pragmatic solutions.

Lived Experience – The Wigan Deal

We are not saying all this is new, after all hardly anything is. Many in local government will recognise much of this and know things need to change, but will want to know what they could practically do and where to start.

One of the most successful examples of a council that made some bold choices to really engage their communities, treating them as equals, is Wigan. This became known as the Wigan Deal, and was led by then Chief Executive Professor Donna Hall, CBE. C.Co is now fortunate enough to have Donna as a Non-Executive Director of its Board.

Read the details of The Wigan Deal here

The Core Principles of The Reformation
  • Don’t assume that the council is always best placed to solve problems.
  • Do plan new ways of engagement with citizens and listen openly, to have different conversations.
  • Don’t keep doing what you’ve always done without reviewing the true cost and impact. Focus on the strategic outcomes you are trying to achieve.
  • Do create space for your staff, giving them permission to innovate and do things differently, such as hack days and innovation models.
  • Don’t waste your time writing glossy strategies and plans that add no value to residents.
  • Do start the change as quickly as possible and act with pace and urgency, accepting that change may be tough and you will need to ‘test and learn’. Create a 100 day change plan.
  • Don’t avoid the ‘sacred cows’ of service delivery. Just because something is ‘statutory’ doesn’t mean there aren’t opportunities to do things differently.
  • Do be brilliant at the basics. Ensure visible and collective leadership. All parts of the council machine must work together.
Where to Start the Reformation of local government?

If you want to be part of the Reformation, and would like to discuss where to start, get in touch with our team, including Professor Donna Hall, for a chat. We can help you to think about building a true picture of your cost and impact, developing a framework for strategic outcomes, engaging with your community, and being brilliant at the basics.

Contact us at speaktous@wearec.co